Richard Wilbur (born March 1, 1921, in New York City) was a United States poet. He graduated from Amherst College in 1942, then fought in Europe during World War II. After a teaching stint at Harvard, he moved to Wesleyan University as Professor of English, a position he occupied there for the rest of his career. He has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and in 1987 was the second poet, after Robert Penn Warren to be named U.S. Poet Laureate.
From the start, Wilbur’s poetry was characterized by a formal and refined beauty that was often imitated but never equalled. So formidable are his verse-making skills and his native wit that even the longest and most philosophical of his poems (see “The Mind-Reader” or “Walking to Sleep”) carry the reader effortlessly along. It is possible for the average educated reader to finish Wilbur’s collected poems at a single sitting, and to find the experience very enjoyable indeed. For this reason, Wilbur is sometimes dismissed as a lightweight or a reactionary. However, it seems likely that his poetry will survive long after his trendier contemporaries have been forgotten. Continuing and refining the tradition of Robert Frost and W. H. Auden, Wilbur’s poetry finds illumination in everyday experiences and expresses it in beautiful, carefully wrought language.
Lesser-known was Wilbur’s foray into lyric writing. He provided many of the finer lyrical touches in Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 musical, Candide.
He is also noted as a translator, particularly of 17th century French dramas, whose original verse forms give Wilbur an opportunity to flex his muscles in both translation and verse. His translations of Molière and Jean Racine are well respected and many are still in print.
Wilbur passed away in October 2017.