Richard Wilbur Biography
Richard Wilbur was a leading American poet of the 20th century and literary translator. Not only is he known for being a Pulitzer prizewinner and the national poet laureate but also for his ability to touch unsettling truths beneath the surface in his work.
Richard Purdy Wilbur was born in New York City March 1, 1921, and grew up in North Caldwell, New Jersey. His literary career began when he was only eight years old from the publication of his first poem. Later he worked on the school newspaper at Montclair High School. He earned a degree at Amherst College, which he graduated from in 1942. After that, he served in the United States Army during World War II. After the army and graduate school at Harvard University, Richard Wilbur got a teaching
March 1, 1921 – October 14, 2017position at Wellesley College. Then he spent two decades at Wesleyan University. His other teaching positions include job at Smith College (for a decade) and Amherst College (since 2011). Wilbur is also a member of the editorial board of the literary magazine The Common, which was founded at Amherst College.
A former infantryman, after returning from World War II, he devoted himself to poetry and became one of the most prolific poets of his generation. His first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, appeared after the war in 1947. Since then, he has released several volumes of poems, including New and Collected Poems. As a translator, Richard specialized in the literature of the 17th century, the French comedy of Molière and Jean Racine’s dramas.
His translation of Moliere’s comedic play Tartuffe became the standard for staging the English version of the play. Continuing the tradition of Robert Frost and W.H. Auden, a subtle observer of nature and a traditionalist Wilbur drew inspiration for his poetry from everyday life. His lyrical works achieved a little less popularity. He composed lyrics for several songs in 1956, e.g., for the musical of Leonard Bernstein Candide, including the famous ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ and ‘Make Our Garden Grow’.
The beginning of the poet’s literary activity was at the end of the 1940s, the period when experimental poetry replaces the formalistic tradition. However, Wilbur, throughout his career, prefers classical verse. Most of his poems are written in the metric form, they have a rhyme. Nevertheless, Wilbur’s meter is not something that has become fixed, unchanged. Most often this is a “flexible” varying meter. Sometimes a poet uses in his poems vers libre as an experiment. But even in vers libre, he imbues the rhyme. Wilbur’s works of the mature period of creativity, 1970s-1980s, are written in a simpler, more accessible language, decorativeness disappears, intonations approach speech. In the emotional sense, they become more emphatic, they show dynamics and drama.
The peak of the writer’s popularity came in the 1950s. In 1983, his translation of Moliere’s comedy, The Misanthrope, earned him both the PEN Translation Prize and the Drama Desk Special Award. He also received two awards for Things of This World (Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award) in 1957.
The list of awards also includes the Bollingen Prize, the Edna St Vincent Millay award, and the Chevalier, Ordre des Palmes Académiques. Richard Wilbur was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1959 and was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987. In 1994, Wilbur earned the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton (Clinton). 2006 was the year when he won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and in 2010 – the National Translation Award for adaptation of The Theatre of Illusion by Pierre Corneille.
In the Advice to a Prophet (1961), the poet sharply opposed the materialism and lack of spirituality of the post-war generation. A high appreciation of his poetry was given, among others, by Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky. The latter translated several of Wilbur’s poems, which, in turn, translated into English several works by Brodsky, as well as Anna Akhmatova.
As for his personal life, Richard Wilbur married Charlotte Hayes Ward in 1942, immediately after graduating from Amherst College. At that time she was a student at nearby Smith College. The couple had four kids, which at one time encouraged Wilbur to write children’s works. They combine a whimsical play of words and author’s illustrations. The most demonstrative children’s literature is the Opposites (1973).
Richard Wilbur died at the age of 96 in 2017 in a nursing home in Belmont, Massachusetts.