Richard Purdy Wilbur, the son of Lawrence Lazear Wilbur, an artist, and Helen Ruth Purdy Wilbur, was born in New York City but spent many early years in a rural area near North Caldwell, New Jersey. He has asserted that this country experience accounts for his earlier nature poetry. He wrote his first poem, “That’s When the Nightingales Wake,” at the age of eight. After graduating from Montclair High School, he attended Amherst College, where he edited the college newspaper and considered a career in journalism. He graduated in 1942 and that same year married Charlotte Ward, with whom he had four children, Ellen, Christopher, Nathan, and Aaron.
He wrote poetry from a young age, but it was the experience of the war that turned him toward writing as a serious endeavor. From 1943 to 1945 he served as an enlisted man in Europe at some of the major fronts. After the war he returned to school, and in 1947 he received an M.A. in English at Harvard University, where he remained as a junior fellow until 1950. In 1947 and 1950 his first two books of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Ceremony, appeared. In 1950, committed to an academic career, he became an assistant professor of English at Harvard, an unusual post for one without a doctorate. He took time out in 1952 to visit Mexico on a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. During this time he won the Harriet Monroe and the Oscar Blumenthal prizes from Poetrymagazine, and in 1954 he won the three-thousand-dollar Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His scholarly work was centered on Edgar Allan Poe, whose complete poems he edited.
In 1955 Wilbur was made an associate professor of English at Wellesley College, where he taught for two years. In that same year his translation of Molière’s The Misanthrope was published and produced in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the Poet’s Theatre; the following year it was staged at the Theatre East Off-Broadway. A Bestiary (an anthology) was published at this time; later came The Pelican from a Bestiary of 1120, a privately printed 1963 translation of a poem by Philippe de Thuan.
In 1957 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for Things of This World. The same year he was appointed professor of English at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He won the Boston Festival Award in 1959, and in 1960 received a Ford Fellowship and was awarded an honorary L.H.D. degree by Sarah Lawrence College. He became vice president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1959. In September, 1961, the year of his fourth book of poems, Advice to a Prophet, he traveled to Russia as an American literary specialist for the State Department. In 1977 he left Wellesley to become writer-in-residence at Smith College, a position he held until 1986.
During this time a paperback release, The Poems of Richard Wilbur, came out, as did Walking to Sleep, The Mind-Reader: New Poems, and New Poems. In 1989 a collection of poems from all his books was published under the title New and Collected Poems, which won him a second Pulitzer Prize in poetry as well as many other awards and nominations. From 1987 to 1988 he was the Poet Laureate of the United States.
Most of Wilbur’s publications in the 1990’s, following his laureateship, were of juvenile poetry. However, in 2000 he published Mayflies, a collection of his adult work composed throughout the previous decade. In addition to new poems that show his continuing formalist style, the book includes translations of poems by Dante and Molière.
Wilbur also continued producing fine translations of classical French drama. He translated Molière’s Tartuffe in 1963, for which he was the co-recipient of the Bollingen Prize, and The School for Wives in 1971, The Learned Ladies in 1978, and School for Husbands in 1992. He also translated two plays by Racine and wrote or rewrote most of the lyrics for Candide by Leonard Bernstein.