Until his death on October 14, Richard Wilbur had spent nearly half a century as America's greatest living poet.
A writer of opulent forms and playful wit, whose rhymed and measured stanzas combined the intellectual complexities of modernist verse with the familiar pleasures of an older tradition, Wilbur was also the last great metaphysical poet of the 20th century. In poem after poem, he gave voice to the subtle rhymes between earthly and divine, the quotidian and the transcendent, as they call the human soul out into the winsome particularities of the world and beyond them to the mind of their creator. The son of an accomplished painter, he had an instinctive respect for the integrity of the artist. Coming into his maturity just as the conflagration of the Second World War began, he early perceived that the praise of beauty, if it is to be honest, must reckon with the radical evils of the age.
Born in New York City in 1921, Richard Purdy Wilbur was raised in an artists' colony of sorts in Caldwell, New Jersey. A callow but witty pacifist during his years as a student and all-around literary man at Amherst College, when the United States declared war Wilbur immediately rallied to the cause and soon enlisted in the signal corps. His military superiors, however, got wind of his "leftist" chatter in the barracks, not to mention his subscription to the Daily Worker, and he was expelled from his course in codebreaking. They would also have prevented him from serving overseas had the need for reinforcements not become desperate.
In 1944, Private Wilbur of the 36th Infantry Division was never far from the front lines as the U.S. Army invaded Italy and France and then pursued retreating Nazi soldiers into German territory. Charged with setting up mobile command centers as American forces advanced across Europe, Wilbur bore careful witness to his division's adventures and to the people and terrain they were swiftly liberating. Like other GIs, he offered his spare rations to starving Italians whose crops had been stolen or burned by the Nazis. He experienced firsthand the savage hatred of the French for their German occupiers. In Arbois, a young pharmacist and father of three would tell Wilbur that no one resented the American bombardment that had left his "whole town flat." Anything, the pharmacist said, to be free of such horrors as these:
On the steps of that fountain I saw [German soldiers] take five young men and kick them in the genitals, beat them in their faces with gun butts, and shoot them dead. I had a friend, the best surgeon in this department. He took care of one partisan who was wounded: the Germans dug out his eyes with a fork and with little knives cut off his arms and legs.
Wilbur recorded such details in his journal and in letters home to his wife, Charlee, often while he was sheltering from German bombardment in the 3-by-3-by-6 foxholes the hulking American soldier would dig for himself adjacent to his succession of field outposts.
We can be grateful for the life of this American master, whose work outdistanced the fashions of the last century and now, brought to its completion at last, offers to a new age an example of the genuine, enduring, and well made...
When the Army arrived in Nazi territory, German civilians also greeted American soldiers with open arms, but Wilbur kept his distance. The warmth of the liberated affirmed for Wilbur the goodness of the world and the plausible triumph of joy even in the wake of destruction. But he also bore witness to the depravity and murder of the Nazi regime persisting at the heart of such goodness and joy as if moral contradiction ran all the way down to the bowels of reality.
Even after American forces were "bivouacked in the sunny, pleasant and hygienic Bavarian town of Kaufburen," he wrote, "a Nazi institution for the extermination of the idiot children continued serenely to operate in our midst." He saw with clarity "the devilishness of the Nazi mind" — committing clandestine, racist murders behind the respectable walls of a hospital, even as the civilians at large seemed to welcome the restoration of peace and justice by the American soldiers just outside. The goodness of the world suffers within itself real evil. In consequence, blessing and joy can heal sin and evil but they can also hide these things from us.
A recent biography — Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur by Robert and Mary Bagg — offers a definitive account of Wilbur's wartime experiences and helps us see how they gave rise to his literary achievement. Two years after the war, Wilbur would publish a small book of poems, The Beautiful Changes (1947). There, we see beauty fall upon the bombed-out landscape and silence of the dead during the "First Snow in Alsace":
As if it did not know they'd changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.
The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.
You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.
Snow covers the wounded earth with a new beauty and the poet gets his eye full. So do those unseeing eyes of the dead. Blessing overcomes atrocity, Wilbur observes, but enjoyment of the world's beauty can also lead to an aesthete's or "dandy's" whitewashing indifference to evil. Are we to savor or recoil from the sight of those snow-covered dead eyes?
One page over, Wilbur engages an opposite quandary. Given the clear evil of the Nazi regime, a person may despair of the world itself and denounce it. Is it possible still to revere and respect the integrity of goodness, beauty, and art, even while decisively condemning those guilty of moral horrors? "On the Eyes of an SS Officer" begins with a nimble series of similes, as the poet contemplates his subject with apparent professional disinterest, before he steps back from such likenings to speak literally of the officer:
But this one's iced or ashen eyes devise,
Foul purities, in flesh their wilderness,
Their fire; I ask my makeshift God of this
My opulent bric-a-brac earth to damn his eyes.
The poem prefaces and so seems to insulate Wilbur's hatred, but not so as to hijack and dissolve it for "aesthetic" ends. Rather, both beauty and horror are seen together, and within the freedom of the work of art a little righteous hatred is allowed to intrude.
Upon returning from the war, Wilbur began graduate work at Harvard and was soon nominated to its Society of Fellows. In the years immediately following, critics recognized him as one of the two or three greatest American poets of what is often called the "middle generation" — those writers a few decades younger than William Carlos Williams and T. S. Eliot but coming of age a decade or more before a formless, hallucinatory insanity overtook American letters (and culture) with the Beatniks of the fifties and the hippies of the sixties.
Wilbur's reputation weathered attack but continuously grew. He won two Pulitzers and the National Book Award. He became the celebrated and standard translator of the French verse dramas of Molière and Corneille. He contributed lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's Candide (1956) and, in 1986, also composed the lyrics for William Schuman's On Freedom's Ground, a cantata performed to celebrate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. He was appointed the second U.S. poet laureate in 1987.
Such accolades cannot capture the distinction of Wilbur's achievement half so well as do the early attacks upon his work. As the Baggs document, his contemporaries — foremost among them John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Randall Jarrell — immediately accepted Wilbur as one of their own, that is, as one of the more important midcentury "new" or "academic" formalists who sought to reestablish the techniques of meter and rhyme after their abandonment for free verse during the modernist revolution earlier in the century. But they also looked on him with envy and condescension. Their poetry was violent in emotion, daring in ambition, and fragmentary and obscure in expression; their use of poetic form jagged, tense, and erratic. In contrast, sneered Jarrell, Wilbur's work was "delicate, charming, and skillful"; it was "attractive and appealing and engaging." Clearly there was something wrong with him! It drove Berryman to drink. Bishop muttered from abroad at such unwarranted hype.
In retrospect, it seems that poets like Lowell and Berryman treated poetic form as an anguished and difficult exercise, as if to suggest that serious art required a forceful grip and all the rigor of a gnostic cult; otherwise, the world and the poet's mind would simply fall to pieces. Eliot had once posited that poetic tradition "cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour." Lowell and most other middle-generation poets made a whole technique out of laboriousness. Wilbur's work, in contrast, took into itself with ease all of the wit and ironical sophistication of modern poetry, but was composed with an elegant, august, and musical rhetoric that stood in filial and cheerful continuity with the whole of our literary tradition. Smart and graceful, recognizable as poetry even to the "naïve" amateur, his work immediately rewards the ear while also gratifying patient study.
Blessing overcomes atrocity, Wilbur observes, but enjoyment of the world's beauty can also lead to an aesthete's or "dandy's" whitewashing indifference to evil.
According to the Baggs, the poets of that generation were fiercely competitive, Wilbur included. Lowell had the unhappy habit — signaling he was due for yet another stay in the mental hospital — of forcing his Harvard students to rank in order the greatest living poets. In such a climate of competition, Wilbur seemed out of the running. His work was backward, conservative, and sunny, while Lowell and others drilled down to the essence of advanced art in suffering and mania.
But time was on Wilbur's side. Not only did he outlive his best contemporaries by decades, but the differences between his poetry and theirs made him a model and mentor for those younger poets who were more or less unimpressed by the mannered disruptions of modernist literature. Such poets seek to practice the art in continuity with a literary tradition that reconciles rhetorical grace with intellectual seriousness, one which holds together a clear vision of the world's fallenness with a sense of the underlying goodness of creation. Wilbur, almost alone, spanned the gap.
Although Wilbur was no more devout a Christian than the typical man of his generation, his poetry frequently takes for its themes the soul, good and evil, and the traces of divine intention found in the word and world of God's creation. This further set him apart from the existential anguish pervasive among his fellow poets and lends his verse a gravity and authority that a figure like Lowell could only simulate by acting appalled.
As the Baggs observe, the otherwise reliable critic Adam Kirsch has recently tried to reinstate the old criticisms of Wilbur, painting the poet as a happy hedonist who aestheticizes the horrors of the modern age with an almost immoral refinement of style. But religious faith is not merely complacent cheer, and it is inane to propose that violent subject matter may only — or even best — be represented by doing violence to form and language. Such charges have not aged well.
There is still another way time proved to be on Wilbur's side. In interviews, Wilbur sometimes referred to himself as a slow writer, and yet his collected poems come to more than 500 pages. In addition to the dense, ornate, and polished poems of his first two books — The Beautiful Changes and Ceremony (1950) — his third, Things of This World (1956), contains at least 10 poems that will endure. He wrote fewer poems thereafter; his next two books, spaced over two decades, show a maturity and mastery of craft, but also an openness to more personal subject matter and familiarity of voice. In those volumes, I would add, it seemed Wilbur had lost a step.
But no, or not for long. Only in the poems first gathered for his New and Collected Poems (1988) does Wilbur achieve mature expression of his enduring theme: the way in which the world speaks to us as a creation of the divine wisdom, and our necessity and difficulty of finding a condign language to speak, in turn, about it. "For C.," a poem to his wife and about the long, steady love of their marriage, was published in 1997, when Wilbur was 75. It is not only one of his finest poems, it is the best love lyric of the second half of the 20th century and also a powerful, witty celebration of the patience, the slow and steady growth and craft, entailed in the making of a marriage or any lasting work. Wilbur wrote "Blackberries for Amelia" in 2003, at the age of 82; a meditation on the gift of a granddaughter in the vastness of the cosmos, it is one of the best poems of the new century. His last book, Anterooms, appeared in 2010, and though slight in bulk and brittle in style, it sounds a profound new note as Wilbur reflects on the loss of his wife (in 2007) and stands in contemplation of the threshold of his own mortality. It shows him prepared to pass through that door with the well-measured steps of one who has lived, and written, well.
It is true that Wilbur's career did not comprehend the kinds of dramatic change of subject and style we find in other great modern poets, such as Eliot and Yeats. Much like the poetry of Robert Frost, whom Wilbur knew at Amherst and Harvard, his work mellowed, broadened, ripened, but maintained a clear continuity, a Horatian polish and Christian humanism, from beginning to end. We can be grateful for the life of this American master, whose work outdistanced the fashions of the last century and now, brought to its completion at last, offers to a new age an example of the genuine, enduring, and well made, "Like a good fiddle, like the rose's scent, / Like a rose window or the firmament."
James Matthew Wilson. "Richard Wilbur Remembered." The Weekly Standard (October 30, 2017).
Reprinted with permission of The Weekly Standard. All rights reserved.
James Matthew Wilson teaches humanities at Villanova. Among his books are The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition, and Some Permanent Things.Copyright © 2017 The Weekly Standard
back to top