In Memoriam: Richard Wilbur (1921-2017)

On October 14, former poet laureate and acclaimed translator, Richard Wilbur, died at the age of 96. Wilbur served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1987-88, following Robert Penn Warren. Like Robert Frost and W. H. Auden, Wilbur was known for his use and mastery of traditional poetic forms. Contrary to more gritty and confessional trends among mid-century poets, Wilbur’s style demonstrated eloquent precision and inconspicuous urbanity. Though immediately welcomed in the 1950s as America’s most promising and talented poet, Wilbur was sometimes criticized for not being daring enough to explore more challenging themes and forms. 

In addition to his poetry, Wilbur made his living as a translator of French, Spanish, and Russian literary works, particularly the plays of Molière and Racine. Wilbur initially began translating French dramatic verse in order to correct his own deficiency in the genre, and although he never produced theatrical works á la T. S. Eliot, his translations became standard artistic achievements in their own right. Perhaps Wilbur’s most famous work of translation was the result of a collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman as the lyricist for the operetta of Voltaire’s Candide

Over his career, Wilbur taught at Harvard (where he befriended Robert Frost), Wesleyan University, Smith, and Amherst (his alma mater). He was a former President and Chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and winner of the National Book Award, two PEN Translation Prizes, the Bollingen Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and two Pulitzer Prizes for poetry. Among his many books of poetry are Ceremonies and Things of This World. Wilbur also wrote several books for children and two collections of prose pieces.

Photograph by Stathis Orphanos.

Richard Wilbur on Volume 46

Richard Wilbur appeared as a guest on volume 46 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, on which he discussed his collection of poems Mayflies and the way words can articulate experience. 

Wilbur was also the subject of an essay in First Things by David Lyle Jeffrey entitled “God’s Patient Stet,” which was republished and recorded as a MARS HILL AUDIO Reprint in 2012.

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