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Richard Wilbur

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English Literature

With wit, charm, and restraint, Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) is one of the most highly-decorated and widely-read American poets of the 20th century. Known for his amusing verse that conceals heavier topics, Wilbur was a defining voice in American poetry throughout his storied career. His legacy is rife with accomplishments, including the position of Poet Laureate of the United States, multiple Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, and the Guggenheim Fellowship. Richard Wilbur's death at the age of 96 was the end of decades of fruitful poetry-writing that went against the grain of what was popular at the time.

Richard Wilbur Biography

Richard Wilbur was born March 1, 1921 in New York City. Soon after, his family relocated to North Caldwell, New Jersey. In the rural town where he grew up, Richard was involved in writing his school’s newspaper. His father, Lawrence, was a portrait painter, and his mother, Helen, was from a family of journalists.

Following in the footsteps of his maternal family, upon his high school graduation, Wilbur attended Amherst College where he continued to work on the school newspaper. He graduated with his undergraduate degree in literature and subsequently joined the army. Wilbur meant to serve as a cryptographer, but he was instead enrolled as an infantryman.

Wilbur served in World War II in various parts of France and Germany; by the end of the war, he was a staff sergeant. His time serving in World War II would drastically change his worldview and push him to his career as a poet.

 Richard Wilbur, Portrait of Richard Wilbur, StudySmarterA Portrait of Richard Wilbur, wikimedia

Following the end of World War II, Wilbur returned to the United States and enrolled to study for his M.A. in Literature at Harvard University. While at Harvard, Wilbur befriended fellow American poet Robert Frost, who would serve as an important influence on Wilbur’s career. Following his Harvard graduation, Wilbur began to teach English at Wellesley College. Shortly after the war, he published his first poetry collection: The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947).

After a few years of teaching at Wellesly, Wilbur began to teach at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He would spend the majority of his professorial career at Wesleyan, where he was a driving force behind the University’s poetry publication.

Wilbur continued to publish poetry collections as well as literary translations; his best-known and most highly-regarded is his translation of Tartuffe, the play originally in French by Moliere in 1664 and translated into English by Wilbur in 1963. He also wrote lyrics with Broadway music superstar Leonard Bernstein, and he published his own children’s books.

Despite publishing many poetry collections throughout his lifetime and winning accolades and poetry statuses such as the Poet Laureate, Wilbur was often not highly-regarded by his peers. His formalistic, witty poetry was often compared negatively to the prevailing poems of the time in the trend of confessional poetry. Wilbur was not deterred and continued to publish poetry in his style into his 80s.

Confessional poetry was a poetic movement of the 20th-century with poets such as Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell that emphasized poetry using colloquial language and drawing from personal experiences, often related to psychological breakdowns or mental illness.

Richard Wilbur's death

In 2017, at the age of 96, Richard Wilbur passed away. He was survived by his children, one daughter and three sons, whom he had with his wife, Mary Charlotte Hayes Ward. They met in college while Wilbur studied at Amherst, and they were married after graduation. His wife passed away in 2007.

Richard Wilbur’s Accomplishments

Throughout his lifetime, Wilbur received numerous awards and accolades for his poetic accomplishments. Following the publication of his first two poetry collections, Wilbur was awarded his first Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952. In 1956, Wilbur published Things of This World: Poems, which won both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award in 1957. He would go on to receive a second Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1989 for his collection New and Collected Poems (1988).

His work in musical theatre and lyric writing for the operetta Candide (1956) won him Best Musical from the Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critics in 1974. Wilbur served as the second United States Poet Laureate from 1987 to 1988. His translation work also garnered Wilbur many accolades, including the 1983 Drama Desk Special Award and the 1994 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation.

Richard Wilbur’s Writing Style

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wilbur’s poems were formalistic. He utilized a set meter and rhyme scheme to formulate his poetry. His phrases mimic musical phrases, and his poems are notable for both their auditory and visual impact. When reading a Wilbur poem out loud, his use of meter, rhyme, and phrasing lends it the musical quality for which he is praised. Similarly, Wilbur’s precise use of language conveys sharp images to the reader.

Wilbur is often characterized as the predecessor to the New Formalist poetry movement in America of the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

The New Formalist, or Neo-formalism movement in American poetry was a return to metrical, rhymed poetry by American poets as an attempt to solidify that American poetry is worthy of praise and study as novels were.

New Formalist poetry is characterized by the use of strict rhyme schemes, formal meter, and narrative poetic subjects. It was also seen as a reaction to the free-verse Modernist and Confessional movements in the poetry of the 20th-century.

Modernist and Confessional poetry was often intensely personal in nature and written in a free-verse form, by contrast Neo-formalist poetry was strictly rhymed and metered and concerned itself with subjects about the broader nature of humanity and life.

In addition to using meter and rhyme scheme, Wilbur’s poetry is characterized by his witticisms. He often employed careful wordplay and executed puns and paradoxes throughout his poems. His poetry was concerned with the real experiences and images of everyday life. Take, for example, this excerpted stanza from his poem "Advice to a Prophet" (1961):

Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose

Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding

Whether there shall be lofty or long standing

When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.” (33-36)

These lines exemplify Richard Wilbur’s poetry: they are metered with a set rhyme scheme of ABBA and utilize his gift for powerful descriptive imagery. Despite the horrors he witnessed in the war, Wilbur, and his poetry, remained stubbornly optimistic. He believed in the innate goodness of creatures and articulated these beliefs through his poetry.

Poems by Richard Wilbur

Wilbur began his first foray into poetry as a child, where he was published at just eight years old in the magazine John Martin’s Book in 1929, the poem was entitled "Puppies" (1929). His first professionally published poetry collection as an adult was The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems in 1947. Many of the poems of this collection sprung out as a result of Wilbur’s experiences as an infantryman in World War II. In 1950, he published his second collection Ceremony and Other Poems.

Wilbur’s third collection became one of his most awarded. Published in 1956, Things of This World is a quintessentially-Wilbur collection of his witty, tense poetry. Wilbur followed it up with three more poetry collections published between 1961 and 1976 until his 1988 collection New and Other Poems which would go on to receive Wilbur’s second Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. As he grew older, Wilbur continued to publish poetry, and his last collection, Anterooms, was published in 2010.

Check out Wilbur's "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra" (2004). What characteristic rhyme scheme and meter does Wilbur employ? What does this poem say about his outlook on life?

Books by Richard Wilbur

In addition to his poetry, Wilbur published two books of original prose. Both are collections of multiple pieces of his prose writing spanning many years. The first was Responses: Prose Pieces 1953-1976 (1976) and the second The Catbird’s Song: Prose Pieces 1963-1995 (1997).

Wilbur’s prose is unique in that it is composed of lectures, interviews, letters, and reviews written by Wilbur that he collected and edited to be published. His prose was often characterized as literary criticism, in that he analyzes, interprets, and comments on other poets and poems as well as his own.

In addition to these works of prose, Wilbur also wrote children’s books. His use of rhyme scheme and form lent itself greatly to writing silly, witty books for kids, including Loudmouse (1963), Runaway Opposites (1995), and Opposites, more opposites, and a few differences (2000).

Translations by Richard Wilbur

In addition to his original prose and poetry, Wilbur also translated many famous works of French literature into English. His translation of the theatrical comedy Tartuffe (1664) by Moliére remains the most widely-accepted English-language version of the play. Moliére was a frequent muse of Wilbur’s translations, as he translated many of Moliére’s plays into English. In addition to Moliére, Wilbur translated plays such as Phaedra (1677) by Jean Racine and Le Cid (1636) by Pierre Corneille into English. He also translated some of Voltaire’s writings.

 Richard Wilbur, Portrait of Moliere, StudySmarterA Painted portrait of Moliére, wikimedia

Richard Wilbur Quotes

One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.” 1

This quote comes from Wilbur after his experiences in World War II. It elucidates his motivations when he began writing poetry after this experience, as much of his early poetry was directly concerned with order and shape. Wilbur’s poetry was his way of organizing the world around him that had, as a result of his experiences in the War, been turned inside out.

A thrush, because I'd been wrong,

Burst rightly into song

In a world not vague, not lonely,

Not governed by me only.”

This is Wilbur’s poem in full. It clearly shows his use of rhyme scheme and meter. He employs a rhyme scheme of AABB and a formalistic meter emphasizing the second syllable. Additionally, it showcases Wilbur’s wit and playfulness in his poetry in this poem poking fun at himself for his misidentification, and his broader conclusion about the self-sufficiency and independence of nature.

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 Richard Wilbur, Field of wildflowers, StudySmarterA field of wildflowers ready to be identified, pixabay

Richard Wilbur - Key Takeaways

  • Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) was an American poet, author, and translator.
  • Wilbur grew up in New Jersey and was involved in journalistic pursuits in high school and college; he served in World War II and would later note that his time in the war and the atrocities he witnessed had a profound effect on his poetry.
  • Wilbur's poetic style was a return to formal structure; he utilized rhyme schemes, strict meter, and his musical phrasing to craft witty, insightful poems.
  • In addition to his numerous poetry collections, Wilbur also published books of prose and many translations from French into English, most notably, works by French playwright Moliere.
  • Wilbur's poetry is characterized by its formal structure and its playful nature, showcasing Wilbur's expert use of language and imagery.

1. 'Richard Wilbur,' Poetry Foundation, 2017.

2. Richard Wilbur, 'Advice to a Prophet,' 1969.

Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur is known for his poetry that was written throughout his lifetime. He is a notable poet for his use of strict form and meter, when it was unpopular with his contemporaries, and his extreme mastery of language. His poems are notable for their wit, whimsy, and powerful images.

Richard Wilbur’s last collection of poetry was published in his eighties. He did not publish much poetry in his nineties, though it is still possible that he wrote it for his own personal pleasure.

Richard Wilbur is often associated with Formalist poets, as he used rhyme schemes and meter in his poems. His poetry was witty and whimsical, though it often dealt with deeper themes. He is considered an expert of diction and paradox.

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) was an American poet, essayist, and translator. He is known for his numerous poetry collections as well as his extensive translation work. He also wrote lyrics for musicals in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein.

Richard Wilbur died in 2017. He was 96 and survived by his children and grandchildren.

Final Richard Wilbur Quiz

Question

Who was Richard Wilbur?

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Answer

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) was an American poet, author, and translator. He wrote many poems and published poetry collections throughout his career in addition to writing literary criticism, children's books, and translating French plays.

Show question

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In what war did Richard Wilbur serve?

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Answer

World War I

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In addition to his writing, what was Wilbur's primary profession?

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Answer

Richard Wilbur taught English and writing at universities. He spent the majority of his professorial career at Wellesley College in the United States

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During the years 1987-1988, what prestigious position did Wilbur hold?

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Answer

Poet Laureate of the United States

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Richard Wilbur's translations were of plays from what language into what language?

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Answer

English to French

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What was Wilbur's writing style?

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Answer

Richard Wilbur wrote poetry that was metered and used a set rhyme scheme. He is known for his witty use of language and his mastery of the structured poetic form.

Show question

Question

What was Richard Wilbur known for?


Show answer

Answer

Richard Wilbur is known for his poetry, written across the span of his lifetime. He is a notable poet for his use of strict form and meter when it was unpopular with his contemporaries and his extreme mastery of language. His poems are notable for their wit, whimsy, and powerful images.

Show question

Question

Did Richard Wilbur write much poetry in his nineties?


Show answer

Answer

Wilbur’s last collection of poetry was published in his eighties. He did not publish much poetry in his nineties, though it is still possible that he wrote it for his own personal pleasure.

Show question

Question

What kind of poet was Richard Wilbur?


Show answer

Answer

Richard Wilbur is often associated with Formalist poets, as he used rhyme schemes and meter in his poems. His poetry was witty and whimsical, though it often dealt with deeper themes. He is considered an expert of diction and paradox.

Show question

Question

When did Richard Wilbur die?


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Richard Wilbur died in 2017. He was 96 and survived by his children and grandchildren.

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Question

What is "The Death of a Toad?"

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"The Death of a Toad" (1948) is a poem written by American poet Richard Wilbur. The poem tells the story of a toad's untimely death as a metaphor for the impact of humanity on nature.

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Who wrote "The Death of a Toad?"

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Answer

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017), American poet, author, and translator, wrote "The Death of a Toad." It was originally published in Poetry magazine in 1948 and later included in a collection of Wilbur's poetry.

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What literary devices are used in "The Death of a Toad?"

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Throughout the poem, Wilbur utilizes a set rhyme scheme, personification, and symbolism. Each of these themes aids in Wilbur's ultimate message about the destruction of nature thanks to human impact.

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What part of the toad's body does the power mower 'clip?'

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The toad's head

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Which rhyme scheme does Wilbur employ in the poem?

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AABBCC

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What is the meaning of "The Death of a Toad?"

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"The Death of a Toad" is a short poem by Richard Wilbur. In it, Wilbur expresses his disappointment at the mistreatment of nature at human hands. The central symbol of a toad being killed by a power mower is used to show the destruction wreaked upon nature by indifferent humans.

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What happens in "The Death of a Toad?"


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In "The Death of a Toad," a toad is ‘clipped’ by a power mower and bleeds out to its death at the edge of a garden. In death, the toad can return to the peace and exuberance of the sea and the vestiges of the once-great amphibian empire.

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What is the tone of "The Death of a Toad?"


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In "The Death of a Toad", Wilbur adopts a musical, metered tone that conveys the plight of the toad. He uses descriptive language to explain the toad’s experience as well as the underlying meaning. His tone valorizes the natural beauty of nature and condemns the actions of men.

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When was "The Death of a Toad" published?


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"The Death of a Toad" was originally published in 1948 in Poetry magazine, volume 71 number 5. It was later published in 1997 in a collection of Richard Wilbur’s poetry.

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What type of poem is "The Death of a Toad"?


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"The Death of a Toad" is a whimsical, metered poem by Richard Wilbur. It has a central metaphor of a toad being killed by a power mower that stands in for the struggle of nature against the destruction of indifferent man. It is divided into three stanzas each composed of a sestet.

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What is 'A Barred Owl?'

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'A Barred Owl' is a poem by American poet Richard Wilbur. It ruminates on the power of language and its ability to both inspire and assuage fear.

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Who wrote 'A Barred Owl?'

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Richard Wilbur, American poet, author, and translator, wrote 'A Barred Owl." The poem was originally published as part of his collection Mayflies: New Poems and Translations in 1991. 

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What perspective is used in 'A Barred Owl?'

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Second-person

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What rhyme scheme is used in 'A Barred Owl?'

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ABABCC

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What does Wilbur refer to as being 'domesticated' in the poem?

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The owl

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What literary devices are used in ‘The Barred Owl?’


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Wilbur utilizes the literary devices of juxtaposition, personification, rhyme scheme, and diction throughout the poem. Each of these devices serve to underscore Wilbur’s ultimate message and the emotional impact of the poem.

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What is the tone of ‘A Barred Owl?’


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The tone that Richard Wilbur adopts in ‘A Barred Owl’ is informative, and cautionary. He writes in a first-person narrative that includes the reader in the action by referring to the action as done by ‘we.’ He explains his hypothesis about the power of language in an informative way, using the experience of the girl and her parents as an example. His ending, using the reality of nature and the instinctive viciousness of the owl, however, lends a cautionary tone to the entirety of the poem about the possibility to misuse language’s power.

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What is ‘A Barred Owl’ poem about?


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‘A Barred Owl’ is about a girl who is frightened during the night bythe sound of an owl outside of her room. Her parents assure her that the owl is just asking an innocent question, and, her fears assuaged, the girl sleeps soundly. Wilbur notes, however, that the reality of the owl is quite different, and that if the girl was aware of the natural instincts of the owl, she would likely be even more frightened.

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What is the meaning of the poem ‘A Barred Owl?’


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The meaning of ‘A Barred Owl’ has to do with the power and use (or misuse, perhaps) of language. Wilbur exemplifies how language can be used to both give voice to and to silence fears. At the same time, it can be used to sugarcoat reality in a way that may be harmful down the line.

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When was ‘A Barred Owl’ written?


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‘A Barred Owl’ was published in 1991. It was a part of the collection Mayflies: New Poems and Translations by Richard Wilbur.

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Who wrote "The Juggler" (1949)?

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American poet Richard Wilbur wrote "The Juggler" in 1949. It was originally published in The New Yorker magazine. 

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What is the metaphor in "The Juggler"?

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The central metaphor of "The Juggler" surrounds the titular juggler. The juggler is a metaphor for the sense of wonder and passion in life that is often lost to the routine and mundanities of people's day-to-day.

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What colors does Wilbur use to describe the juggler and his juggling balls, respectively?

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Red juggler and sky-blue juggling balls

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What themes does Wilbur explore in "The Juggler"?

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Throughout the poem, Wilbur explores themes of religious faith through a metaphor in which the juggler is a stand-in for God. Additionally, he explores the changes that occur in life surrounding passion and excitement. He details how people's lives feel mundane as they lose their passion and enjoyment for life.

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What is the rhyme scheme in "The Juggler"?

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ABCABC

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What is the poem "The Juggler" by Richard Wilbur about?

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The poem "The Juggler" is about the way life can lose its wonderment and excitement as things once enjoyable become mundane and routine. This routine outlook on life is challenged by the exciting performance of a juggler that rouses the passions and sense of wonder that lay buried in the audience stuck in the day-to-day drudgery. 

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What does the last stanza of "The Juggler" mean?


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The last stanza of the juggler reinforces the poem’s meaning. Even after the performance is over, even if the juggler is fatigued and his tools gather dust, the people who witnessed his performance still feel its lightening effects. The juggler has “won for once over the world’s weight” (30), meaning that he has conquered the drudgery and mundanity inherent to daily life.

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What is the meaning of "The Juggler"?


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"The Juggler" by Richard Wilbur is a poem that examines the way the passion and excitement of life can turn to mundane drudgery. The juggler is used as a metaphor to show how the passion and excitement of life can be reignited and sustained—the wonderment is not inherently gone. The juggler’s performance exemplifies this sense of excitement that was lost.

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What is the tone of "The Juggler"?


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The tone of the juggler is light-hearted and descriptive. Wilbur utilizes clear imagery throughout the poem to emphasize the nature of the juggler. He uses playful word choice throughout the poem to emphasize the light-hearted tone, employing a sense of wonderment himself in order to drive home the meaning.

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How is the juggler described in the poem "The Juggler"?


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In "The Juggler", the titular juggler is described as “sky-blue” (6) manipulating his “five red balls” (6). The juggler is a master of his craft, he is likened to God in that he controls the balls that he juggles like planets orbiting a heaven of his own creation. His talent inspires wonder and awe in his jaded audience.

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