Birthday wishes for Mr. Wilbur

March 05, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Distracted by the making of paragraphs and domestic duties, I overlooked that March 1 was the ninety-first birthday of Richard Wilbur, one of our most distinguished poets.

I heard him read once when I was undergraduate, and a more urbane, witty, and polished master of verse you cannot find. His translations of Moliere are a pleasure both to read and to hear. And his version of Villon's Ou sont les neiges d'antan? is perfect in English in its concision and melancholy realism: "But where shall last year's snow be found?"

There are days when I discover running in my head the witty patter song for the syphilitic Dr. Pangloss that he composed for Candide: "Columbus and his men, they say / Conveyed the virus hither / Whereby my features rot away / And vital powers wither; / Yet had they not traversed the seas / And come infected back, / Why, think of all the luxuries / That modern life would lack. / All bitter things conduce to sweet, / As this example shows: / Without the little spirochete / We'd have no chocolate to eat, / Nor would tobacco's fragrance greet / The European nose."

His "Late Aubade," evoking a morning closer to noon than dawn, is the sweetest of love lyrics.

And the conclusion of "A Finished Man," in which the central figure is being praised by a university for his donation of a new gymnasium, holds out hope for many of us: "Seated, he feels the warm sun sculpt his cheek / As the young president gets up to speak. / If the dead lie, if he can forget, / If money talks, he may be perfect yet."

I can hardly wish him years, which he has already, or further fame or honors or esteem. My little lifelong admiration I lay at his feet.

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