The Poem

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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.

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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

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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...

(The entire section contains 1188 words.)

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