American Poets of the 20th Century The Poets Richard Wilbur (1921- )

About the Poet

A skilled poet, editor, and teacher, Richard Wilbur is that rarity of the era, the cheerful poet. During World War II, his poetic voice emerged from experiences in southern France and Italy, where he first began writing with one purpose: to impose order on a world gone to pieces. He is notable for rejecting the me-centered confessionals of his contemporaries, and he has divided his lyric perfectionism between original collections and award-winning translations of Voltaire's Candide and the plays of Jean Racine and Molière. Along with an extraordinary number of citations for excellence, he has earned his share of lumps for avoiding tragedy and concealing ambivalence. Most of all, critics seem intent on castigating him for skirting the modern and postmodern obsessions with politicized verse and stylistic experimentation.

Richard Purdy Wilbur is a native New Yorker, born on March 1, 1921. He was a resident of Montclair, New Jersey, and graduated from Montclair High School and from Amherst, where he encountered poet-teacher Robert Frost. Before entering the army infantry, Wilbur married Mary Charlotte Hayes Ward, mother of their children: Ellen Dickinson, Christopher Hayes, Nathan Lord, and Aaron Hammond. After the war, Wilbur studied at Harvard and taught for three years as a junior fellow. After completing an M.A., with no intention of continuing as a poet, he published two major titles, The Beautiful Changes (1947) and Ceremony and Other Poems (1950).

From 1952 to 1953, Wilbur settled in Sandoval, an artists' enclave northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico. After teaching English at Wellesley, he moved on to Wesleyan University, where he served on the faculty for twenty years. Early in his writing career, he earned the Harriet Monroe prize, Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial award, Oscar Blumenthal prize, and two Guggenheim fellowships. He completed a masterwork, Things of This World: Poems (1957), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and followed with Advice to a Prophet (1961) and Walking to Sleep (1969). In his mature years, he collaborated with playwright Lillian Hellman and composer Leonard Bernstein on a musical setting of Voltaire's utopian fantasy Candide (1957) and translated three of Molière's comedies: The Misanthrope (1955), Tartuffe (1963), and The School for Wives (1971). The second of these earned him the Bollingen Prize for translation.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Wilbur remained active as teacher and poet. He served Smith College as writer in residence and the Library of Congress as its second Poet Laureate of the United States. His more recent publications include New and Collected Poems (1988) and A Game of Catch (1994), children's verse in More Opposites (1991) and Runaway Opposites (1995), and two additional translations, The School for Husbands by Molière (1992) and The Imaginary Cuckold (1993).

Chief Works

With a touch of mock-heroic, Wilbur's "The Death of a Toad" (1950) ennobles a small being savaged by a lawn mower in a scenario as delicately interwoven as an impressionist painting. The meticulous shaping of line lengths — from four to six beats and back down to four, four, and three — suits the precise rhyming pattern of aabcbc. The purpose of so much discipline of language emerges from the lighthearted beats that elevate a dying amphibian to the all-seeing eye of nature. Hidden in green bower, he grows still as the life force drains away. Misinterpreted as a sage, the body gives up its life, but leaves the eye alert.

Wilbur carries the poem beyond the toad's death to the impression it leaves on the viewer. The poet tweaks the imagination with the multiple possibilities of "dies / Toward some deep monotone," a suggestion of synesthesia (describing a sense impression with words normally used to describe a different sense impression) in the pun die/dye, and the merger of monochromatic sound and the single color that camouflages the maimed body. The compact action thrusts the expiring toad toward loftier destinations in the third stanza. Removed to an amphibian afterlife, the toad spirit leaves behind the still corpse, which seems to observe across cut grass in the middle distance the ignoble death of the day.

Similarly luxuriant in image, rhyme, and sibilance, "A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness" (1950) is a poetic interpretation on a line by English metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne. In grandly measured beats, the poet contrasts the aridity of the spiritual desert to the soul-nourishing light of the real world. With double address to the mounted magi, grandly upraised and borne away at a stately gait, the poet calls to his wandering spirit, represented by the camel train. The call serves as a retort to critics who reject Wilbur's disdain of dense, emotionally twisted verse. Rather than search for illusory gold, he impels his imagination to richer rewards in the real world as opposed to the outward reach for "fine sleights of the sand," a pun on "sleight of hand" or trickery. Unlike the mirages that "shimmer on the brink," the "light incarnate" of Bethlehem's star over Christ's manger suits the spirit's need.

At a mellower stage of artistry, Wilbur composed his famous dramatic monologue, "The Mind-Reader" (1976). In the tradition of Robert Browning's "Andrea del Sarto," the speaker muses on loss. From a drifting vision of a sun-hat cartwheeling over a wall, the speaker moves to a more mundane pipe-wrench jolted off a truck and a book fallen from the reader's hand and slipped over the side of an ocean-going steamer. In each action, the objects are lost during a forward motion, which contrasts the static pose of the mind-reader. At line 20, the clairvoyant inserts four lines to differentiate between objects that slip from consciousness and others imprisoned in deliberate forgetting, a hint that his own psyche chooses oblivion over memory.

The poem moves inward in line 24 to a lengthy recall of how, in childhood, the mind-reader earned a reputation for locating lost objects. To explain the art, the speaker enlarges on the mental landscape, a difficult sweep of ground over which memory searches for misplaced items. Employing three models — eyes searching a crowd, a key enwebbed in tangled threads, and a faded snapshot in an album — the speaker asserts that nothing good or bad is truly forgotten, neither "Meanness, obscenity, humiliation / Terror" nor "pulse / Of Happiness."

The poem grows more personal in line 68 with a description of the mind-reader's daily fare. Seated in a café and identified by scraggly gray hair and persistent smoking, he drinks away the day and night while assisting a stream of questers searching for answers to their problems. The mind-reader's method calls for the seeker to write the question on paper. While the speaker smokes and plays the part of Delphic oracle, he uses practical wisdom of human nature to locate an answer. Implicit in the explanation is the speaker's unstated misery. Confessing to fakery and to his own hurt is the truth of the mind-reader's act, "I have no answers." In the falling action, his retreat into free drinks suggests that skill in reading others' sufferings is a carefully staged hoax. Beyond the facts that he recovers, he presses his own consciousness to observe nothing but oblivion.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Compare Wilbur's playful verse in Opposites, More Opposites, and Runaway Opposites to Mary Hunter Austin's child-centered Children Sing in the Far West.

2. Contrast the post-World War II sensibilities of Wilbur's "The Beautiful Changes" with the incisive scientific eye of William Carlos Williams' "Queen Anne's Lace."

3. What does the image of light in "A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness" symbolize?

4. Compare the kinetic images of Sandra Hochman's "The Goldfish Wife" with Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." Determine why he calls for "clear dances done in the sight of heaven."

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