Richard Wilbur was a member of the great generation of American poets who gained fame after World War II. Unlike his gifted peers, Wilbur lived on into the 21st century, extending his poetic career with a brilliant late flowering.
Like contemporary Howard Nemerov, another combat veteran, Wilbur remained true to meter and rhyme. Wilbur, who died Saturday at age 96, gained fame for his serenity and affirmation of art, nature and life's daily customs and rhythms.
While Wilbur during his career was accused of lacking passion and fire, his "Collected Poems:1943-2004" stands among America's major poetic achievements, displaying far-reaching imagination and power.
Unlike troubled contemporaries Robert Lowell and John Berryman, Wilbur enjoyed a long life free of turmoil. Wilbur is often compared with Lowell, with whom he shared a birthday.
Lowell, plaqued by frequent manic-depressive episodes, strayed from traditional forms later in his life and wrote about his tumultuous personal life in his poems. Lowell's use of intimate letters from his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, received a rebuke from his close friend, Elizabeth Bishop.
In contrast, Wilbur's poems showed a sunny equilibrium. Like Lowell a New England native shaped by the region's values of education and literary culture, Wilbur resembled Lowell in his fascination with science and history. Outliving Lowell by four decades, Wilbur gained increasing recognition for his achievement as Lowell's critical reputation declined.
Wilbur also fashioneda noted theatrical career as a translator of Moliere's plays and as the lyricist for Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," as reported in The New York Times' poorly written obituary. Too bad The Times no longer has writers able to engage with a poet like Wilbur.
As younger "new formalists" rose in the 1980s, Wilbur's ordered poems received new acclaim. Along with Nemerov, who also valued wit and humor, all too often self-indulgent, Wilbur is an exemplar of a wing of American poetry that includes W.S. Merwin and Mary Oliver.
While Wilbur's formalism remains vital in journals like the Hudson Review, younger poets display an ignorance of poetic traditions. Wilbur's work represents the end of a long line of English poetry.