Tuesday 5 July 2016

Wilbur's Toad

Not long ago, I posted a late poem by Philip Larkin that was occasioned by accidentally killing a hedgehog while mowing the lawn. Now I find that something similar happened to Richard Wilbur too. This time the hapless victim of the power mower was a toad, memorialised in a poem by Wilbur that manages to be at once acutely observant, genuinely touching and slightly absurd in its formal mock-heroic tone...


       A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
   To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
   Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
      Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
          Low, and a final glade.

       The rare original heartsblood goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
    In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
    As still as if he would return to stone,
        And soundlessly attending, dies
           Toward some deep monotone,

       Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies.
    Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
    In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
        To watch, across the castrate lawn,
            The haggard daylight steer.

 Some fifty years later, a schoolgirl on whose syllabus Death of a Toad had appeared wrote to the poet to find out more about the poem. He responded with a letter of wonderful generosity:

'Dear Penny,

I don't get letters like yours every day, and I wish I did. It makes me pleasantly dizzy to think of being read by 170,000 teachers for a week. In the long history of exposure, it beats even Gypsy Rose Lee.

Let me see what I can remember about the poem's inception. The poem was first published in Poetry (Chicago) in February of 1948, and that means that it was written during the lawn-mowing months of 1947. We (Charlee and I and our daughter Ellen) were then living in Cambridge, and I, having earned an MA at Harvard, was about to begin a three-year Junior Fellowship there. At some time during the summer, Charlee's cousins, the Tapleys, who lived in Wellesley Hills, invited us to look after their house and grounds while they went off on a vacation jaunt. We were happy to get out of the city, and the house was far bigger and airier than our Plympton Street apartment, and so the sojourn in Wellesley Hills was agreeable to us, even though we felt somewhat oppressed by what we perceived as the tepid gentility of the town.

Most of my poems are made out of accumulated thoughts and feelings and perceptions, and almost never does it happen that I have an experience and then go straight to a chair and write about it. But that's how it happened with "The Death of a Toad." Mowing the Tapley's suburban lawn one day, I mortally injured a toad, and before the day was out I had made that into a poem. Why did that occur? I think it was because I was young, and just out of military service, and spoiling to live, and felt, as I said before, oppressed by the safe, somnolent retirement-village atmosphere of Wellesley Hills; part of me identified, therefore, with the toad, and made me see the toad as representing the primal energies of the Earth, afflicted by the sprawl of our human dominion.

The first two lines of the third stanza are out to associate to toad with those "primal energies" -- and of course there is biological ground for doing so. The words are out to magnify the toad and at the same time to be disarming about that -- to acknowledge by an undertone of humor that I am making a great deal of a very small creature. My tonal ambiguity has worked for some readers but did not work, as I recall, for Randall Jarrell.

The poem has an ad hoc stanza form, created by the way the phrasing wanted to happen. It's scannable as a "loose iambic" poem in the metrical pattern 465543. I think that in '47 I was beginning to enjoy incorporating the six-foot line in some of my made-up stanzas; later I did so in a poem called "Beasts." The six-footer being very often a slow and awkward measure, it's a challenge to use it effectively, and in support of one's meaning.

Whether my toad actually took refuge under a cineraria or not, I can't say; but it had the right shape and shade of leaf for my poem. I recall, for some reason, that the first stanza originally ended "in a dim,/ Low, and an ultimate glade." That sounded too good to me, and I knew why when I remembered Poe's description of Dream-Land as "an ultimate dim Thule." In the first lines of the poem I imagined the declining sun as moving -- so setting suns may appear to do -- along the horizon, and that's what led me to use the verb "steer," which has given trouble to a number of my readers. Quite reasonably, some have seen in that word not a verb meaning "to pursue a course" but a noun meaning "a castrated animal." It's led me to consider, more than once, replacing "steer" with "veer."

Does that give you what you were after? Thank you for the news of Barbara and of the tearing-up of our lane in Key West, and our very best wishes to you,


 In the wake of Geoffrey Hill's death, it is deeply comforting to reflect that we still have a poet - and man - of Wilbur's calibre alive among us.


  1. It's interesting that he remembers Randall Jarrell's caveat about the poem fifty or so years later. RJ quotes the beginning of the first stanza and says, '...you stop to shudder at the raw being of the world, at all that a hobbling hop has brought to life-- that toad is real, all right. But when you read on, when Mr. Wilbur says the toad dies/Toward some deep monotone,/Toward misted and ebullient seas/And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies," you think with a surge of irritation and dismay, "So it was all only an excuse for some Poetry."'(Capital 'P' in the original). Jarrell didn't catch the 'undertone of humor,' I guess, and I confess I didn't either, but I like this excellent poem better knowing it's there.

  2. Thanks Jeff. Jarrell really had a problem with Wilbur (most of the time), as did many others, and I think here he did misread the tone. I also think the mock-heroic note actually makes the demise of the toad more moving. Who knows what a toad 'dies toward', what toadish grandeur is in his death? I wonder also if somewhere in the recesses of Wilbur's mind were Kenneth Grahame's Mr Toad and the Ode to an Expiring Frog in Pickwick?