The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 551 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bixler, Frances. Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

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.