Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536
Richard Wilbur’s “The Death of a Toad” hauntingly depicts the demise of a toad “caught” and “clipped” by a power mower in a garden accident. The incident was apparently witnessed by Wilbur, who responded in verse—enlarging the event to metaphoric and symbolic proportions reflecting the poet’s concerns with a metaphysical reality beyond material existence; with the nature and meaning of death; and with the extinction of primal forces by an inevitable, unstoppable, and impersonal technology. The poem is composed of three stanzas, each with six lines of varying lengths, visually and metrically balanced to one another. The form and balance of the stanzas create a visual and formal precision, a sort of metrical “cage” in ironic counterpoint to the disturbing portrayal of the toad’s last moments on earth.
The first stanza of the poem relates the mutilating event and the subsequent “hobbling hop” that the toad manages in an attempt to find a suitable and serene place to die. Wilbur utilizes inverted word order in the opening line (“A toad the power mower caught”) and a series of directional prepositional phrases so that the reader visually and emotionally follows the toad to “a final glade.” The second and pivotal stanza focuses on the actual death of the creature and frighteningly mirrors it (an image repeated in the last stanza) in the toad’s “banked and staring” eyes. This stanza underscores the absolute finality and impersonality of death.
Stanza 2 also ends in an uncompleted thought, a prepositional phrase punctuated with a comma—joining it irrevocably with the last stanza, which portrays the dead toad and its “attending” to something beyond itself. The repetition of the preposition “toward” in both the second and the last stanzas arrests the reader’s attention, forcing the reader to consider various possibilities or realities beyond the material—and now lifeless—form of the “antique” toad.
The final stanza then couples these possibilities with a depressing and ironic image of the dying day reflected in the toad’s still reflecting—but unperceiving—eyes. It is in the final stanza that the image of a cold, relentless, impersonal technology (the “power mower” of the poem’s first line) is reiterated and juxtaposed with an irrelevant nature that has become “castrate” and “haggard” as reflected in the toad’s eyes, “which still appear to watch.” This last clause is an indication of the powerful wordplay Wilbur customarily includes in his poems: The word “still” means both “continually” and “silent,” which also underscores the dual meaning of “appear”—a word appealing to one’s sense of sight, which also means “seems.” The double entendre prevails with the final word of line 17: “watch.” The toad looks or seems to “watch.” The question is implied: What is he watching?
This quietly terrifying poem not only examines death but also questions one’s presumptions about its meaning. Lost is the grandeur, even the pathos, of this creature’s death because the event is bathed in the irony of accident and of bearing witness to a life force it can no longer perceive or enjoy. In addition, its future is almost trivialized—and along with it humankind’s future—because of a machine’s barbaric indiscretion.
Forms and Devices
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551
Wilbur’s poetry is universally recognized and honored for its skill, sophistication, wit, formality, elegance, control, expertise, and impersonal and artful style. Wilbur is viewed as a poet who eschews social and political commentary, choosing to remain impersonal, refusing to put self-confession at the center of his poems and instead emphasizing skilled craftmanship and formal patterns of verse. In an interview, Wilbur registered his doubts about free verse as a stylistic form, claiming it “loses all sorts of opportunities for power, emphasis, and precision—especially rhythmic precision” and that “forms and meters” are not limiting (as modernist poets might argue) but challenging to the “good poet” and clearly “undated and indeed timeless.”
“The Death of a Toad” is highly stylized and visually precise, with symmetrical stanzas that employ such elegant constructions as inverted word order and a preponderance of prepositional phrases that create an intensity and complexity of visual and emotional effect:
To the garden verge, and sanctuaried himUnder the cineraria leaves, in the shade Of the ashen heartshaped leaves, in a dim, Low, and a final glade.
The effects of these prepositional phrases are varied, creating linguistic and thematic emphases while also providing a rhythmic reinforcement. This sound and thematic complexity is also complemented by the use of the present tense for the toad (“He liesdies”; “the heartsblood goesflows”), which creates an intense immediacy. The reader not only experiences the death of the toad but also watches it watching its own death: “In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear/ To watch.” The ultimate power of the final stanza is that all this watching suggests a universal significance for the human poet left behind. The toad reflects a paradoxical “unseeing,” a representative of a seemingly sighted but in reality “blind” human population that has lost the ability to truly see nature, its primal energy, and humankind’s own connection to it.
The poem also utilizes powerful sound devices, such as alliteration, in “caught,/ Chewed and clipped,” “hobbling hop,” “stillstone,/ And soundlessly,” and in the powerful concluding stanza’s “Day dwindles, drowning.” The rhyme scheme employed is aabcbc throughout, and an intricate combination of iambic, trochaic, and anapestic metrical construction echoes the visual symmetry of each stanza.
The poet’s diction underscores the poem’s careful and masterful planning—words such as “cineraria,” “heartsblood,” and “Amphibia’s emperies” elevate the toad’s predicament. Two examples of disturbing diction occur in the second and third stanzas and highlight the perplexing and paradoxical nature of the poem, which plunges the reader into—as has been described as a quality of Wilbur’s poems—“a sort of paralyzing terror just below the surface.” As the blood flows into the “folds and wizeningsIn the gutters of the banked and staring eyes,” the raw nature of the toad is evoked, and his life force and simultaneous antiquity, linking him to primordial nature and earth, are strikingly perceived. And in the final stanza, nature mutates (as reflected in the toad’s eyes) into a terrible opposite of itself with the peculiar adjectival choices of “castrate” (describing the lawn) and “haggard” (describing the daylight).
This sampling of the forms and devices of “The Death of a Toad” are indicative of its complexity and high artistry. Another device, Wilbur’s use of metaphor, is inextricably tied to theme.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 101
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Hougen, John B. Ecstasy Within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.
Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.
Reibetang, John. “What Love Sees: Poetry and Vision in Richard Wilbur.” Modern Poetry Studies 11 (1982): 60-85.
Salinger, Wendy, ed. Richard Wilbur’s Creation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Stitt, Peter. The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.