The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 734 words.)