The American poet Richard Wilbur died last October at the age of 96. He’d served as Poet Laureate and, over the decades, had had all the usual literary treasures strewn at his feet, including the National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes. But he was never as well known as his teacher and mentor Robert Frost or his contemporaries Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. He was a formalist in the age of the Beats and free verse; restrained and subtle during the heyday of the “confessional” poets. Along with his own eleven collections of poetry, he was a prize-winning translator and essayist.
I met him twice, perhaps forty years apart, initially, when I was still a student, at a writing conference at the University of Virginia where he gave a talk on how Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods’ could be read as a longing to commit suicide. At that time, in the early 1970s, it was considered a radical interpretation. Then, a few years ago, I helped to organize an event in his honor in New York City. He was in his early nineties by then, but still tall, bluff, and imposing, with a Yankee’s dry wit and courteous manner. I sat next to him at a luncheon and made a fool of myself by reciting lines from one of his poems. But he told me there was no greater compliment in the world than to have one’s words remembered by heart.
He lived not far from us, in Cummington, Massachusetts. His poems, like Frost’s, are imbued with a love of nature. And though he did so with formality and discretion, he also wrote about the full range of human love — for his friends, children, and perhaps especially for his wife Charlee to whom he was married for 65 years. She died in 2007. Here’s a poem he wrote a few years after her death.
By Richard Wilbur
Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.
What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.
Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.
Though the house in the poem is imaginary, the one in the photo above bears a resemblance. It was the home of Wilbur’s fellow poet Robert Lowell and his wife Elizabeth Hardwick in Castine, on the coast of Maine.