Richard Wilbur Questions and Answers

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What's the theme of Wilbur's "The Juggler"?  What does it say about the human condition?

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Wilbur's "The Juggler" seems to suggest that it is natural for humans to become complacent and take the world around us for granted. It sometimes takes a juggler "to shake our gravity up" (line 7) and to restore a sense of awe, even if only temporarily.

The first stanza of the poem sets up the idea that people take for granted the wonders of the world around them. Wilbur writes, "and the earth falls / So in our hearts from brilliance, / Settles and is forgot" (4-6). These lines imply that we recognize the "brilliance" of the world, but we take it for granted, forget it, and move on. It is not foremost in our minds. However, the "sky-blue juggler" can remind us of heavens and earth through his trickery. Wilbur establishes the tension here between everyday human life and the sense of wonder that only strikes us occasionally. 

The juggler's performance is described as one that uses ordinary objects but implies a control over the universe and its forces at large. For example, in stanza three, Wilbur writes, 

But a heaven is easier made of nothing at all

Than the earth regained, and still and sole within

The spin of worlds, with a gesture sure and noble

He reels the heaven in . . .

Here, Wilbur's imagery and diction emphasize the power of the juggler: he can control "heaven." Later, he is said to "ha[ve] won for once over the world's weight" (30). This is a special moment in which the juggler harnesses the power of the universe and overcomes it; he can use it for his own magical purposes. This creates a sense of awe in those watching, and in those reading. Thus, we are reminded of moments wherein we are "shaken" out of our everyday existences and our attention is drawn to something bigger than ourselves. 

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Like Robert Frost, Wilbur focuses on everyday experiences and domestic chores.  For Wilbur, daily life informs the human condition.  More so than Frost, Wilbur adds the lyricism of comedy in his poetry.

"The Juggler" is whirling dervish comprised of dualities: there are two juggling shows, the five red balls versus three domestic items (the table, broom, and plate).  It's a poem full of cosmoses: it moves from earth to heaven and back to earth again.  He's saying that one need not go to the circus or even look toward heaven to see a juggling show: we are all jugglers of the everyday.

If you ask a juggler how to juggle, he will tell you that you have to start with two balls, then three, and so on.  Once you've mastered balls, you may move on to more complicated items to juggle: rings, bowling pins, knives.  Eventually, though, no matter what goes up must come down.  Wild rides are brief.  So why not a table and plate?  Why not spin a broom on your nose?  Ouch!

Wilbur is saying that we all juggle.  If it's not red balls, then it's cooking and cleaning and picking up the kids and going to school and talking on the phone and doing homework.  It's a wild ride that we take for granted, but it's no less an act that needs applauding.  Sure, we may not dress up and perform on the stage, but we have all made a heaven on earth by shaking up our gravity.  And, boy, is it tiring.

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