The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Richard Wilbur

A Stable Lamp is Lighted, 1961

Richard Wilbur was born in New York City in 1921. His books of poetry include New and Collected Poems (1988), which won the Pulitzer Prize; The Mind-Reader: New Poems (1976); Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969); Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems (1961); Things of This World (1956), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; Ceremony and Other Poems (1950); and The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947). He has also published numerous translations of French plays, two books for children, and a collection of prose pieces, and has edited such books as Poems of Shakespeare (1966) andThe Complete Poems of Poe (1959). His The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces is due this spring from Harcourt Brace. Among his honors are the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Frost Medal, the Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Bollingen Prize, the T. S. Eliot Award, a Ford Foundation Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, the National Arts Club medal of honor for literature, two PEN translation awards, the Prix de Rome Fellowship, and the Shelley Memorial Award. He was elected a chevalier of the Ordre des Palmes Académiques and is a former Poet Laureate of the United States. A Chancellor Emeritus of The Academy of American Poets, he lives in Cummington, Massachusetts.

This bio was last updated on Oct 27, 2000.

Source: Academy of American Poets

Richard Wilbur was born in New York City on March 1, 1921. He graduated with a B.A. from Amherst, where he was editor of the college newspaper, in 1942. Youthful engagements with leftist causes caught the attention of federal investigators when he was in training as a U.S. Army cryptographer, and he was demoted to a front-line infantry position where he saw action in the field in Italy, France and Germany. (When the cryptographer in Wilbur’s unit was killed, Wilbur also took over that function.) After demobilization, he continued his studies at Harvard where he obtained an M.A. in 1947, the year his first book was published. He was a member of the prestigious Harvard Fellows and taught there until 1954, when he moved to Wellesley and then to Wesleyan University. At Wesleyan he was instrumental in the founding of the acclaimed Wesleyan University Press poetry series that, from 1959 onward, featured new work by such important young poets as Robert Bly, James Wright, James Dickey, and Richard Howard, as well as such already-established writers as Louis Simpson and Barbara Howes. From Wesleyan he went to Smith as writer-in-residence. In 1987 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the U.S., following Robert Penn Warren.

In the postwar years, when poets born between 1920 and 1935 often underwent dramatic changes in their writing styles, Wilbur remained someone who mastered a style early and continued to work within it. It is a style in a direct line of descent from Wallace Stevens : unabashedly rich in its diction, urbane in its metrical sophistication, and remarkably light-hearted and playful. His first and second books, The Beautiful Changes (1947) and Ceremony (1950), were influential volumes, and Wilbur was widely regarded in the 1950s as a poet no less important than Robert Lowell. His third collection, Things of This World (1956), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Advice to a Prophet (1961) was followed by Walking to Sleep (1969), which was awarded the Bollingen Prize. The Mind-Reader was published in 1976, and a New and Collected Poems in 1987 (with twenty-four new poems).

"The typical ghastly poem of the fifties was a Wilbur poem not written by Wilbur," wrote Donald Hall in 1961, "a poem with tired wit and obvious comparisons and nothing to keep the mind or the ear occupied." Hall added presciently: "It wasn’t Wilbur’s fault, though I expect he will be asked to suffer for it." Wilbur’s poetry has not, as Hall predicted, retained the high value it had accrued in the postwar years. Although his fame as a translator has continued to grow – 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," Robert von Hallberg notes in his contribution to the Cambridge History of American Literature (1996), "but 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 most major, but among 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 says all that needs to be said and withholds 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 are the twists and leaps that structure the poem’s narrative. Many poems by Wilbur, while striking a superficial "balance," implicitly celebrate, while demonstrating, the virtues of a wit that is elaborately playful.

Source: Modern American Poetry

Founded in 1997, the Richard Wilbur Society promotes discussion of the poetry, verse translations, and prose of Richard Wilbur (born 1921). The second Poet Laureate of the United States, and the former Chancellor and President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Richard Wilbur has won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Award, and every other major American literary award for his contributions to verse and the art of translation. Wilbur's poetry is widely regarded as a high achievement in American formal verse since the Second World War, and his translations of Moliere and Racine are brilliant, profound, and definitive.

The Richard Wilbur Society sponsors events regularly at national conventions of the American Literature Association, the Modern Language Association, and various regional, national, and international meetings of scholars and literary critics. We share views on the interpretation of this poetry, its historical and cultural context, the modern New England poetic tradition, the situation of formal verse at the turn of the twenty-first century, and the complexities of major themes in the Wilbur canon. Membership in the Society is open to anyone with a serious interest in Wilbur's achievement, or in any of the above or related issues.

Source: Richard Wilbur Society


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