English Literature
Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur

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Richard Wilbur: The Wit and Charm of American Poetry

The late Richard Wilbur, a prominent and widely-read poet of the 20th century, was best known for his clever and charming verse. Despite facing criticism from his peers for his formalistic and witty style, Wilbur left behind a legacy of remarkable achievements. From being named Poet Laureate of the United States, to winning multiple Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, his contributions to American poetry are considered unparalleled. Wilbur passed away at the age of 96, marking the end of a prestigious career that defied popular trends during his time.

The Early Years of Richard Wilbur

Born on March 1, 1921 in New York City, Wilbur spent his childhood in a small town in North Caldwell, New Jersey. He showed an early interest in writing, as he was involved in his school's newspaper. Wilbur's father, Lawrence, was a portrait painter, while his mother, Helen, came from a family of journalists.

Following in the footsteps of his maternal family, Wilbur pursued his passion for writing at Amherst College after high school. There, he continued to hone his skills while working for the school newspaper. After graduating with a degree in literature, he served in the army during World War II. Despite his initial plan to become a cryptographer, Wilbur was enlisted as an infantryman and served in various parts of France and Germany. His experiences during the war left a lasting impact on his perspective and ultimately shaped his career in poetry.

Photo: Richard Wilbur in military uniform during World War II.

Meeting Influential Figures and Early Works

Upon his return from the war, Wilbur pursued his M.A. in Literature at Harvard University. It was there that he became friends with renowned American poet, Robert Frost, who greatly influenced Wilbur's writing. After completing his studies at Harvard, he began teaching English at Wellesley College and published his first poetry collection, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, in 1947.

After a few years at Wellesley, Wilbur joined the faculty at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he spent the majority of his teaching career. In addition to publishing multiple poetry collections, Wilbur also worked on literary translations, including his well-regarded translation of Moliere's Tartuffe in 1963. He also collaborated with Broadway legend Leonard Bernstein on writing lyrics and even published his own children's books.

Defying Trends and Achieving Recognition

Despite receiving numerous awards and accolades throughout his life, Wilbur often found himself at odds with the prevailing poetry styles of his time. The confessional poetry movement, represented by poets like Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, emphasized the use of colloquial language and personal experiences, often related to mental illness or personal struggles. Wilbur's formalistic and witty style was deemed outdated and out of touch with this trend. However, he remained committed to his unique style of writing and continued to publish his work well into his 80s.

The Rich Legacy of Richard Wilbur

In 2017, Wilbur passed away at the age of 96, leaving behind his wife, Mary Charlotte Hayes Ward, whom he met in college at Amherst. They were married after graduation and she passed away in 2007. Throughout his lifetime, Wilbur was recognized for his poetic accomplishments, receiving his first Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952. He also received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection Things of This World: Poems in 1957. In addition, his work in musical theatre was also celebrated, as he won the Best Musical award for his lyrics in the operetta Candide in 1974. Wilbur served as the second United States Poet Laureate from 1987 to 1988.

Richard Wilbur: Master of Formalistic Poetry

Richard Wilbur was a highly acclaimed poet and translator. Throughout his career, he received numerous accolades for his work, including the 1983 Drama Desk Special Award and the 1994 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation.

Wilbur's Unique Writing Style

In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Wilbur's poetry adhered to a strict form.

The Musical Poetry of Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) was a renowned American poet known for his use of meter and rhyme to create powerful auditory and visual impact in his works. His poems, when read aloud, possess a musical quality that has garnered him much praise. Wilbur's precise language also contributes to the vivid imagery found in his poetry.

Wilbur is often hailed as the pioneer of the New Formalist poetry movement in America during the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries. This movement emerged as a response to the free-verse and intensely personal styles of Modernist and Confessional poetry, aiming to establish poetry as a worthy subject of study.

New Formalist poetry is characterized by strict rhyme schemes, formal meter, and a focus on broader subjects related to humanity and life. Wilbur's poetry perfectly aligned with this movement, as he skillfully incorporated witty wordplay, puns, and paradoxes to add a unique touch to his work. Drawing inspiration from everyday life, his poem "Advice to a Prophet" (1961) is a perfect example, with the lines:

"Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close."

These lines display Wilbur's mastery of meter and rhyme, creating powerful imagery. Despite his experiences during World War II, Wilbur remained optimistic and believed in the innate goodness of all creatures, a sentiment that echoes in his poetry.

A Legacy of Poetic Works

Wilbur's passion for poetry began at a young age, with his first published poem, "Puppies" (1929), appearing in the magazine John Martin's Book when he was just eight years old. As an adult, his first professionally published poetry collection, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947), was heavily influenced by his time as an infantryman in World War II. This was followed by Ceremony and Other Poems (1950).

One of Wilbur's most celebrated works is his third collection, Things of This World (1956), showcasing his trademark wit and tension, making it a true representation of his poetry. He went on to publish three more collections between 1961 and 1976, and in 1988, his collection New and Other Poems earned him his second Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Even in his later years, Wilbur continued to write and publish poetry, with his final collection, Anterooms released in 2010.

Not Just a Poet, but a Prose Writer as Well

Besides his poetry, Wilbur also published two collections of prose works, including lectures, interviews, letters, and reviews from his career. Carefully selected and edited by Wilbur himself, these pieces resulted in the books Responses: Prose Pieces 1953-1976 (1976) and The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963-1995 (1997). His prose was often considered a form of literary criticism, as he analyzed and commented on his own and other poets' work.

Wilbur's love for rhyme and form also extended to children's literature, with his witty and playful writing style lending perfectly to creating engaging stories for kids. Some notable works in this genre include Loudmouse (1963), Runaway Opposites (1995), and Opposites, more opposites, and a few differences (2000).


Richard Wilbur was a master of formalistic poetry, with his meticulous use of meter and rhyme, combined with his unique outlook on life, setting him apart from his contemporaries. His poetic and prose works continue to inspire and captivate readers of all ages. His legacy is a true testament to the power of words and the enduring beauty of art.

The Masterful Poetry and Translation of Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur was not only a celebrated poet, but also a skilled translator of works by Jean Racine, Pierre Corneille, and Voltaire. His ability to capture the essence of these writings is a testament to his mastery of language and deep appreciation for the power of words.

Interestingly, Wilbur's poetic journey began after his experiences in World War II. The horrors he witnessed deeply impacted him and motivated him to use poetry as a means to organize and understand the chaos of the world. His early works focused on order and form, providing a sense of balance in a world that seemed to have lost it.

Wilbur's poetic prowess can be seen in his well-known quote, "One does not use poetry for its main purpose until one's world gets out of hand." This belief highlights the importance of poetry, especially in tumultuous times.

The poem "A Thrush" is a perfect example of Wilbur's use of rhyme and meter, as well as his playful nature. With a strict AABB rhyme scheme and emphasis on the second syllable, the poem showcases Wilbur's wit as he playfully pokes fun at a misidentification while making a deeper commentary on the self-sufficiency and independence of nature.

Despite his success, Wilbur remained humble about his writing, once stating, "I'm a professional amateur." This down-to-earth attitude and love for language is reflected in his works, making them relatable and accessible to readers from all backgrounds.

Throughout his lifetime, Wilbur published numerous collections of poetry, prose, and translations. He also collaborated with renowned composer Leonard Bernstein, providing lyrics for musicals. His legacy continues to inspire and influence current and future writers with his unique style and powerful use of language.

Wilbur's work is a testament to his expertise in diction and paradox, as well as his ability to infuse wit and whimsy into his writing. He remains an iconic figure in the literary world, fondly remembered for his contributions to poetry and translation.

As Wilbur once remarked, "One can't anticipate the poem. It's the place that speaks." And through his masterful use of words, Wilbur's poems continue to speak to readers, captivating them with every line and capturing their imaginations.

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