Richard Wilbur - Biography and Works

Richard Wilbur is an American poet and university professor, who was appointed the poet laureate of the United States in 1987. Wilbur was born in New York City and he grew up there. In his long career as a poet, dramatist and educationist, he is best known for imbuing formal and traditional verse forms with urbanity and wit.

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017)

The Beautiful Changes (1947) was Wilbur’s first volume of verse; Things of This World (1956) won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1957. Other volumes include Ceremony (1950), Advice to a Prophet (1961), and New and Collected Poems (1989), for which he won a second Pulitzer Prize.

Loudmouse (1963) and Opposites (1973) are collections of poems for children. Wilbur also translated two plays. The Misanthrope and Tartuffe, both by French dramatist Moliere, and he collaborated with American playwright Lillian Hellman on the libretto for a 1956 musical version of Candide, by French writer Voltaire, Wilbur’s literary criticism has been collected in Responses: Prose Pieces. In 1987 he was appointed United States poet laureate, succeeding Robert Penn Warren. Wilbur was awarded a National Medal for Arts in 1994.

Wilbur’s poetry has not retained the high value it had accrued in the postwar years. His blank verse rhymed-couplet versions of several plays by Moliere have received wide praise – his poetry is often cited as an example of the formalism and the apolitical timidity that is associated with the 1950s. “Wilbur is still admired really as the best poet of the 1950s.” Even though he is an outstanding example, he excels in a debased category. Among minor poets he is allowed to be more major, but among the major poets he is not even considered the most minor. A Wilbur poem reads so easily that it can dispel close scrutiny, as if the poem just as it is said all that needs to be said and without nothing. (As a result, Wilbur’s work has rarely attracted the attention of the skillful critic.) In fact, the smooth surface of the Wilbur poem can successfully distract us from recognizing how unusual and unexpected the twists and leaps that structure the poem’s narrative is. Many poems by Wilbur, while striking a superficial “balance,” implicitly celebrate, while demonstrating, the virtues of a wit that is elaborately playful.

Wilbur’s poems are elegantly decorated and often witty. He meditates on ‘common physical objects in order to gain access to the spiritual or social realm, and in this practice he has been compared to William Blake. But in terms of time, Wilbur has also become more and more directly engaged in the later part of his life.

In the poem “First Snow in Alsace” he deals with how the snow of hostility was covering the world with the onset of war in the early twentieth century. The poem is apparently about the approach of a chilling snow while a night-guard is on duty one night; but the symbolic meaning, as we can understand from many clues in the poem is related to war and hostility that covers countries as well as homes. Wilbur had been in the army for some time. He actually began to write while he was in the army, “in an attempt to create a measure of order in the midst of war.” There are also hints about the issue of commercialization, loneliness, fear, and such other problems of the post-modern human condition in the west.

Wilbur joins images and ideas as much to explore what inevitably divides them as to illustrate their inherent connections to impart “the proper relation between the tangible world and the intuitions of the spirit.” His poems are simultaneously pulled toward anxiety and consolation toward despair and hope and ultimately to be deposited somewhere in between. In his poems, we can see heavy impact of his disturbing experience in World War II so that he takes a hold or raw events and converts them, provisionally, into the experience as well as to take refuge from events in language itself.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Richard Wilbur - Biography and Works." BachelorandMaster, 16 Nov. 2013,

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