Metaphoric Angels

Richard Wilbur’s long and distinguished writing career demonstrates that a poet can go against literary fashions, shunning what passes for received wisdom, and still earn critical praise and become an important figure on the literary landscape.  Few of his contemporaries have accomplished even part of what he has managed: to produce work of outstanding quality, using contemporary diction, while, in defiance of trends, writing chiefly in measured verse, eschewing excessively personal (“confessional”) poetry, and attaining considerable popularity.  No 20th-century American poet of stature surpasses him in command of rhyme, meter, and stanzaic form, not only having ornamental function but serving brilliantly to disclose poetic insights and give a sharpened or deepened view of the world.  And at mid-century, when confessional poetry—full of exposed humiliations, regrets, anguish—was dominant, he was concerned, as M.L. Rosenthal put it in The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II, to “absorb [his] ‘secret’ motivations into relatively impersonal and objective structures”; this concern has directed and informed his work thenceforth.

As for Wilbur’s popularity, it comes, in part, doubtless from his children’s books and especially his play (written with Lillian Hellman) based on Voltaire’s Candide, turned into...

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