Richard Wilbur and the painter's eye



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Since his first volume of poems. The Beautiful Changes, published in 1947, Richard Wilbur has been recognized as a major talent in the field of American poetry. Few critics have failed to acknowledge his virtuosity in handling meter, rhyme and diction. Many, however, have also expressed an impatience with Wilbur for lacking emotion in his poetry. They would like to see more evidence of Wilbur's personality and less refinement and distance. Because of his reliance on form and deliberate detachment from his poems Wilbur has- been placed in the Eliot tradition of American poetry. In a time when many poets have dismissed the use of the traditional forms in favor of free verse Wilbur has often been criticized for his concentration on form. Form for Wilbur, however, is not a hindrance to creativity; rather, it is both necessity and an aid in accomplishing what he believes to be poetry's aim: creating order out of chaos. Wilbur is so adept at making old forms new that they actually seem to grow out of the content rather than determine it. Wilbur has explained his reliance on form by comparing poetic form to a picture frame in that both separate the work of art from reality. This comparison of poetry to painting is not merely incidental; in fact, it provides the basis for much of Wilbur's poetic theory, structure, and themes. It is necessary therefore to understand the relationship between Wilbur and those schools of painting who have influenced him, especially Classicism, Romanticism, and Dutch Genre painting. Although several critics have commented upon Wilbur's affinity for painters and paintings as subjects for many of his poems, none have pursued this topic in any detail. The purpose of this paper will be to explore in depth those ways in which art has influenced Richard Wilbur's poetic theory, technique, and subject matter.