Richard Wilbur died October 14 at the age of ninety-six. Author of many books of poetry, along with highly praised translations of Racine, Molière, and other French dramatists, he worked well into his nineties. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, National Book Award winner, and Poet Laureate of the United States, Wilbur may be the most celebrated poet that Americans by and large have never heard of.
He was a lifelong Episcopalian, a poet “obscurely yet most surely called to praise,” as he confessed in an early poem, “Praise in Summer.” Rich in metaphor, his poems addressed daily life with wisdom, wit, and melancholy. Not a few of them bore a trace of Robert Frost. (Wilbur knew Frost well, through mutual association with Amherst College; his debt to Frost, critic Stephen Metcalf has perceptively noted, was “unhidden, but so unanxious as to hardly count as a debt.”) His best-known poem, and title of his first book, “The Beautiful Changes,” joins nature’s cyclical renewal to the act of imaginative renewal and the power of love:
Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.
Wilbur’s formal deftness and his relatively sunny outlook—his dedication to “joy in life and art,” as he said in a 1977 Paris Review interview—kept him out of the mainstream of the darkly confessional free verse that defined his postwar generation of poets. His “brilliantly affirmative” poetry, as critic Adam Kirsch has described it, includes a favorite of mine, “Winter Spring,” which tours the reader through an early spring afternoon outdoors, and expresses a small, passing ecstasy at “this somersault of seasons.” “It’s just one of those poems that makes things better,” says my wife, who especially loves the poem and rereads it often.
As a young man Wilbur fought in World War II, taking a copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins's collected poems with him, and came back with experiences that informed such elegiac poems as “First Snow in Alsace” (no less moving, to my mind, for its echoes of Frost and Auden). Meter and rhyme were his handy tools, and his traditional formalism made him an outlier in his generation of American poets. Consider the books published around the same time as The Beautiful Changes in 1947: William Carlos Williams’s Paterson; Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos; Elizabeth Bishop’s North & South; Robert Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle; John Berryman’s The Dispossessed. The contrast with such company presumably spurred the judgment of Randall Jarrell, who admired Wilbur’s poetry yet accused it of excessive restraint, commenting that it “consents too easily to its own unnecessary limitation”—a criticism Jarrell summed up in the memorably pithy charge that Wilbur “never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.”