The Poem

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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 that forms the second question, Wilbur paints a picture of the answer. The setting in which the woman is posed is geared to enhance the dreamlike quality of the experience. Each element of decor suggests a romanticized notion of feminine sexuality—the scatter of furs and pillows on the floor, the raised goblet, the rose in a crystal vase, the vermilion tablecloth.

The second question runs for three stanzas, attempting to suggest an answer to the first question by elaborating on the luxuriant setting. The description emphasizes the opulence of the surroundings, even speaking of a tablecloth as being such rich fare that a moth would shrivel if it tried to eat the cloth. Is the setting, therefore, that which so captivates the attention of the stock-boy?

Wilbur concludes stanza 5 with the one-line question, “Or is he pondering her perfect breasts?” Such a closure at this point balances the three-stanza sentence that precedes it. Wilbur’s economy of language serves to emphasize the corporal fixation that the stock-boy encounters. The placement of this question as the last elevates it, in the rhetorical argument of the poem, to the highest level of importance.

With the exception of the woman’s pose—her physical placement relative to her world—Wilbur’s description of the woman never becomes specific. Although he describes with great detail the room in which she is placed, he does not give the reader any sense of her as an individual. Such details as hair color, for example, are entirely absent. The reader only learns that she is a smiling nude. The reader therefore participates in the same kind of stereotyping that subjugates the stock-boy. He knows nothing of this woman as a person; indeed, in the past, such magazines carried very little information about their nude models.

The last two stanzas go beyond the stock-boy’s fantasies to...

(This entire section contains 734 words.)

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comment on the nature of art itself to transform perceptions. Although the stock-boy certainly stares at the woman’s body, allowing the setting itself to draw him into her realm, her face holds the key to his problem as well as to the key to this poem. From the point of view of the stock-boy, the photograph captures her face just as the woman is on the verge of yielding to his desires, his “inexorable will.” This woman, whom he has never seen, now accepts him, according to his trust in a still picture published in a magazine that thousands of other men buy. This playboy can only succeed in the realm of the imagination, with women he cannot possibly possess in real life.

Forms and Devices

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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 of the young man. As the youth feeds himself, his left hand brings the sandwich to his mouth “like a mother-bird in flight.” Such a comparison underscores the stock-boy’s lack of maturity. He is, in effect, still a child needing the care of his parents, or at the very least, a male mentor who can instruct him in the ways of the heart. Likewise, by comparing the stock-boy to a dunce as he sits on a stool eating, Wilbur portrays him as being so enrapt with the pictures that he feeds himself without looking at the sandwich. Although the stock-boy has the fixed concentration of a sage, he sits like a dunce.

The one clue to the woman’s identity emerges through Wilbur’s use of the rose as a metaphor. While picturing her in static poses, within the context of an unbelievable boudoir, she lifts a goblet using the hand most distant from the observer. She seems to toast “an exploding rose.” Wilbur compares the still, controlled sensuality of the created setting to the possibilities that make up this woman’s true self.


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