Richard Wilbur

Amherst College mourns the loss of Richard Wilbur, one of its most distinguished and beloved alumni, the nation’s second poet laureate, a peerless translator of Molière and Racine, the Tony Award-nominated lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his meticulously passionate body of work that celebrated, to quote one of his poems, “the splendor of mere being.” He was 96.

Richard Purdy Wilbur ’42 died on Oct. 14 in Belmont, Mass., and is survived by his children: Ellen, Christopher, Nathan (class of 1973) and Aaron; three grandchildren (including Liam A. Wilbur ’14), and two great-grandchildren. His wife, Charlotte, known to all as Charlee—a Smith student he met while at Amherst, regularly walking the nine-mile distance to see her—died in 2007.

“With the death of Richard Wilbur ’42, we have lost one of America’s great poets and translators, a remarkable man whose decency and humanity are as memorable as his verse,” said Amherst President Biddy Martin. “These qualities, along with his wit and intelligence, live on in his work and in what we continue to learn from his example. On behalf of the College, I extend our deepest sympathies to his family, his friends and all who mourn this profound loss.”

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

Sofield and his wife, Professor of Psychology Lisa Raskin, were close friends with the Wilburs, and Wilbur and Sofield regularly played tennis together. 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 pulled him aside and said, “We didn’t pledge you for athletics. We pledged you to bring up our grade point average.”

Wilbur particularly admired Amherst 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 reminiscence of the teachers who influenced 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.”

Wilbur was chairman of The Amherst Student. His most famous editorial ran on the front page the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, inspiring his classmates while slipping in a dig at rival Williams College. It ran on the front page, in large type, under the all-caps headline, “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.”

Upon graduation in 1942, just after marrying Charlee, Wilbur enlisted and served with the 36th Army at Cassio and Anzio in Italy, in the southern invasion of France, and along the Siegfried Line in Germany. “He experienced heavy shelling, and often,” said Sofield. “He lost many good friends.” Poetry became a way to escape the trauma of the foxhole. 

After the war, Wilbur received a master’s from Harvard, forged a friendship with Robert Frost and published his first book of poetry, The Beautiful Changes. Throughout his illustrious life—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 Award for Poetry and the Drama Desk Special Award—Wilbur retained his strong ties 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. 

A resident of nearby Cummington, Mass., since 1969—he wrote 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 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 taught at Wesleyan 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.”

When it became too difficult for him to drive, Amherst students ferried him from Cummington to the Amherst classroom and back. One student, a geology major, asked him what could be seen as a naïve question: “Why do you write poems?” Instead of saying the question was too complex to answer, Wilbur answered in three words: “To be useful.”

The poet also took pride of place at the inaugurations of several College presidents, including the 2011 ceremony for Biddy Martin, who said yesterday, “I consider it one of the greatest honors of my life that Richard Wilbur read ‘Altitudes’ at my inauguration. His voice and presence will always be one of my most vivid memories.”

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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,” said 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 [class of ’47] and Richard Wilbur. All wrote in received forms and invented new forms as needed for each poem, and Dick was a as much a master of poetry in his time as any of them.”  

Anyone who met Wilbur was struck by his kindness, his wittiness. “He was never self-regarding in the way a lot of writers are. He was generous to everybody,” said Sofield. Said Cullen Murphy ’74, chairman of the Amherst College 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. He was a friend to many in the Amherst community, and a beloved teacher, and we mourn his loss.”

Wilbur died at the height of fall foliage season, and it seems fitting to conclude with lines from an autumnal poem read at a celebration of his 90th birthday, in 2011, at Converse Hall. It is called “October Maples, Portland.” 

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.

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Richard Wilbur

Additional Reading

Three poems (by or about Richard Wilbur), and a remembrance by Professor David Sofield.