Richard Wilbur

In 1947 the poet Louise Bogan reviewed, in The New Yorker, a young man’s first book of poems. “Let us watch Richard Wilbur,” she wrote. “He is composed of valid ingredients.” Those ingredients could be contradictory—the college rebel later known for his traditional formalism, the man of utter modesty unchanged by so many glittering accolades. But these ingredients remained, to the last, valid and (to quote a 1956 poem) “keeping their difficult balance.”

Richard Purdy Wilbur ’42, one of Amherst’s most distinguished and beloved alumni, died on Oct. 14 at age 96. He was the nation’s second poet laureate, a peerless translator of Molière, Racine and Corneille, and the Tony Award-nominated lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. He also earned two Pulitzer Prizes for his meticulously passionate body of work that celebrated, to quote another poem, “the splendor of mere being.”

In summing up his life, it is impossible to resist citing his own verse. He died, for instance, in the manner he described at age 77: “in good time, the bedstead at whose foot / The world will swim and flicker and be gone.” Wilbur was living in a nursing home in Belmont, Mass., and is survived by four children (including Nathan Wilbur ’73), three grandchildren (including Liam Wilbur ’14E) and two great-grandchildren. His wife, Charlotte, known to all as Charlee—a Smith student he met while at Amherst, regularly walking or hitching the 9-mile distance to see her—died in 2007.  

“He was remarkable man whose decency and humanity are as memorable as his verse,” said Amherst President Biddy Martin the day after his death. “These qualities, along with his wit and intelligence, live on in his work and in what we continue to learn from his example.” 

Born in New York City in 1921 and raised in rural North Caldwell, N.J., Wilbur started at Amherst as the famous Hurricane of 1938 struck. He never forgot witnessing the devastation from North dormitory as the maples of College Grove “lay down” one by one from the gusts, as he recalled to Samuel Williston Professor of English David R. Sofield, with whom he taught poetry courses at Amherst. 

Over time, Wilbur shared many stories with Sofield about his Amherst years. An English major, Wilbur pledged Chi Psi, which was full of football players. Thinking he should also try athletics, Wilbur took up boxing. When he came to the Chi Psi house one day with a black eye from sparring at the gym, a fraternity brother (and the football team’s center) pulled him aside and said, “We didn’t pledge you to be an athlete. We took you into the house to raise our academic standing.” 

There wasn’t so much raising at first: Wilbur’s freshman and sophomore grades fell because he devoted excessive time to writing for The Amherst Student and Touchstone, the student literary magazine—which tagged him as “a pub-crawling, gamboling, cartooning humorist.” In both words and pictures, he was bold, often satirizing Amherst President Stanley King for bellicosity in the run-up to World War II. Wilbur was “vehemently anti-interventionist” before Pearl Harbor, explain Robert Bagg ’57 and Mary Bagg in 2017’s Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study (see review, page 48). Wilbur evencompared FDR’s lend-lease policy to a “runaway toboggan” racing toward U.S. military involvement.  

But then came Pearl Harbor. Wilbur’s most famous Amherst Student editorial appeared the day after the attack. It ran on the front page, the headline blaring in large type, all caps: “NOW THAT WE ARE IN IT.” 

Wrote Wilbur: “We needn’t rhapsodize over our intervention like the editor of the Williams Record, but we should suppress our obstructing doubts ... confining our thoughts to the job before us, and to the post-war world, which it will be our great pleasure to put together. Now that we are fighting, what is needed is unanimity and determined action. … If we feel any allegiance to the race in general, we will strive to make the post-war world more hopeful and less combustive than the world of the past twenty years, to which we are now bidding a noisy farewell.” 

Richard Wilbur's typewriter
From his home in Cummington, Mass., Wilbur wrote on a manual typewriter in a studio converted from an old silo.

His grades picked up the last two years at Amherst, with all A’s his senior year. In a class with Professor of Philosophy Sterling Lamprecht, Wilbur skipped handing in the first several required papers and instead wrote a long essay about the evolution of Christianity from Luther onward. “This is an astonishing performance,” wrote Lamprecht in the paper’s margins. “In more ways than one, you leave me with nothing to say.” 

Wilbur particularly admired English professors Theodore Baird, George Armour Craig, George Roy Elliot and George Whicher. As he reminisced in a 2009 interview for the College’s website, “They all, bless them, took me seriously as a writer of poems. They told me what was wrong with what I was doing and how I could make it better, as well as what I ought to read in order to be properly inspired.”

In 1980, Wilbur wrote a recollection of the teachers who stirred him: “Like his great senior colleague, Theodore Baird, Armour Craig was forever asking the embarrassing question, ‘What do you mean?’ That demand for self-questioning/precision has been part of my conscience for forty years now, and if I have ever written a true and clear line or sentence, there are two Amherst teachers to whom credit is due.”

Outside the classroom, Wilbur “covered up a certain social awkwardness by carousing and being outrageous,” as he told the publication Between the Lines in 2000. He met Charlee on a blind date in March 1941. She was poetry editor at Smith’s monthly magazine, and the daughter and granddaughter of Amherst men. The pair fell fast in love, shared many plates of spaghetti at Joe’s restaurant in Northampton and married just after he graduated in 1942. On their honeymoon in Maine, they practiced Morse code, because Wilbur hoped to join the Signal Corps Reserve upon their return. He trained at Camp Edison as a cryptographer, and did well—until the authorities resolved to dissolve his access to solving.

The problem? His ties to communism: In a 1939 issue of the Student he unsubtly used the byline “Lenin” in a Q&A with Earl Browder, then secretary general of the American Communist Party. And his fellow servicemen noted that he subscribed to the Daily Worker. Wilbur was a progressive, not a communist, but the distinction was too fine for the military. It didn’t help that he acted “as if the army were just another educational institution willing to respect his exuberant free speech,” write the Baggs. Politically grounded dismissals from the Signal Corps were commonplace. Wilbur was tossed out.

He ended up serving with the 36th Infantry Division at Cassio and Anzio in Italy, in the southern invasion of France and along the Siegfried Line in Germany. Most of his fellow soldiers were Texans. “He experienced heavy shelling, and often,” says Sofield. “He lost many good friends.” Poetry became a way to frame and escape the trauma of the foxhole. As Wilbur once said: “One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means of organizing oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.”

After the war, Wilbur received a master’s degree from Harvard, forged a friendship with Robert Frost and published his first book of poetry, The Beautiful Changes. Throughout his illustrious literary career — he published some 30 books of poetry, essay collections and translations, and won some 20 prizes, including the National Book Award for Poetry, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry and the Drama Desk Special Award—Wilbur strengthened his already strong bonds to Amherst.

In the 1960s he began bequeathing some manuscripts to the College’s Archives & Special Collections. Amherst has since acquired more than 60 boxes of original manuscripts, artwork, correspondence, business records and ephemera, and will now house his remaining papers. And once the family moved to nearby Cummington, Mass., in 1969—where he pecked on a manual typewriter in a studio converted from an old silo—Wilbur often came to campus to read his work and to teach.  

In 1989 he was named the College’s Robert Frost Literary Fellow. And in 2008 he returned to teach as the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer—the same post once held by Frost. Wilbur also instructed at Wesleyan, Wellesley, Harvard and Smith. In the 2009 Amherst interview, he spoke of teaching poetry: “In every class of poetry writing, I imagine that only two or three out of the 15 will prove to be publishable poets, but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to get oneself eloquently off one’s chest.” 

Richard Wilbur reading a poem at his 90th birthday celebration.
When it became too dicey for him to drive, students ferried Wilbur the two-hour round trip between Cummington and the College. Roger Creel ’13, now a dancer with the Louisville Ballet, was one such chauffeur. “Professor Wilbur was a bear of a man, a tender bear,” Creel recalls. “And he would lumber out of his house and fold himself into my little Honda Fit. His capacity for conversation went from the mundane to profound. Once we were driving through a dark patch of forest and I asked him what he was thinking about. ‘Oh, I was thinking about beeches,’ he said. ‘Beech trees hold their leaves longer any tree in the winter. I’ve always admired them for that.’”  

Creel, an English major, took the Wilbur/Sofield class on lyric poetry. He memorized several Wilbur poems for these drives, including 1950’s “Ceremony.” He spoke the 18 lines, hands on the wheel as the scenery slatted by. Afterward Wilbur asked Creel what he thought of the poem. The student said he loved these lines especially: 

But ceremony never did conceal,
Save to the silly eye, which all allows,
How much we are the woods we wander in.

Wilbur agreed those were the best lines, then casually added: “The rest of it I could take or leave.”  

Creel was also Wilbur’s driver for Biddy Martin’s 2011 inauguration, at which he read his poem “Altitudes,” in which Amherst is domed by “a wild shining of the pure unknown.” It is worth emphasizing that Wilbur was an unostentatious Christian, a poet who believed his job was to observe and commend God’s creation. As he told one interviewer: “I find sanctimony and cocksure atheism equally disagreeable.”  

On the weekend of Wilbur’s death, Sofield was prepping for his class English 240: “Reading Poetry,” about to launch the second week of a two-week unit on Wilbur’s work. “He is one of the small handful of best poets in the second half of the 20th century,” says Sofield. “And a lot of people who really live lives in and around poetry would agree with me. In this class, I’m teaching W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Philip Larkin, James Merrill [’47] and Richard Wilbur. All wrote in received forms and invented new forms as needed for each poem, and Dick was as much a master of poetry in his time as any of them.”   

Anyone who met Wilbur was struck by his kindness, his cleverness, his courtliness. “He was never self-regarding in the way a lot of writers are. He was generous to everybody,” says Sofield. 

Adds Cullen Murphy ’74, chair of the College’s board of trustees, “Dick Wilbur’s voice, in life as in his poetry, was one of deep humanity—elegant, often playful and brimming with what he called the ‘glorious energy’ of creation.” 

Wilbur died at the height of fall foliage season, and it seems fitting to conclude with lines from one of his autumnal poems. “October Maples, Portland” was read at Converse Hall, in 2011, for a celebration of his 90th birthday:  

The leaves, though little time they have to live,
Were never so unfallen as today.  
And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve
the very light from which time fell away. 

A Tribute From a Friend

by David R. Sofield

I must have met Dick Wilbur at a dinner that Bill and Marietta Pritchard had for him after one of his periodic readings at the College, but I remember being too star-struck to say much to him. I’m afraid that my admiration for what Dick did with words, ideas and feelings was such that I could do no more than acknowledge that I was, well, a fan. By the 1970s Richard Wilbur was, by common consent, the dazzling virtuoso of post-World War II poetry in English. His third book, Things of This World (1956), won all the prizes, as it should have. And he was hard to imitate, although many tried: it is not given to more than two or three poets in a generation to have the education (Amherst!—in his case, and then the war and then Harvard), and the ear, and the inventiveness to carry off poems as rich, as profoundly satisfying as, say, “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra.” There are numerous others.

Then two things changed. In his next books of poems he began to dampen the fireworks a bit, with the result that one’s admiration gradually deepened into gratitude that someone out there was fully experiencing a recognizable, an available world—the created world, of course, but also that of people closest to him and those who happened his way, like the Roman “Mind-Reader” whom he evoked in a major long poem. For me the pivotal, or at the least the representative, poem here is “April 5, 1974,” a poem he could not have written had he not been an acute reader and a good friend of Robert Frost. It’s a small miracle of language, perception and music—and of analogy. In his great late poem “Lying,” Dick offers a defining line: “Odd that a thing is most itself when likened.”

The other change was the result of one of the happiest accidents to come my way: Dick’s beloved wife, Charlee, asked me, at another post-reading dinner, if I played tennis. I did. She asked if I would like to be Dick’s doubles partner in a game against two local attorneys. Sure, I said, and it came to pass.

Exactly what came to pass I could not have begun to foresee. We prevailed over the law, barely, and then we had post-match gin and tonics (mint from Dick’s garden in Cummington, Mass.), and then we swam in Dick and Charlee’s pool, and then we talked a bit about poetry.

And then, after years and years of more tennis and talk, Dick was invited to become the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at the College, the position created after World War II to bring Robert Frost back to Amherst a couple of times a year to give readings and to talk with the fraternity lads (Dick was a notably loyal Chi Psi). Dick told the College president that, yes, he would do it, if I would agree to teach with him. Of course I agreed, if not without some apprehension, knowing, for example, that Dick’s store of memorized poems was truly vast.

So for seven years, from 2008 to 2014, we did teach together. In time I more or less overcame my fear and trembling. Charlee Wilbur died in 2007—do read and reread Dick’s three late love poems, “For C.,” “The Reader” and “The House.” On her death Dick must have been—no, he was—at something of a loss; as many have noted, their marriage was a supremely fortunate one. So his returning to the classroom at age 87 turned out to be, I think, consoling. And it was useful, a word Dick used carefully. He once responded to the question—why did you start writing poems?—posed to him by his geology-major student driver, with this short sentence: “To be useful.” And he was that, to students at the five colleges where he taught—Harvard, Wellesley, Wesleyan, Smith, Amherst—and as he will be to those future readers fortunate enough to find his work. R.I.P.

Sofield is Amherst’s Samuel Williston Professor of English.