The Death of a Toad

What can the vivid description of a toad’s death-by-lawnmower say about the world? In the hands of American poet Richard Wilbur, this subject conveys much more than the sad demise of an amphibian. Through the use of literary devices, such as personification, symbolism, and a strict rhyme scheme and form, Wilbur, in The Death of a Toad (1948), is able to extrapolate a broader view of human society.

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    Richard Wilbur’s The Death of a Toad

    The Death of a Toad (1948) is a poem by American poet Richard Wilbur. It was originally published in Poetry magazine in 1948. It was later included in a collection of Wilbur’s poetry. Wilbur was a highly-lauded American poet, and this poem exemplifies the skills that made him famous: his wit, mastery of form, and relevant subject matter.

    Wilbur served in the United States Army during World War II (19391945). The atrocities he witnessed during the war had a profound effect on his outlook on life and his poetry. These experiences would contribute to the core tenets of his poetry, as seen in The Death of a Toad—the triumph of good over evil and the inherent beauty and value of the natural world.

    The Death of a Toad at a glance

    PoemThe Death of a Toad
    AuthorRichard Wilbur
    Rhyme schemeAABCBC
    ToneWilbur employs a musical tone that adheres to the poems strict meter. He utilizes descriptive language to describe the toads plight while extolling the virtues of nature and condemning the actions of man.
    Literary devicesRhyme scheme, tone, symbolism, personification
    ThemesMan vs. nature, peace in death
    Overall meaningThe poem sheds light on humanitys indifference toward nature and the harm inflicted upon the natural world by humans. This is shown through the death of the toad at the blades of an unfeeling lawnmower.

    Summary of The Death of a Toad

    In a mere three stanzas and eighteen lines, Wilbur is able to pack a punch with this poem. It begins with a striking image: a power mower catching a toad’s leg in its blades and the now-legless toad limping to the periphery of the garden in search of safety. The toad remains at the edge of the garden in order to die, bleeding out amongst the grass and the flowers.

    Wilbur describes the dead toad “as if he would return to stone” (10). In the final stanza, he mentions the “lost” (14) Amphibian empire and the harm done to it by humans. As the day turns into night, the dead toad’s eyes stare out into the garden as the light fades.

    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 Amphibias 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.

    What kind of images does this poem conjure up? How does the imagery contribute to its overall meaning?

    Analysis of The Death of a Toad

    At first glance, this may appear to be a poem about nothing but the sorry plight of one unlucky toad. However, Wilbur embeds a deeper meaning in the description of the toad’s death. He comments on the relationship between humanity and the natural world. The toad symbolizes the innocent victims of humanity’s indifference toward nature. The person steering the power mower has no regard for the destruction it causes. The toad is killed as a result and must die, trapped in the garden that has been tamed and shaped to the will and whims of the homeowner.

    "The Death of a Toad": Themes

    Wilbur has two primary themes that he explores throughout the poem.

    “The Death of a Toad”: Man vs. nature

    Wilbur uses the plight of the toad to exemplify the theme of man vs. nature. The toad lives in its natural environment, which is disrupted and disturbed by man. It is clipped by the power mower and subsequently dies. It is clear that the toad’s death is shaped by the will of man. When the toad, “with a hobbling hop” (2), moves to the periphery of the garden, it is unable to leave the garden and instead dies within its bounds. It cannot even escape dying amongst the natural patterns of nature. The toad’s final moments in the garden are amongst “shade” (4) under the “ashen” (5) cineraria leaves, which paints a grim picture of the effects of human pruning.

    Furthermore, the toad’s dead eyes stare across “the castrate lawn” (17). The use of the word castrate exposes Wilbur’s opinion about the struggle between man and nature. The grass of the lawn has been cut down by the power mower, which Wilbur describes as castration. This portrays the mowing of the grass as something that makes it infertile and impotent. By contrast, the toad’s blood, flowing out of its body as it dies, is “rare original heartsblood” (7), a description that Wilbur imbues with vitality. Everything that the power mower and man’s influence touch—the lawn and the sculpted nature of the garden—is ashen and castrated. The toad and his ancestry, however, were brimming with life.

    “The Death of a Toad”: Peace in death

    Wilbur here also comments on the experience of death. The toad’s death sees its “heartsblood” (7) draining into the ground as if giving another shot at life and vitality to the castrated lawn. In death, the toad returns to “misted and ebullient seas” (13) and “lost Amphibia’s emperies” (14). These descriptions of the place to which the toad goes after its death are not grim or scary. The seas in which the toad would thrive are exuberant, cheerful, and reminiscent of the once-great nature of a toad empire. Whilst the toad’s death could have been avoided if not for man’s attempt to tame nature, in death, it is returned to its glory.

    Literary devices in The Death of a Toad

    Wilbur utilizes multiple different literary devices in order to convey the tone and meaning of the poem "The Death of a Toad."

    “The Death of a Toad”: Rhyme scheme and form

    Wilbur employs a strict rhyme scheme of AABCBC throughout the three sestets of the poem. The structured nature of the rhyme scheme highlights his playful use of vocabulary and his skillful wit. By the second sestet, the reader knows what to expect from the poem’s form, which harkens back to older poetic traditions.

    A sestet is a poem stanza composed of six lines of poetry.

    In using a traditional form of poetry, Wilbur places the plight of the toad on the same level of poetic merit as the heroes of the Romantic or Epic tradition. He elevates the subject matter through his use of the strict form. The toads characterization mimics that of an Epic hero—he is rendered with noble language, and Wilbur alludes to a noble heritage with the toads return in death to Amphibias emperies (12). While The Death of a Toad may not have the length of a traditional epic poem, Wilbur crafts a narrative in which the toad dies a heros death.

    Some other Epic poems and their heroes are Odysseus in Homers The Odyssey (c. 8th century BC), Beowulf in Beowulf (c. 1000), and Gilgamesh in The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100–1200 BC).

    “The Death of a Toad”: Tone

    As in many of his poems, in The Death of a Toad, Wilbur employs a musical tone. Each line feels as though it is read to the rhythm of music. He utilizes descriptive imagery to detail the toads experiences and emphasize the overall meaning with melodic playfulness. However, he contrasts this playful rhythm that paints the toad as a hero with the lawnmower as the villain that ultimately ends the toads life. This contrast between a playful musical tone and the somber end of the toads life condemns the actions of humanity, which creates pain and confusion for the reader. The tone of the poem valorizes the natural beauty of nature and condemns the actions of men.

    “The Death of a Toad”: Symbolism

    The poem rests on a central symbol: the toad and its death symbolize the treatment of nature by humans. The callous attack of the power mower and the subsequent slow bleeding-out of the toad are representative of the harm that humans do to nature. Human indifference caused the suffering of the toad at a micro-level, and at the macro-level, people do much worse to the world—polluting water sources, destroying nature reserves, and releasing harmful gases. The toad in this story is a symbol for all of nature, while the power mower at the hands of one person stands for all of humanity.

    “The Death of a Toad”: Personification

    Wilbur utilizes the poetic technique of personification to have the reader sympathize with the toad.

    Personification is a literary device in which an author ascribes human-like traits to nonhuman objects or beings.

    Just like any creature, the toad seeks dignity in its final moments. His hop is “hobbling” (2), he lies “still” (10) as if turning to stone, and even in his death, his eyes “still appear/to watch” (16-17). Every bit of nature is personified: the day is “drowning” (15), the sea is “ebullient” (13), and the edge of the garden “sanctuaried” (3) the toad. By contrast, the power mower, the unfeeling machinery and executor of death at human hands, is mentioned just once at the beginning and with no extraneous description. By personifying each of these aspects of nature and dismissing the human machinations that seek to destroy it, Wilbur reflects the innate humanity of nature and is able to relate it to the reader.

    The Death of a Toad - Key takeaways

    • The Death of a Toad is a poem originally published in 1948 by American poet Richard Wilbur.
    • With three sestets following an AABCBC rhyme scheme, the poem follows the plight of a toad as it is clipped by a lawnmower and subsequently bleeds to death within the confines of a garden.
    • The poems overall meaning is a mediation on the harm caused to nature at the hands of man and the overall indifference humanity feels toward the natural world.
    • Wilbur utilizes literary devices such as personification, symbolism, and a musical tone to tell the story of the toad and reveal its deeper meaning.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Death of a Toad

    What is the meaning of “The Death of a Toad?”

    “The Death of a Toad” is a short poem by Richard Wilbur, who 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.

    What happens in “The Death of a Toad?”

    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.

    What is the tone of “The Death of a Toad?”

    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.

    When was “The Death of a Toad” written?

    “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.

    What type of poem is “The Death of a Toad?”

    “The Death of a Toad” is a whimsical, metered poem by Richard Wilbur. It has a central symbol of a toad being killed by a power mower that stands 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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