Richard Wilbur, whose meticulous, urbane poems earned him two Pulitzer Prizes and selection as the national poet laureate, died on Saturday in Belmont, Mass. He was 96.
His son Christopher confirmed his death, in a nursing home.
Across more than 60 years as an acclaimed American poet, Mr. Wilbur followed a muse who prized traditional virtuosity over self-dramatization; as a consequence he often found himself out of favor with the literary authorities who preferred the heat of artists like Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg.
He received his first Pulitzer in 1957, and a National Book Award as well, for “Things of This World.” The collection included “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” which the poet and critic Randall Jarrell called “one of the most marvelously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written.”
In the poem, Mr. Wilbur, observing statuary in a fountain — “showered fauns” — concludes:
They are at rest in fulness of desire
For what is given, they do not tire
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse
And riddled pool below,
Reproving our disgust and our ennui
With humble insatiety.
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow
Before the wealthy gate
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this
No trifle, but a shade of bliss —
That land of tolerable flowers, that state
As near and far as grass
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand
Is worthy of water: the dreamt land
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.
By the early 1960s, however, critical opinion generally conformed to Mr. Jarrell’s oft-quoted assessment that Mr. Wilbur “never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.”
Typical of complaints in this vein was a review by Herbert Leibowitz of Mr. Wilbur’s collection “The Mind-Reader” in The New York Times of June 13, 1976: “While we acknowledge his erudition and urbanity, we regretfully liken his mildness to the amiable normality of the bourgeois citizen.”
But there were many on the other side who objected to the notion that Mr. Wilbur’s poems were somehow unimportant because they were pretty. Jack Butler, for example, a resident of Okolona, Ark., wrote a letter to the editor in response to Mr. Leibowitz’s review, remarking, “Sirs, the man has had a feast set before him, the very best, and complains because it is not a peanut butter and ketchup sandwich.”
Mr. Wilbur sailed on regardless of which way the wind blew. He won a second Pulitzer in 1988, for “New and Collected Poems”; became the second poet laureate of the United States, succeeding Robert Penn Warren, in 1987-88; and won many other awards over the years, including the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2006, when he was 85. In all, he produced nine volumes of poems and several children’s books, which he himself illustrated.
He was also an esteemed translator of poems and other works from the French, Spanish and Russian, including the plays of Molière and Racine.
Frank Rich, then The Times’s chief theater critic, wrote in 1982 that Wilbur’s adaptations of Molière comedies like “Tartuffe,” “The Misanthrope” and “The School for Wives” were “beautiful works of art in themselves — Mr. Wilbur’s lighter-than-air verse upholds the idiom and letter of Molière, yet it also satisfies the demands of the stage.”
Mr. Wilbur wrote lyrics for opera and musical theater productions, too; among them, Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.”
Mr. Wilbur served three bloody years as a combat soldier in Europe in World War II, an experience that some critics thought might be a clue to the orderly, generally optimistic nature of his work. Perhaps “the utter disparity between what he saw and what he wished to see made him run for cover,” the poet and scholar John Reibetanz wrote. Mr. Wilbur dismissed this explanation.
“I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy,” he said in an interview with 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.”
Richard Purdy Wilbur was born in New York City, on March 1, 1921. When he was 2, his family moved to rural North Caldwell, N.J., and rented a pre-revolutionary stone house on a 500-acre private estate.
Roaming the woods and fields with his younger brother, Lawrence, Richard absorbed lessons of the natural world that would later fit easily into his poems. At home, immersion in books and the arts was a fact of everyday life. His father, Lawrence Lazear Wilbur, was a portrait painter. His mother, the former Helen Purdy, came from a family of journalists: Her father had been an editor of The Baltimore Sun, and her paternal grandfather an itinerate publisher and editor who founded several Democratic newspapers across the country.
Mr. Wilbur went to Amherst College in 1938, where he contributed poems, essays and cartoons to the campus newspaper and magazine. In 1942 he married Charlotte Ward and got his bachelor’s degree, and it seemed to him that he might become a journalist and write poems as a diversion.
First, though, there was the war. He had wanted to serve as an Army cryptographer but was denied the necessary clearance because his leftist views had raised an official suspicion of “disloyalty.” Indeed, he later said, he once attended a Marxist function at Amherst, and slept through it, but his politics were nothing much more radical than the Roosevelt New Deal policies.
It was at Harvard, where he went for graduate studies after the war, that he began to see poetry as a vocation. His first collection, “The Beautiful Changes,” came out in 1947, the same year he finished his master’s degree. He became an assistant professor at Harvard in 1950 and taught there for four years, the beginning of an academic career that included 20 years at Wesleyan University and 10 years at Smith. He finally went home to teach at his alma mater, Amherst, which honored him on his 90th birthday in March 2010 with readings of his poems and translations.
Beside his son Christopher, Mr. Wilbur is survived by a daughter, Ellen Wilbur; two other sons, Nathan and Aaron; three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. His wife, Charlotte, died in 2007.
“Anterooms,” his last collection of new poems and translations, was published in 2010 — a slim volume whose better pieces were “as good as anything Wilbur has ever written,” the Times’s reviewer, David Orr, wrote. Looking back, he observed that Mr. Wilbur had “spent most of his career being alternately praised and condemned for the same three things” — for his formal virtuosity; for his being, “depending on your preference, courtly or cautious, civilized or old-fashioned, reasonable or kind of dull”; and finally for his resisting a tendency in American poetry toward “conspicuous self-dramatization.”
Mr. Wilbur’s work did grow somewhat more personal in later years — he had “crumbled” a bit, as he put it. But his poems were never without wit, grace and rigor, even when they were about the end of things, as in the two-stanza “Exeunt:”
Piecemeal the summer dies;
At the field’s edge a daisy lives alone;
A last shawl of burning lies
On a gray field-stone.
All cries are thin and terse;
The field has droned the summer’s final mass;
A cricket like a dwindled hearse
Crawls from the dry grass.