Richard Wilbur’s long and distinguished writing career demonstrates that a poet can go against literary fashions, shunning what passes for received wisdom, and still earn critical praise and become an important figure on the literary landscape.  Few of his contemporaries have accomplished even part of what he has managed: to produce work of outstanding quality, using contemporary diction, while, in defiance of trends, writing chiefly in measured verse, eschewing excessively personal (“confessional”) poetry, and attaining considerable popularity.  No 20th-century American poet of stature surpasses him in command of rhyme, meter, and stanzaic form, not only having ornamental function but serving brilliantly to disclose poetic insights and give a sharpened or deepened view of the world.  And at mid-century, when confessional poetry—full of exposed humiliations, regrets, anguish—was dominant, he was concerned, as M.L. Rosenthal put it in The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II, to “absorb [his] ‘secret’ motivations into relatively impersonal and objective structures”; this concern has directed and informed his work thenceforth.

As for Wilbur’s popularity, it comes, in part, doubtless from his children’s books and especially his play (written with Lillian Hellman) based on Voltaire’s Candide, turned into the libretto for Leonard Bernstein’s musical, including the witty “Pangloss’s Song” and “Oh, Happy We.”  His skillful verse renderings into English of plays by Racine and Molière, often used for performances, and excellent translations from French lyricists similarly have contributed to making him known.  (The present volume includes also translations from contemporary poets of Russia, Bulgaria, and Rumania, which make one want to know these authors better.)  Such work, along with his occasional verse (for example, a poem for students, a hymn for a 1959 Christmas concert, and a splendid epithalamium called “A Wedding Toast”), has created a broad, if not mass, readership for Wilbur; one notes the frequent anthologizing of his poems.  But what made such undertakings congenial to him and successful must have been (again, in part, at least) his original preference for impersonal, nonconfessional poetry and strict forms, whose merits have been proved for millennia and are demonstrated again here.  His success with what is, by today’s reading standards, a wide public appears closely connected to his poetic choices.  His case is a happy illustration of the essential function of style in achieving poetic integrity and of a deserving work finding its audience (and winning many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize) by virtue of both high quality and range.

Born in 1921, Wilbur was educated at Amherst College.  After serving in the Signal Corps at Anzio and in France, he took an M.A. at Harvard in 1947.  His initial collection, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, appeared that year.  It is the first of some 17 volumes that preceded this one, which brings together his entire previous work in verse, including children’s rhymes, and adds a number of new poems, dated 2004.  The constituent collections are printed in reverse chronological order.  This arrangement invites perusal of the latest poems initially.  Perhaps it is intended also to suggest absence of evolution in styles and concerns, or at least the author’s indifference to readings that would seek to identify such evolution through a chronological reading.  Among the rewards of the volume is not that of reaching the moment when a poet has, finally, overcome early tentativeness and reached his mature voice and subject matter.  From the outset, Wilbur demonstrated poetic control, skill of a very high order, the verbal wit and playfulness for which he is best known, an ingenious imagination, and a probing sensibility of both depth and breadth that, as in “On the Eyes of an SS Officer” (from The Beautiful Changes), makes him just as serious a poet as some whose verse tolls more brazenly.

Most admirable is his ability to intellectualize things, drawing from ordinary situations or mundane objects—which are honored in the title of his 1956 collection Things of This World—their potentiality of meaning to an inquiring mind.  That is, his verse derives from and gives words to the play of intuition upon perception.  For he knows that “the world’s fullness is not made but found” (“A Wedding Toast”).  The perception begins by careful observation of details, as in the opening of “Caserta Garden”:

Their garden has a silent tall stone-wall

So overburst with drowsing trees and vines,

None but a stranger would remark at all

The barrier within the fractured lines.

Next, the poet develops, now fancifully, now gravely, the connections of the object or scene to some larger perception, or moves at once to an intuitive grasp of the phenomenon, expressed by metaphor or directly:

How beauties will grow richer walled about!

This tortile trunk, old paradigm of pain,

These cherished flowers—they dream and look not out,

And seem to have no need of earth or rain.

Thus, “things of this world” become things of the mind—the poet’s mind, but the reader’s also.  This does not mean that Wilbur’s verse is abstruse or fleshless.  Rarely does he fall into the error of abstraction.  What dances on the head of a pin in his poetry is not a conceptual angel but a metaphoric one, a flash of presence, a fluttering insect (“Mayflies,” a beautiful poem), a “tall camel of the spirit” or one of the “beasts of my soul who long to learn to drink / of pure mirage” (“‘A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness’”).  The world, whether as designed by nature or elaborated by man, lends itself even to transcendent intuitions.  The last stanzas of a lyric dated 2004, “Sir David Brewster’s Toy,” illustrate this metaphysical dimension:

Many prophets claim

That Heaven’s joys, though endless

Are not twice the same;


[stanza break]


This kaleidoscope

Can, in that connection, give

Exercise in hope.

Clever, literate, erudite, Wilbur is a civilized and civilizing poet whose work maintains the English poetic tradition that honored wit (in two meanings, intelligence and the persiflage or humor deriving from it) above nearly all other qualities.  This does not imply that he is merely a craftsman, still less a shallow court entertainer; nor is he an anachronism.  His Collected Poems stand as their own witness: Poetry in traditional structures, disclosing the world, can be as contemporary as that which pretends to innovation.  Form leads to insight, as illustrated by the superb “C Minor,” in which someone switches off a Beethoven piece at breakfast time in order to “let the day / begin at hazard,” with the soul not too challenged and as yet innocent of what the hours will bring, since

. . . even if we were fated

Hugely to suffer, grandly to endure,

It would not help to hear it all fore-stated

As in an overture.

Such lines and others make clear that what Wilbur graciously says, echoing Horace, in praise of a fellow writer (“An Eightieth-Birthday Ballade for Anthony Hecht”) applies to himself, in whose verse likewise

. . . one sees

How style and agile intellect

Can both instruct and greatly please

What is more desirable in the present age of artistic and intellectual barbarism and degraded taste than the refinement of language and mind offered by Wilbur’s verse?  It is a greatly needed antidote to the obscenities, exhibitionism, feminist whining, multicultural bromides, and political ranting that constitute much of what is labeled “poetry” now.  That literature does not belong only to the angry, the deviant, the crazed is beautifully demonstrated in his Collected Poems, where page after page springs from and affords both serious reflection and what the poet calls in “The Reader” the “delight of being.”


[Collected Poems: 1943-2004, by Richard Wilbur (New York: Harcourt, Inc.) 586 pp., $35.00]