Richard Wilbur, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, translator and lyricist known for his work’s lyrical elegance written in classical form, has died at the age of 96.
Known as one of the preeminent poets of the 20th century, Wilbur’s work defied the styles of the time, maintaining a sense of traditionalism in an artistic milieu that favored a freewheeling, confessional rhapsodies.
“If Ashbery invented a whole new kind of poetry, Richard Wilbur reminded us of the enduring power of tradition: that poems about the natural world and about love, written in classical, traditional rhyme and meter, would continue to matter going forward into the future,” Robert Casper, who heads the Library of Congress’s Poetry and Literature Center, told the Washington Post.
Wilbur received his first Pulitzer in 1957—along with a National Book Award—for Things of This World; he won his second Pulitzer in 1988 for New and Collected Poems. In total, he produced nine volumes of poetry along with a number of children’s books, which he also illustrated. His knowledge of French literature took him to Broadway, where in 1956 he co-wrote the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s production of Candide with Dorothy Parker and John Latouche. His translations include works by Baudelaire, Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky.
Wilbur was often referred to as an heir to Robert Frost, though he did receive criticism for his rigid formalism. Writing in the New York Times in 1976 about the collection The Mind-Reader, Herbert Leibowitz said: “While we acknowledge his erudition and urbanity, we regretfully liken his mildness to the amiable normality of the bourgeois citizen.”
By all accounts, Wilbur’s life was characterized by stability and contentment—unusual traits for a poet. He acknowledged the apparent disparity himself in an interview with the AP, saying:
“I think many people associate happiness with shallowness. What people don’t want is someone who is complacent. And I know that I am not a complacent man.”
But Wilbur’s satisfaction with life doesn’t mean it was without difficulty. He served three years as a combat soldier in World War II, an experience some critics thought might account for the optimism evident in his work. Wilbur said himself that was not the case. In his later years he moved away from his usual themes of the natural world and the power of love to explore more personal subject matter, saying: “I’ve begun to crumble a bit, and write more shamelessly of what is near to me.”
“I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy,” he said in an interview with Peter Stitt in the Paris Review, “that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good.
“I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith, but that’s my attitude.”