The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 6, No 1 (2002)

Font Size:  Small  Medium  Large

Alice's Academy

Elizabeth L. Pandolfo Briggs, editor

Laying Claim to the World: The "Glorious Energy" of Richard Wilbur's Poetry for Children

Millicent Lenz

Millicent Lenz teaches literature for children, literature for young adults, and (periodically) history of children's literature at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her research interests and publications center on fantasy (including speculative fiction), poetry, and historical fiction. With Peter Hunt of Cardiff University in Wales, she recently authored Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction [Continuum, 2001: 0-8264-4936-0 (hardback); 0-8264-4937-9 (paperback)].

Devotees of poetry for children are especially lucky. This is The Looking Glass' first special issue ever, devoted to poetry for children, and there's a forthcoming special issue of Children's Literature Association Quarterly on poetry--don't miss it! Here Millicent Lenz has given us all a treat for the holidays with her delightful, insightful look at poet Richard Wilbur. Be sure to catch the samples of his poetry she has so thoughtfully included throughout her article (even in the bibliography, folks, so don't skip all the stuff at the end!). You are guaranteed to become an instant fan.

Richard Wilbur (1921- ) was born in New York City and spent his childhood in North Caldwell, New Jersey, in a rural setting conducive to his love of nature. He graduated from Amherst College (1942), married Mary Charlotte Hayes Ward of Boston (an alumna of Smith College; the couple has four children), and served in World War II with the 36th 'Texas' Division in Europe. He began writing poems during the chaos of war as a (to quote Robert Frost) "'momentary stay against confusion.'" Returning home, Wilbur did graduate work in English at Harvard, and upon the completion of his degree (A.M. 1947) became a junior fellow on the Harvard faculty. In the same year he brought out his first volume of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems. Continuing at Harvard until 1954, he went on to teach at Wellesley College and Wesleyan University, and from 1977 until his retirement in 1986 served as writer-in-residence at Smith College.

Over his long and prolific career as a teacher, poet, translator, critic, and editor, Wilbur has won a prodigious number of awards, including the Pulitzer prize and National Book Award for his Things of This World (both 1957) , served as poetry consultant at the Library of Congress and as poet laureate of the U.S. (1987-88). His English translations of the French dramatists Molière and Racine are considered the definitive versions; his translation of Tartuffe won the Bollingen Prize (1971). New and Collected Poems (1988) garnered a second Pulitzer. His work for children has won numerous awards, including Book World's Children's Spring Book Festival award (1973) for Opposites: Poems and Drawings.

The craftsmanship and elegance of his poetry, with its reflections on natural phenomena and meditations on spiritual and metaphysical topics, is universally praised. His verse written specifically for young readers, celebrated for its 'wit,' radiates an ageless appeal. A recent full assessment of Wilbur's achievements is Richard J. Calhoun's "Richard (Purdy) Wilbur," Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 169: American Poets Since World War II, 5th Series, edited by Joseph Conte. (Gale, 1996, pp. 297-311)
(Elizabeth L. Pandolfo Briggs, editor)


A "Mozart of our time." That's how literary critic Samuel Hazo characterizes the poetry of Richard Wilbur. Mozart's achievement in music has a counterpart in Wilbur's poetry, seen in his "sense of symmetry, his uncanny precision of word choice and his almost infallible ear, his sense of humor as well as his sense of the tragic within a historical and literary tradition that he knows well. . .," the sacramental world view nurtured by his basic Christian ethic (Hazo, in Contemporary Literary Criticism, 382). If, as I too believe, Wilbur is indeed the poetic Mozart of our time, he is a neglected Mozart as far as his poetry for children is concerned. Among the monumental Gale series of reference books on literature, only Something About the Author specifically gives attention to Wilbur as a poet for children, and its article is shamefully dated (Volume 9, 1976). Richard J. Calhoun's article in American Poets Since World War II, discussing Wilbur's craftsmanship and interest in varieties of poetry, makes a mere five-line comment on his recognition by "children's literature specialists" for his "light verse," citing Loudmouse, Opposites, More Opposites, and Runaway Opposites, and remarking that "all [are] written with grace, wit, and humor" (310). Calhoun continues: "His [Wilbur's] wit, especially his skillful rhymes and the puns found even in his serious poetry, has not always been treated kindly by critics, but it has often captivated readers." The readers may be more discerning than the literati. Wilbur's popularity with readers, as Anthony Hecht has observed, is shown by the fact that "the 14th edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations contains 107 lines of his work" (Hecht, in CLC, 352).

If literary critics have largely overlooked Wilbur's poetry for young people, authors of children's literature textbooks in recent years have done little better. The most recent editions of Children & Books and Children's Literature in the Elementary School, two major textbooks in the field, [1] fail to mention his poetry. The Scott, Foresman Anthology of Children's Literature (1984) does include his wonderful translation, "Francis Jammes: A Prayer to Go to Paradise with the Donkeys" [2] and two selections from his Opposites. Editors of the Index to Poetry for Children and Young People [3] have been friendly, continuing to list anthologized poems by Wilbur, including not only those from his juvenile books but judiciously selected poems from his collections for adult readers as well. Wilbur's recent marvellous The Disappearing Alphabet, zanily illustrated by David Diaz, may help to resurrect regard for his poetry for the young.

Wilbur's view of poetry and its functions is clearly shown in a speech, "Poetry and Happiness," given at the College of Wooster in the spring of 1966. Wilbur speaks on two senses of the word "poetry": first, "a self-shaping activity of the whole society, a collective activity by means of which a society creates a vision of itself, arranges its values, or adopts or adapts a culture," and second, "verses written by poets, imaginative compositions that employ a condensed, rhythmic, resonant, and persuasive language, . . .written by individuals whose pleasure it is to write them" ("Poetry and Happiness," quoted in CLC, 92). He finds this first function of poetry, to speak as it were for a whole culture, extremely difficult to achieve today because ". . .Our society has no sufficient cultural heart from which to write" ("Poetry," in CLC, 106), leading to much personal unhappiness among many contemporary poets. They are plagued by "alcoholism, aberration, emotional breakdowns, drying up of talent, and suicide," perhaps because the impoverishment and fragmentation of 'culture' today tends to result in "the obligatory eccentricity. . .of each poet's world" (CLC, 106-07). Thus he emphasizes the second sense of "poetry," which is, again, poetry at the level of the individual poet's creative activity.

This leads Wilbur into a fascinating discussion of the poetic technique of "cataloguing" the world: he recalls how he and a college roommate, giving sway to the "fundamental urge," the "primitive desire that is radical to poetry -- the desire to lay claim to as much of the world as possible through uttering the names of things" --once tried to compose "A Complete List of Everything" (CLC 92). His Bestiary, especially his translation of Francis Jammes' "A Prayer to Go to Paradise with the Donkeys," illustrates one wonderful result of this impulse. For example, the persona of the poem catalogues the burdens of the donkeys-- feather-dusters, kitchen-wares, humps of battered water-cans-- who follow him with "their thousands of ears," all things celebrated and blessed, the world of things evidences the creative love of the Maker:

Let it be with these donkeys that I come,
And let it be that angels lead us in peace
To leafy streams where cherries tremble in air,
Sleek as the laughing flesh of girls. . .
. . .I shall resemble these donkeys,
Whose humble and sweet poverty will appear
Clear in the clearness of your eternal love.
(Bestiary, 8)

Thus Wilbur, much like Gerard Manley Hopkins in a poem such as "Pied Beauty," catalogues and captures the hierarchy of creation, embracing all with joy and a sense of beatitude. Elsewhere Wilbur speaks of language as "re-creating the creation, giving each creature a relation to himself," an achievement clear in Wilbur's Bestiary as a whole; this process of 'languaging' the world rewards the speaker by granting "a kind of symbolic control over what [lies] around him" ("Poetry and Landscape" 86).

This impulse to name and verbally possess all things is often mirrored in literature; Wilbur illustrates it amusingly from the eighteenth chapter of Hugh Lofting's Story of Doctor Doolittle, where the Doctor and his animal friends, returning from Africa, come by chance into the possession of a pirate ship inhabited by a little boy who has been separated from his red-haired, snuff-taking uncles. The Doctor promises to help him find them, and the talking dog Jip, hoping to scent snuff, catalogues in poetic prose the aromas his keen nose divines from the bow of the ship:

"Bricks,--old yellow bricks, crumbling with age in a garden-wall; the sweet breath of young cows standing in a mountain-stream; the lead roof of a dove-cote--or perhaps a granary--with the mid-day sun on it; black kid gloves lying in a bureau-drawer of walnut-wood; a dusty road with a horses' drinking-trough beneath the sycamores; little mushrooms bursting through the rotting leaves. . ."(Lofting, quoted in CLC,93)

Wilbur notes how such cataloguing pleases by stimulating the olfactory memory, making us feel alive to things and vicariously alert (as alert as the little dog), and allowing us to exult in "Jip's power of instant designation," thus sharing "in an articulate relishing and mastery of phenomena in general" (CLC, 93). As Bruce Michelson says of Wilbur's Bestiary, the effect of this text which "assembles all sorts of Western pronouncements. . .on the nature of beasts and their 'meaning,' " is "A pleasurable disorientation, a recognition that we have diverse company on this planet, but that most of our thinking about these neighbors is a mix of scientific error, whimsy, piety, and truth stumbled upon rather than worked out. Such a look at the animals is a look at ourselves. . . ." (191). And, one might add, an appreciation of diversity.

Metaphor is so basic a technique of poetry that it will come as no surprise to find, as Peter Stitt says in The World's Hieroglyphic Beauty, it is the dominant means whereby Wilbur's imagination synthesizes the "existential primacy of material reality" with "spiritual reality" (13-14). Imagination, Wilbur believes, is "a faculty which fuses things, takes hold of the physical and ideal worlds and makes them one, provisionally" ("Interview with Richard Wilbur," in Stitt, 48). Summing up his view of the universe, he says,

. . .To put it simply, I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy, that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good. I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith, but that is my attitude. My feeling is that when you discover order and goodness in the world, it is not something you are imposing--it is something which is likely really to be there, whatever crumminess and evil and disorder there may also be. I don't take disorder or meaninglessness to be the basic character of things. I don't know where I get my information, but that is how I feel. (in Stitt, 53-54)

Wilbur's universe is not one wherein entropy -- the inevitable decay of forms -- is paramount, but one wherein chaos tends to move towards meaningful shape.

As Opposites is arguably his best known book for young readers, it seems natural to approach it as the outstanding example of how his verse reflects this self-organizing principle in the cosmos. The critic Samuel Hazo has made a connection between Wilbur's sense of symmetry and form (again Mozart comes to mind!) and his riddles (based on Anglo-Saxon models) and metrical verses for young readers. Hazo remarks: "The most regular poetic progressions in Wilbur's work appear in the riddle-poems," which along with his "what's-my-name" poems "spilled over delightfully into a book called Opposites whose meters challenge and rhymes please adult and young adult and children equally" (Hazo, in CLC, 382). In addition to the pleasure of their "wit and whimsy," their "poetry is in their very structure and resolution with each poem ending, as Yeats once said of good poems in general, like the snap-shut lid of a box" (382). The structure is so solid, in fact, that it moved Hazo to speak in metaphor: "If his poems were chairs or tables, one would always be convinced that their sutures and fastenings were secure and that they could stand on their own" (383).

A couple of examples will demonstrate the 'stand-alone' quality of his poems. Opposites provides ready examples:

What's the opposite of riot?
It's lots of people keeping quiet.


And from More Opposites:

An omen is a sign of some
Occurrence that is yet to come.
As when a star, by tumbling down,
Warns that a king will lose his crown.

A clue, by contrast, is a sign
By means of which we can divine
What has already taken place
As when, to cite a common case,
A fish is missing from a platter
And the cat looks a little fatter.


A number of sources state that these verses had their origin in a game of family word-play at the dinner table, when one family member would propose a word and all would debate its "proper" opposite [4]. As Alan Nadel said, writing in The Lion and the Unicorn in 1978, this sort of pursuit was very classically Augustan in its desire to "pin down" language, to "fix precisely synonyms and antonyms and take delight in the surprising results" (108).

Nadel is one of many critics to note Wilbur's concern with symmetrical form, but few have given such fine critical attention to his "light" verse. Nadel begins by remarking on the contrast between two traditions in poetry, the 2000-year-old tradition exemplified by Mother Goose (using "sing-song qualities which make poetry easy to recite") and the more recent modern tradition, which exalts complexity and eschews "a sustained, predictable, rhymed, metrical pattern" at least partly because of its association with "light verse: humor, sentimental greeting cards and popular songs" except when these qualities can be made subtle, ironic, or "in some way grate against the content so that the resulting matrix is difficulty" (Nadel 95). The one exception, as we know, is that these musical formal elements survive in poetry for children. Somehow, Wilbur manages to make rhymed couplets not only palatable but intriguing, and there is a complexity underlying Opposites that we as literary adults should appreciate: Wilbur in these seemingly simple verses is challenging the child's "capacity for metamorphosis" (in the sense that their imaginations are open to "transformation," though they can experience it as either delightful or painful, or both at once), and he does so by "directing them to the metamorphoses that the meanings of words undergo." The world, Wilbur is suggesting, is "balanced by opposition" and "these oppositions can be expressed in balanced, iambic, quatrameter couplets" (108-09). Taken all together, Wilbur's Opposites series shows "that all things are both in opposition and linked by it " (110). Yet underneath it all there lies, in Wilbur's view at least, a natural order and unity which metaphor has the power to reveal. These features add to the oral effect of his poetry. One critic commented, "Whoever has listened to Richard Wilbur read his work has experienced what Wilbur himself once ascribed to the work of Degas -- 'Beauty joined to energy'" (Hazo, CLC, 387). Having heard Wilbur in person, I can testify to the truth of this statement. The juxtaposition of 'beauty' and 'energy' in the critic's statement seems a direct echo of Blake's "Energy is eternal delight."

In addition to manifesting the formal and linguistic qualities of Wilbur's poetry, the three Opposites collections also lend themselves to the teaching of form in poetry. In an interview with Steve Kronen in 1991, Wilbur reminisces about how a West Coast poet "offered some of my light verse poems, my children's poems called "Opposites," to one of his writing classes. They're done in rhymed tetrameters. . . ." After discussing them, the professor asked his class to write some opposites (though most had not written in rhyme and meter before). "He sent me some samples of their work and it was pretty good. They did know what tetrameters were and they could write them, just as people who have been watching waltzers for some time, but not waltzing themselves, can catch on pretty quickly" (in CLC, 364). Wilbur further agrees with Kronen that the first requisite of a poet is to love playing with words, and later he remarks that he values "speakability and dramatic force" so highly that he sounds and pronounces every line in his head as he writes (in CLC, 367, 370). The comparison to Mozart again seems apt, and brings out the musicality of Wilbur's 'ear.'

One of Wilbur's most recent books for children, The Disappearing Alphabet, operates on the premise stated at the outset:

If the alphabet began to disappear,
Some words would soon look raggedy and queer
While others would entirely fade away;
And since it is by words that we construe
The world, the world would start to vanish, too!
Good heavens! It would be an awful mess
If everything dissolved to nothingness!
Be careful, then, my friends, and do not let
Anything happen to the alphabet.


Wilbur's seemingly nonsensical wordplay actually affirms the formative and transformative power of language. The gentle mirth and tone of mild astonishment suit the playful "what if" mood.

This poem works on a verbal level with only the most minimal illustrations, as shown by its being first published in The Atlantic Monthly with artwork of a modest kind. One reviewer of the book as illustrated by David Diaz speculated that perhaps Wilbur's own "simple drawings" might have "more accurately and with less spectacle captured the poems' droll humor and allowed readers more room for their own imaginings." [5] In contrast, the Kirkus reviewer found Diaz's artwork "a glorious foil for the poems; in glowing stained-glass hues and candy colors, he makes silhouettes and cut-outs, curlicues and patterns reminiscent of everything from ColorForms to Mexican papercuts." [6] One's choice will be a matter of taste and temperament; Wilbur himself has commented, "Because I was raised on books like Belloc's Cautionary Verses and Lear's Nonsense Book, I'm inclined to think that witty children's poems are best illustrated by line drawings rather than by overwhelming four-color art" [7].

As for temperament, Wilbur calls his natural state of mind "cheerful," although he candidly mentions undergoing a depression of "some depth" in 1985 ("Interview with Steve Kronen," in CLC, 370). Peter Harris describes him as "congenitally optative, devoted to what survives rather than to what is lost. . .never much attracted to the elegiac mode, and. . .most comfortable treating death as an event in the cyclical process of renewal" (in CLC, 360). His appreciation of Anglo-Saxon verse signals a recognition of what Bruce Michelson sees as "a bare-bones condition of the soul. . .An unreasoning, indwelling hardness which is part of being alive, and which bespeaks nothing but the opaque mysteries of mortality" (196). The truth seems to be that Wilbur's range is not limited by artificial boundaries between the comic and the tragic, that he comprehends all the varieties of Beautiful Changes, and that ultimately, he believes in affirming the sense of wonder. In Bestiary he includes an excerpt from Jose Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses that speaks to the need for perpetual awareness:

Everything in the world is strange and marvelous to well-open eyes. This faculty of wonder is the delight. . .which leads the intellectual man through life in the perpetual ecstasy of the visionary. His special attribute is the wonder of the eyes. Hence it was that the ancients gave Minerva her owl, the bird with the ever-bedazzled eyes. (#20, "The Owl")

It seems fitting that the celebration of a poet should close with poetry. I offer my own imitation (the sincerest praise) of one of his Opposites:

Wilbur's opposite? I'm sure
would be no Mozart, but a boor,
a tin-eared, graceless, dull professor,
or some lachrymose confessor,
lacking Metaphor and Meter,
doomed to be a 'verbal cheater.'
Wilbur sings the Song in Things,
Their Glorious Energy takes wings.
Bravo Wilbur! Join the chorus!
Your bright words will never bore us.

Millicent Lenz




1. Children & Books, 9th ed., edited by Zena Sutherland (Longman, 1996); Children's Literature in the Elementary School, 6th ed., edited by Charlotte S. Huck, Susan Hepler, Janet Hickman, Barbara Z. Kiefer (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1997)

2. The Scott, Foresman Anthology of Children's Literature, edited by Zena Sutherland and Myra Cohn Livingston (Glenview, IL: 1984), 27 ff.

3. See the series Index to Poetry for Children and Young People, published by H. W. Wilson.

4. Wilbur has commented: "My wife and children tell me that we never played "opposites" as a dinner-table game, but I persist in believing that we did so at least once, while granting that the usual game was Twenty Questions or I Pack My Bag for Chicago." Personal communication to author, 10-20-99.

5. Jennifer M. Brabander, Horn Book Magazine 74 (September/October 1998): 618.

6. Unsigned review, Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1998, p. 1391.

7. Personal communication to author, 10-20-99. He adds, however, that "David Diaz' work for the Alphabet is agreeable and decorative. . .and the text is not swamped as in Runaway Opposites."


Works for Young Readers by Richard Wilbur

[In order of publication]

A Bestiary. Compiled by Richard Wilbur. Illustrated by Alexander Calder. New York: Pantheon, 1955.

Wilbur, Richard. Loudmouse. Illustrated by Don Almquist. New York, Crowell-Collier Press, 1968.

Wilbur, Richard. Opposites. Poems and Drawings by Richard Wilbur. New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973. Reprinted 1991.

Wilbur, Richard. New and Collected Poems. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Wilbur, Richard. More Opposites. Poems and Drawings by Richard Wilbur. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991.

Wilbur, Richard. Runaway Opposites. Illustrated by Henrik Drescher. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Wilbur, Richard. The Disappearing Alphabet. Illustrated by David Diaz. San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1998. [Text first published in The Atlantic Monthly, 1997.]

Wilbur, Richard. The Pig in the Spigot. San Diego: Harcourt, 2000.
[ At the time of the original composition of this essay, this book was not yet published. Richard Wilbur generously shared one poem with me through correspondence, and I quote it here:

When there's a pig inside your spigot you
Must not cry out, "There's nothing I can do!"
Be sensible, and take the obvious course,
Which is to turn the spigot on full force.
Sufficient water pressure will, I think,
Oblige the pig to flow into the sink.

(Personal communication of 10-20-99)]


Critical Wrintings by Richard Wilbur

"Poetry and Landscape." In The New Landscape in Art and Science, edited by Gyorgy Kepes. Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1956).


Other Works Cited

Calhoun, Richard J. "Richard Wilbur," pp. 297-311 in American Poets Since World War II, Fifth Series, ed. Joseph Conte. Vol. 169 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996.

Contemporary Literary Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of Today's Novelists, Poets, Playwrights, Short Story Writers, Scriptwriters, and Other Creative Writers, ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter, Deborah A. Schmitt, and Timothy J. White. Vol. 110. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Entry on "Richard Wilbur," pp. 346-389.

Harris, Peter, "Forty Years of Richard Wilbur: The Loving Work of an Equilibrist," Virginia Quarterly Review, 66: 3 (Summer 1990): 412-25. Reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of Today's Novelists, Poets, Playwrights, Short Story Writers, Scriptwriters, and Other Creative Writers, ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter, Deborah A. Schmitt, and Timothy J. White. Vol. 110. Detroit: Gale, 1999, pp. 358-63.

Hazo, Samuel. "One Definite Mozart," Renascence XLV: 1-2 (Fall 1992-Winter 1993): 81-96. Reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of Today's Novelists, Poets, Playwrights, Short Story Writers, Scriptwriters, and Other Creative Writers, ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter, Deborah A. Schmitt, and Timothy J. White. Vol. 110. Detroit: Gale, 1999, pp. 380-387.

Hecht, Anthony. "Master of Metaphor," in The New Republic, 3: 826 (May 16, 1988):23-32. Reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 110.

Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur's Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Nadel, Alan. "Roethke, Wilbur, and the Vision of the Child: Romantic and Augustan in Modern Verse." The Lion and the Unicorn 2:1 (Spring 1978): 94-113.

Stitt, Peter. The World's Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1985. "The Sacramental Vision of Richard Wilbur," pp. 9-39, and "Interview with Richard Wilbur," pp. 39-54.


Millicent Lenz

Volume 6, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2002

Site design and content, except where noted, © The Looking Glass 2002.
"Laying Claim to the World: The "Glorious Energy" of Richard Wilbur's Poetry for Children"
© Millicent Lenz, 2002.
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor

The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680