Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

If the plight of humankind is equated with the toad’s, then the picture painted by the poem’s episode is that human beings are mere victims of a machinery of their own making, symbolically enlarged to all of human technology in the image of the power mower. This is coupled with the idea that the human spirit hopes for a spiritual existence beyond the physical world that assumes various and ambiguous forms—in the poem as a nothingness (“some deep monotone”), a perfect heaven (“ebullient seas/ And cooling shores”), or a grand and opulent reward (“emperies”).

Yet, unfortunately, these forms are undermined by a depressing and bereft world—bereft, perhaps, of certain knowledges, such as the watching of the toad, that one has lost or looks upon without seeing. The toad is also emblematic of all of nature—from the beginning of time—because it is described as “antique” and “original” and having an “earthen hide.” The loss of humans’ sense of primal energy and their connection to nature is reflected not only in the toad’s eyes but also in the poet’s awareness that they merely “appear to watch.” Thus, the toad is at once a metaphor for humankind and nature, irrevocably linking the two. Representative of vibrant, vital, and primal nature, the toad also stands for humankind unwaryingly mowed down by its own technology. It is this very dichotomy and ambiguity—toad as human and toad as nonhuman—that reverberates such a richness of meaning in the poem. If this symbolic and paradoxical connection is made, the poem can be viewed as commenting not only on distanced, impersonal, abstracted death but also on one’s own death or distancing from humanity’s primal roots and perceived “mastery” of nature through destructive and alienating technological advances.

The poem is sad, haunting, and multifarious in meaning. It raises complicated questions, provides no answers, and seems to comment disconsolately on this melancholic state of things in which humans and the toad are unseeing. The perspective of the poet who records and ultimately “sees” is not a hopeful one but is, on the contrary, despairingly morose, with the poem punctuating its finality with the vision of a “castrate” nature and the death-dealing scene of day “drowning.” The toad, it seems, mirrors humankind’s demise, from its own powerful and “rare” nature.