Born in New York City on March 1, 1921, Richard Wilbur studied at Amherst College before serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He later attended Harvard University.
His first book of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (Reynal & Hitchcock) was published in 1947. Since then, he has published several books of poems, including Anterooms: New Poems and Translations (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010); Collected Poems, 1943-2004 (Harvest Books, 2004); Mayflies: New Poems and Translations (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000); New and Collected Poems (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), which won the Pulitzer Prize; The Mind-Reader: New Poems (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976); Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969); Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961); Things of This World (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1956), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; and Ceremony and Other Poems (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950).
Wilbur also published numerous translations of French plays—specifically those of the 17th century French dramatists Molière and Jean Racine—as well as poetry by Valéry, Villon, Baudelaire, Akhmatova, Brodsky, and others. Wilbur is also the author of several books for children and a few collections of prose pieces, and has edited such books as Poems of Shakespeare (1966) and The Complete Poems of Poe (1959).
About Wilbur's poems, one reviewer for The Washington Post said, "Throughout his career Wilbur has shown, within the compass of his classicism, enviable variety. His poems describe fountains and fire trucks, grasshoppers and toads, European cities and country pleasures. All of them are easy to read, while being suffused with an astonishing verbal music and a compacted thoughtfulness that invite sustained reflection."
Among his honors are the Wallace Stevens Award, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Frost Medal, the Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two Bollingen Prizes, the T. S. Eliot Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Ford Foundation Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, the National Arts Club medal of honor for literature, two PEN translation awards, the Prix de Rome Fellowship, and the Shelley Memorial Award. He was elected a chevalier of the Ordre des Palmes Académiques and is a former poet laureate of the United States.
Wilbur served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1961 to 1995. He died on October 15, 2017, in Belmont, Massachusetts.