The Poem

Richard Wilbur’s “Playboy” consists of seven quatrains written in iambic pentameter. The first and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme, as do the second and third, constituting an abba pattern with differing sounds occurring in each stanza. Thus, while the rhyme pulls the poem through its dramatic stages, the sounds themselves do not repeat from one stanza to the next. Through the use of rhyme, each stanza illustrates the self-absorbed young man who is the focus of the poem, as well as the claustrophobic nature of his world.

The poem opens with a reference to the young “stock-boy,” sitting high above the floor on a ladder, perusing the glossy page of a magazine which features pictures of scantily clad women posed in sexually charged settings. The title of the poem itself suggests one such magazine, popular around the time this poem was written. The reader realizes that the title, therefore, is ironic, as the poem centers on a young man who longs for a woman he cannot have, a woman he encounters in the magazine’s pages. Wilbur does not reveal the stock-boy’s age, suggesting his youth and inexperience by never referring to him as a man. Wilbur is not describing, therefore, the sensual response of a mature man. Instead, Wilbur seems to have fun at the stock-boy’s expense.

The poem proceeds to answer three questions the poet addresses to the reader, as if poet and reader were quietly eavesdropping, observing the scene unbeknownst to the stock-boy. Indeed, the tone of the poem suggests an awareness that the reader and the poet share, but which escapes the stock-boy. With the first question, Wilbur asks, “What so engrosses him?” Specifically, he wonders what so captivates the stock-boy that he is oblivious to his own surroundings. In lush description...

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Forms and Devices

Wilbur’s poetry develops its rhetorical argument through the use of formal stylistics. This poem consists of seven quatrains, using rhyme that does not interlock from stanza to stanza. The effect of such independent rhyme is to heighten the questioning stance that describes the stock-boy. The iambic pentameter works to provide a conversational meter, as if the poet were conspiring over the stock-boy’s predicament.

Other devices of sound also play a part in elucidating the sense of this poem. In the first three stanzas, for example, consonantal sounds predominate. In the first stanza, there are s sounds; in the second, f, and in the third, p. The fourth stanza, however, takes on a softer sound as if to heighten the dreamlike quality of the description. In that stanza, o sounds move the ear and eye to the fifth stanza, which carries a sounds through the sixth stanza, culminating in o sounds in the final stanza.

Wilbur frequently utilizes classical allusions in his poetry, and this poem is no exception. In the first stanza, the stock-boy is “As lost in curves as Archimedes once.” Wilbur’s elegance and subtlety can detract a reader from the very dry, often bawdy, wit that some of his poems express. For example, Archimedes invented a tubular helix, or screw. The stock-boy is lost in thought over a different kind of curve.

Through the simile, Wilbur illustrates the naïveté...

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(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.