‘The Death of a Toad’ by Richard Wilbur is a three stanza poem which is separated into sets of six lines, or sestets. These sestets conform to a consistent and structured pattern of rhyme. The lines follow a scheme of aabcbc, alternating as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza.
Wilbur has crafted this piece as an extended metaphor that meditates on the meaning of life and the existence of realms beyond our own. Through the mutilation and death of a toad the speaker contemplates the power of nature and what ability humankind has to control its own destiny. These themes expand far beyond the world of an injured and dying toad.
Additionally, a reader should take note of the instances of personification that take place throughout the text. Wilbur has chosen to personify the toad and its environment. The world of The Death of a Toad’ is alive in every conceivable way. This was done in an effort to enhance one’s empathy for the dying animal and bring nature into greater focus. One instance in which the environment is given characteristics normally only attributed to humans is in the last stanza. The speaker describes the ocean as being ‘ebullient” or full of cheerful energy.
Summary of The Death of a Toad
The poem begins with the speaker describing how the toad was run over by a mower. Its leg was irreparably damaged; so much so it had to stagger over the hedges find safety. Here, in the relative sanctuary of the garden, the toad is preparing to die. When the time comes it does not die dramatically. Its calm and peaceful death is lead up to by the emptying of its “heartsblood.”
In the final section the speaker goes into the problems that the whole population of “amphibia” has with humankind. They look on as their world is “castrated” by human-made inventions. It is clear the speaker is condemning humankind for its disregard of other species. He does not have hope that anything will change in the future.
Analysis of The Death of a Toad
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by stating the main action of this piece. It is the drama of the toad being “caught” in a “power mower” that spurs on the rest of the narrative. Wilbur chose to craft his opening line in a succinct manner that is shockingly to the point. There is no rising action to help pave the way for the painful event which befalls the toad.
Luckily, or unluckily, the toad is not killed by the mower. One of his legs has been injured. It was “Chewed and clipped” until it was not longer possible for him to move naturally on it. In response to this altered state the toad now moves with a “hobbling hop.” The two uses of alliteration in this line help to move the poem along and crate a sing-song like feeling. From the yard where he was injured, the toad does his best to make it to the “garden verge.” It is here he believes he will find sanctuary, or at least somewhere he can die in peace.
The toad has moved out-of-the-way of the mower and become “santuaried,” or fallen under the protection of, the “cineraria leaves.” One should note at this point that the toad has not found a way out of the garden, but gone deeper into it. There does not seem to be a possibility of him finding true safety outside the realm of human influence.
It is under the “cineraria leaves” and in the…
Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves
That the toad is preparing himself to die. This detailed description of what the plant looks like helps one to envision the scene in full. It is not a light and cheery place the toad has found, but a “dim one.” The “glade,” or open space under the flowers, is “Low” and without light. This is a depressing ending to life, no matter what, or who, one is.
In the second sestet the speaker goes on to delve deeper into what it means to die. He expands on the process of death, and how that process plays out for the toad. The “original heartsblood” of the toad “goes” into the earth. It pours out from the wound and into the ground. There is no way for the animal to stop or staunch it. He cannot tend to his own injuries. The only option is to wait and see if he lives or dies. He expects it to be the later.
The toad appears to be dying peacefully in the glade. He is so “still” it is as if he is attempting to “return to stone.” This would be a state in which one feels no pain. It is also a reference to transformation and another life that is beyond the present.
The build up to the toad’s death is completed in the fifth line of the stanza. He does indeed die. His death comes “soundlessly.” The speaker describes death as a force that “attend[s]” to the animal. One should take note of the fact that “attend” is a personal word. It brings up feelings of a personal relationship and care. Wilbur is emphasizing the importance of this animal’s death in the larger scheme of the world. He is attended to just as any human would be.
In the final line the progress of death is described as being “monotone.” There is no drama at the end of this animal’s life. Everything simply fades away. The speaker will expand on where the toad’s essence or soul might’ve ended up in the third stanza.
In the last six lines of the poem the speaker finishes the thought started at the end of the second stanza. He concludes the phrase by stating that the toad’s life-force is going off…
Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores
As stated above, Wilbur describes the seas as being “ebullient.” This is a prime example of personification. The sea is spoken of as if it has human characteristics. It is “misted” and energetic in this case. These initial lines do not make death sound like something to be feared.
This is emphasized by the addition of the words “Amphibia’s emperies.” The line speaks of a world that is ruled by “amphibia,” or toads, frogs salamanders, etc. This is a place that is failing. It still exists but now spends its time watching the “Day dwindle.”
Wilbur is turning the narrative of the poem to address the state of humanity. He is interested in speaking on the impact that humankind has on the planet from the perspective of the toad. From their height, the mowers move across their once habitable lawns and “castrate” them. They cut the grass down as if removing something vital and necessary to reproduction.
Due to the nature of humanity the world of the toad is failing. The “daylight” is being “steer[ed]” by humankind and becoming “haggard.” Wilbur’s speaker does not seem to have much hope for the future. He sees the world as continuing along these lines until humankind has done away with everything in its path.