The poem uses a juggler as an image of change. They take the balls, which always lose their bounce as they hit the ground over and over, and they keep them in the air. They become planets orbiting small heaven about the juggler’s ears. Even when the show is over, some of the lightness, joy, and wonder remain.
Explore The Juggler
‘The Juggler’ by Richard Wilbur is a beautiful and original poem that uses a juggler as a metaphor for the kind of change one needs in life.
The poem suggests that throughout life, human beings become complacent, tired, and bored with life. They take life for granted. It takes moments like the one described in the poem to wake one up and remind them that things can change. The juggler accomplishes this by keeping the red balls in the air and then the table, broom, and plate.
You can read the whole poem here.
A ball will bounce; but less and less. It’s not
Settles and is forgot.
It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls
In the poem’s first stanza, the speaker begins by describing how a “ball will bounce.” But, the longer it bounces, the less it bounces. That is, the smaller the following bounces are. Just as the ball loves to fall but then “resents its resilience,” so too does the “earth” fall in “our hearts from brilliance.” When something might start incredibly well and be filled with passion, it will decrease over time. It’s because of this that we need “a sky-blue juggler with five red balls” to keep those balls in the air and ensure that one remains interested and passionate.
To shake our gravity up. Whee, in the air
Cling to their courses there,
Swinging a small heaven about his ears.
The juggler shakes up the normal progression of things. He shakes “our gravity up,” allowing the balls to roll around in the air on his “wheeling hands.” The balls learn that gravity is not everything. The “way of lightness” alters them into spheres that “Graze…his finger ends.”
In the last lines of this stanza, the balls are compared to planets, orbiting the “small heaven about his ears.” They are controlled by a new force that allows them to overcome the full effects of gravity for a time.
Stanzas Three and Four
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
The boys stamp, and the girls
Shriek, and the drum booms
And all come down, and he bows and says good-bye.
In the third stanza, the speaker says that the juggler brings the balls in, reeling that “heaven in” and trading up for “a broom, a plate, a table.” He’s expanding his repertoire. He takes everyday objects and elevates them, physically and metaphorically. They become more than they were before. They stand on his nose, balance on the tip of the broom, and excite the “boys” and “girls.” They are part of the “we” that the speaker has been considering throughout. They’re amazed by the show they’ve seen.
Finally, the plate, broom, and table come down, and everything is back the way it is.
If the juggler is tired now, if the broom stands
For him we batter our hands
Who has won for once over the world’s weight.
Despite the fact that the show is over and the juggler has returned the everyday objects to their normal state, everything is not the same. When darkness and mundanity come for these objects, there is still the light of what the juggler did. “We batter our hands,” or clap our hands, for what he did. The speaker summarizes this at the end of the poem.
The juggler was able to win “for once over the world’s weight.” He was capable of something others were not, pushing away and resisting the pull of the earth’s weight or the seemingly inevitable lull that comes throughout life. He made something boring into something more.
Structure and Form
‘The Juggler’ by Richard Wilbur is a five-stanza poem divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCBAC; changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The poet also chose to compose this poem without a structured metrical pattern. The lines are similar in length; for example, the fifth line of every stanza contains six syllables, and the rest have between nine – twelve syllables.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, “Falling is what it loves, and the earth falls.”
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “ball” and “bounce” in line one of the first stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “Learning the ways of lightness, alter to spheres / Grazing his finger ends.”
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “A” which starts the first two lines of the first stanza.
The tone is celebratory and appreciative. The speaker celebrates what the juggler can do with the balls, the table, the plate, and the broom. He’s also appreciating and observing how the juggler changed the nature of the world for just a few minutes.
The speaker is unknown. They’re someone who has thought a great deal about the nature of life, depression and can compare these things to gravity and change. They might be the poet himself or a persona he adapted for this poem.
The themes at work in this poem include the nature of life and a loss of passion/interest in life. The juggler is used as a representative of the time of change one needs in order to remain interested in life and passionate.
The purpose is to explore how change and a brief reprieve from the norms of life can make everything seem more interesting and worthwhile. The juggler accomplishes this by defying gravity’s seemingly all-encompassing pull.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Richard Wilbur poems. For example:
- ‘After the Last Bulletins’ – about the human race’s ability to discard what we once deemed important.
- ‘A Late Aubade’ – an ironic poem that enthralls readers from the very title itself. It is a modern poem taping in the form of aubade or a morning song.
- ‘The Death of a Toad’ – speaks on the death of a toad and relates the tragedy to the larger problem of humankind’s conflict with nature.