Monday, October 14, 2013

ModPo 2013 #37 Challenging The Limits of Subject Matter: On Wilbur's "The Death of a Toad"

Image from .

Richard Wilbur, "The Death of a Toad" (1950)

                  THE DEATH OF A TOAD

       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 heartsbleed 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^Rs 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.


This was a funny poem. It was mentioned several times in the video discussion that this is a satire given its over-the-top rhymes and high diction for such a lowly topic as a toad. At the turn of the poem, there is also mention of a mock heroic crossing towards "Amphibia's emperies" (like the Norse gods). There was also mention of how suburbia is the perfect setting for this satire, given that suburbia itself is an artifice.

I asked the question to myself several times: what's at stake? Other than a humorous look at the death of the toad, what else could this poem be contributing? It's hard to fathom. I liked the idea of "art for art's sake" being floated in the discussion. However, it wouldn't have been humorous or satirical if it were. It would just have been a display of ability. Is it making fun of the genre the way that Bishop's poem did? Whereas Bishop spells out what he thinks of traditional poetry, is Wilbur criticizing the imagists for their freedom of subject matter? Was he implying that freedom in subject matter would result in this elevation of the toad (or the elevation of some white chickens)? Was he implying that there is a limit to "absolute freedom in the choice of subject?"

Perhaps, it's that. But he chose the traditional form to mock this freedom. One might say that they (traditional form and absolute freedom in subject matter) really don't go together/ work together.

All in all, poor toad!

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