The Juggler

Watching a juggler can feel like watching a magic show: the way they manipulate the balls can almost feel as though they defy gravity. In his 1949 poem "The Juggler", poet Richard Wilbur captures the magic of the juggler and uses his performance as a metaphor for life. With themes of change and passion and the vibrant imagery of the juggler, Wilbur challenges the reader to consider their own outlook on life.

The Juggler The Juggler

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Table of contents

    The Juggler by Richard Wilbur

    Poem"The Juggler"
    AuthorRichard Wilbur
    Publication Year1949
    Rhyme SchemeABCBAC
    Literary DevicesAlliteration, metaphor, and imagery
    ThemesPassion and excitement in life, religious hope
    ToneLight-hearted, descriptive tone
    MeaningThe things that people find exciting in life can quickly become mundane and boring; the juggler illustrates how the magic and excitement of life can be brought back

    Wilbur originally published "The Juggler" in a 1949 edition of The New Yorker magazine. Wilbur was an American poet known for his use of meter and rhyme in his poetry as well as his masterful use of vocabulary and wordplay.

    The Juggler Full Poem

    A ball will bounce; but less and less. It's not

    A light-hearted thing, resents its own resilience.

    Falling is what it loves, and the earth falls

    So in our hearts from brilliance,

    Settles and is forgot.

    It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls

    To shake our gravity up. Whee, in the air

    The balls roll around, wheel on his wheeling hands,

    Learning the ways of lightness, alter to spheres

    Grazing his finger ends,

    Cling to their courses there,

    Swinging a small heaven about his ears.

    But a heaven is easier made of nothing at all

    Than the earth regained, and still and sole within

    The spin of worlds, with a gesture sure and noble

    He reels that heaven in,

    Landing it ball by ball,

    And trades it all for a broom, a plate, a table.

    Oh, on his toe the table is turning, the broom's

    Balancing up on his nose, and the plate whirls

    On the tip of the broom! Damn, what a show, we cry:

    The boys stamp, and the girls

    Shriek, and the drum booms

    And all come down, and he bows and says good-bye.

    If the juggler is tired now, if the broom stands

    In the dust again, if the table starts to drop

    Through the daily dark again, and though the plate

    Lies flat on the table top,

    For him we batter our hands

    Who has won for once over the world's weight."

    The Juggler Poem Summary

    'The Juggler' has five stanzas each composed of six lines. It begins with Wilbur describing the plight of a ball, how it is “not a light-hearted thing” (2), and how a falling ball relates to the way we see the Earth. A juggler is introduced, and puts on a show juggling five red balls.

    The narrator likens the juggler’s masterful throws and catches to the creation of “a small heaven about his ears” (12) in which the balls are like planets orbiting around a central sun: the juggler. The juggler continues to exert complete control over the balls and adds other elements to his performance, such as turning a table on his foot while balancing a broom with a plate atop it on his chin.

    The performance ends, the broom and table are lowered, the juggler bows and the performance is over. The audience loved the performance, all in attendance clapped and shrieked during and after the performance. In the end, the image of the still broom, table, and plate is described, the three gathering dust. Despite the items at rest and the juggler’s potential fatigue, the narrator notes that, during the performance, the juggler had “won for once over the world’s weight” (30).

    The Juggler, Juggler in a field, ,StudySmarterA juggler in a plain field, manipulating his juggling balls like a small heaven, pixabay.

    Meaning and Metaphors of The Juggler

    While plausibly a poem describing the skill and playful antics of a juggler, there is a deeper meaning within Wilbur’s lines. He comments more broadly on life and people’s outlooks through the metaphor of the juggler. He makes the point that the things that people love and find brilliant and exciting can quickly become mundane and boring. Life can lose its excitement when exciting things become routine. In the poem, the juggler’s performance challenges that perception.

    In the beginning, the narrator notes that a ball bounces “but less and less” (1) in the sense that after each bounce, the height it reaches grows smaller. The narrator then compares this to the earth falling “in our hearts from brilliance,/settles and is forgot” (4-5). By this, they equate the lessening bounces of the ball with the existence on Earth fading from importance and excitement.

    The appearance of the juggler, however, challenges this complacent view. The juggler’s bright and enthralling performance “has won for once over the world’s weight” (30) in that it has reminded the audience of the existing passion and enjoyment to be had in the world. Additionally, the manipulation of the balls is likened to the creation of a heaven in which the center is the juggler, like God. In this way, it can be read as having a religious undertone.

    The juggler is the central metaphor of the poem on which these interpretive meanings hinge. The juggler is the catalyst for exposing how life can become mundane and boring from exciting and spontaneous. In a religious interpretation, the juggler is a stand-in for God, as it is faith and acceptance of God that injects meaning back into a life that has become dull.

    The Juggler Poem Analysis

    To analyse the poem, let us take a look at the following

    Poetic structure of The Juggler

    The poem follows a strict rhyme scheme throughout. Wilbur employs an ABCBAC structure within the five stanzas. Each of the five stanzas is composed as a sestet. This strict structure lends the poem a formality and predictability that allows Wilbur to exercise lively wordplay within the confines of the rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme and the spirited wordplay work together to emphasize the playful nature of the poem and the light tone that Wilbur adopts throughout.

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

    Tone of The Juggler

    'The Juggler' adopts a light-hearted, descriptive tone throughout the poem. The narrator, presumably a member of the juggler’s audience, celebrates the triumphs and skill of the juggler and appreciates the change in perspective the juggler’s performance grants.

    Abundant imagery adds to the descriptive tone, and the vocabulary choice paints a light-hearted picture of wonderment based on the juggler’s performance: “Learning the ways of lightness” (9), “a gesture sure and noble” (15), “Damn, what a show” (21).

    Alliteration in The Juggler

    Wilbur makes extensive use of alliteration throughout the poem. His use of alliterative language adds to the playful tone and whimsical nature. The ball "resents its own resilience" (2), "cling to their course" (11) as the juggler "swings a small heaven" (12). Additionally, "on his toe the table is turning" (19). Each of these examples of alliteration serves to underscore the playful tone and Wilbur's expert mastery of language.

    Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound at the start of closely linked or connected words.

    Themes in The Juggler

    The themes in the poem include the following

    Passion and excitement in life

    One of the major themes of Wilbur’s poem is the presence of passion and excitement in life. At the beginning of the poem, the narrator describes the way the Earth “falls/so in our hearts from brilliance” (3-4), meaning that it is easy for the exciting parts of life to become dull and uninteresting over time.

    What the poem’s theme focuses on, then, is the way that this excitement and passion can be revitalized. The juggler introduces brightness and joy, reminding the audience once again that entertainment and magic can exist within a world that has become mundane. This theme is exemplified in the ending of the poem when the narrator states that even after the performance, as the objects are at rest and even if the juggler is tired, he “has won for once over the world's weight” (30).

    The Juggler, Applauding audience, StudySmarterAn audience applauding, much like the juggler's audience who 'batter' their hands, pixabay.

    Religious hope

    The poem can also be read as having a religious theme. In the beginning, the narrator describes a world that has fallen away to become dull and meaningless. By contrast, the juggler comes and injects excitement and wonderment into it once again. In the religious theme, the juggler represents God.

    The way that God is known to have created and is in charge of the universe, the juggler wields his juggling balls like “a small heaven about his ears” (12). By painting this picture, Wilbur comments on the invigorating power of religious faith just as the juggler revives the audience. Though they have become disillusioned and weighed down by the repetitive mundanities of life, the introduction to the brilliance and wonderment of God (the juggler) injects passion and excitement. The presence of God is a reminder of the religious hope that exists in life.

    Wilbur himself was a religious individual. He was raised Episcopalian and remained a part of the Church for the majority of his life. His religious views, that faith in God gives meaning and fulfillment to life, can be seen in the religious interpretation of this poem—that God can inject wonder back into a life that has become dull and mundane.

    The Juggler, Five red juggling balls, StudySmarterFive red juggling balls, like those used by the titular juggler, wikimedia

    Imagery in The Juggler

    Wilbur employs strong imagery throughout the poem. The juggler is described as “sky-blue” (6) immediately contrasted with his “five red balls” (6). The vibrancy of the colors worn and utilized by the juggler is juxtaposed with the mundane realities of a world that “falls/so in our hearts from brilliance” (3-4).

    The reaction garnered from the juggler is just as vivid, the “boys stamp” (22) girls “shriek” (23), and “drums boom” (23). The juggler inspires this level of imagery and description from Wilbur as it is precisely the juggler that inspires the same level of passion and excitement in the audience. While after the performance it may return to the “daily dark” (27), the memory and impact of the juggler remain.

    How does the use of vibrant imagery support or reject the central interpretation of the poem? Does the imagery add or detract from Wilbur's message about people's sense of wonderment?

    The Juggler - Key Takeaways

    • 'The Juggler' is a 1949 poem by American poet Richard Wilbur.
    • 'The Juggle' follows an ABCBAC rhyme scheme but has no standardized meter.
    • The poem describes the way that the sense of wonder in life can be lost to routine.
    • The central metaphor of the juggler is used to shake up that narrative and inject excitement and passion back into life.
    • Wilbur utilizes imagery, metaphor, and a light-hearted tone to achieve the meaning of his poem.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about The Juggler

    What is the poem ‘The Juggler’ by Richard Wilbur about?

    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. 

    What does the last stanza of ‘The Juggler’ mean?

    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 lightning 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.

    What is the meaning of ‘The Juggler?’

    ‘The Juggler’ by Richard Wilbur is a poem that examines the way the passion and excitement of life can turn into 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.

    What is the tone of ‘The Juggler?’

    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 choices throughout the poem to emphasize the light-hearted tone, employing a sense of wonderment himself in order to drive home the meaning.

    How is the juggler described in the poem ‘The Juggler?’

    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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    • 10 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
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