The most urbane and wittiest of American poets, Richard Wilbur, died yesterday at ninety-six.
I heard him read his poems once at Michigan State all those years ago, and I quoted his comic patter song for Pangloss from Candide just the other day.
He was learned, and he wore his learning lightly. His translations were admirable: Villon’s “But where shall last year’s snow be found?” and the delightful verses of Moliere’s Misanthrope, Tartuffe, School for Wives, and Learned Ladies, precise and deadly accurate.
He balanced the formal and the demotic delightfully, as in “Matthew VIII, 28ff.,” voicing the proprietors of the Gadarene swine: “If you cannot cure us without destroying our swine, / We had rather you shoved off.”
Some complained of him, as Sir Walter Scott observed of Jane Austen, that he did not do “the big bow-wow strain,” but we are not so well off that we can afford to scorn a writer for being civilized. And civilized he was, steeped in literature, with a keen eye and an unerring ear.
His poems have given me pleasure and comfort for more than forty years, and in his passing we have lost a classic American voice. Where shall last year’s grace be found?