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Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur:
A Biographical Study

by robert bagg and mary bagg
university of massachusetts, 392 pages, $32.95

Richard Wilbur died peacefully, surrounded by family, on October 14. Though he had a full life, he did not receive the Nobel Prize or the biography that he deserved.

Readers of the biography he did get, written by Robert and Mary Bagg, will learn the contours of Wilbur’s life: his youth in New Jersey, emergence as a rising literary star at Amherst College, World War II service, graduate education at Harvard, long career as professor of English at Wesleyan University, tenure as Poet Laureate, and dedication to his wife, Charlee, and their children. What they will not get is much insight into Wilbur’s elegant, complex, and seemingly effortless verse.

In addition to being one of the best poets of his generation, Wilbur was the finest translator of poetry into English ever to have lived, particularly notable for his translations of Moliere’s plays. Wilbur closely echoed the sound, form, and meaning of the original text, and yet he never lost sight of the need for his words to move an audience. His lyrics transformed Leonard Bernstein’s Candide from a churning mess into an enduring musical.

Wilbur was a longtime Episcopal lay reader, and his poems exhibit a faith that is natural and mystical rather than dogmatic. By his own admission he was “the sort of Christian animal for whom celebration is the most important thing of all.” In “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” the mundane scene of laundry drying behind apartment buildings becomes a heavenly vision that ends in prayer-like pleas for the redemption of others, including thieves and lovers. His gentle retelling of the miracle of Cana in “A Wedding Toast,” a poem originally written for his son’s wedding, has by now graced thousands of other wedding receptions. 

Although friendly with most of his poetic contemporaries, Wilbur resisted the trendy temptations of his time. Unlike Adrienne Rich, Louis Simpson, Donald Hall, and many others, he did not succumb to the pressure to abandon formal verse for free verse. Like Elizabeth Bishop, he refused to put his life on display in the manner of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and the “confessional” poets who were his peers. His work often displays joy and optimism, qualities in short supply among contemporary poets.

These qualities caused him to be largely ignored, and occasionally criticized, by the academy and the poetry establishment. In 1964 Leslie Fiedler complained that “there is no passion and no insanity” in Wilbur’s verse. Adam Kirsch, a critic whose work I usually admire, criticized Wilbur’s Collected Poems, 1943–2004 for employing “a style so elaborately formal that the most awful subjects are sublimated into irony, or even black comedy.”

These charges of bloodlessness and clumsiness lack merit. Even in the gorgeous “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World” is the unexpected violence of the phrase “the punctual rape of every blessèd day.” Who could avoid the fear and rage of “On the Eyes of an SS Officer” when Wilbur hisses “that acetylene eye, / An eclipsed mind in a blind face . . .”? Wilbur’s images of Kirsch’s “most awful subjects” may be less consistently frontal and raw than those of other poets, but they are haunting nonetheless, whether

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn

of his war poem “First Snow in Alsace” or the “cricket like a dwindled hearse” of “Exeunt.”

The strength of this biography is its wealth of new information. The Baggs have looked exhaustively for details of Wilbur’s life and for critical assessments. (They even quote two paragraphs of mine from a 2001 chat-board post.) Wilbur taped long interviews with the co-authors and opened up his personal correspondence and other records—to a degree that is rare and admirable.

The new details will not change most perceptions about Wilbur’s “almost suspiciously normal life,” although it should dispel the sense that he shared none of the horrors and despair of his more self-revealing peers. While some of his World War II adventures seem like a preppy Catch-22 experience, the book documents that his combat experience included horrifying moments during which he witnessed the deaths of fellow soldiers and narrowly avoided death himself. The book discloses early financial difficulties and the autism of one of his four children. It also reveals that he and his devoted wife went into rehab for overuse of sleep medications and maybe alcohol.

Wilbur was a singularly humble and self-effacing member of a generation of competitive and catty poets. When Wilbur won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a disappointed John Berryman sent him a sarcastic telegram so subtle that he missed the barb entirely. (Berryman later both clarified and apologized.) Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and others frequently denigrated Wilbur in order to lift themselves up in rankings of the greats. 

Unfortunately, the co-authors do not fully grasp the terms of prosody, such as leonine verse, iambic pentameter, and alexandrines. They also do not understand some of Wilbur’s poems. A case in point is their misreading of “For the New Railway Station,” a poem about how we pursue the divine in what we build. It concludes with this stanza:

“What is our praise or pride
But to imagine excellence, and try to make it?
What does it say over the door of Heaven
But homo fecit?”

The final line adopts a Latin phrase in order to evoke the aspiration and arrogance of monument inscriptions. The co-authors analyze the final line in this way:

Then, in the eighth stanza, the English-Latin pun embedded in the rhyme sounds of “make it” and “fake it” invokes the literal meaning of homo fecit, or “manmade.” To some that pun is unfortunate because it burdens an otherwise dignified classical Latin phrase with a homophonic, atheistic undercutting that suggests, in a superficial reading, that we deny our mortality by imagining an afterlife.

The problem with this reading—aside from a single dubious supporting reference to an unlikely conversation with a dead classics scholar—is that there is no bilingual pun. Nothing in the poem suggests that Wilbur was punning, and when asked he denied it. Insignificant linguistic coincidences should not drive interpretation of poetry.

There is a recent tradition of biographers of poets gratuitously turning on their cooperating subjects, as in the Lawrance Thompson biography of Robert Frost and the Andrew Motion biography of Philip Larkin. The Baggs stoop to that level by speculating about whether Wilbur had an affair in France during World War II—solely on the basis of one photograph of him posing with a woman that someone in France had sent to his wife. Charlee Wilbur’s feisty and forgiving 1945 letter to her husband in response to that photograph might well be the high point of this entire book:

You’re a dolt! Did you really think you had to forewarn me about that picture of you and that sexy-looking French Frail? Even if I saw a picture of you actually in bed with such a babe, I shouldn’t think any other thought than—“god, I’d like to be in her shoes!” (Or out of them as the case might be.) You must remember that I have tremendous respect for your essential taste. And I also have great faith in and dependence upon our common love so that whatever you did couldn’t possibly touch the good that ties us irrevocably together.

Despite the regrettable insinuations of his biographers, most readers will see the truth—that Richard Wilbur was one of our greatest poets and a humble, gentle man who was profoundly loyal to his wife, children, and friends. Coming in an age that views wildness and vice as proofs of genius, Wilbur’s restrained lyrics and temperate life are especially deserving of praise. 

A. M. Juster is a poet and a critic. His most recent book is The Billy Collins Experience.