I took the AP Literature examination near the end of my junior year in high school. From what I recall, the test was straightforward—little impacted me save for Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Death of a Toad.” And ‘impact’—originating from the Latin impingere, ‘drive something in or at,’ ‘thrust at forcibly’—was precisely the word: our proctor, another English teacher, actually noted my hovering over the page as time ticked away (I suppose she thought it an inordinate amount of time) and asked if I was feeling alright. Lo, I was damn wonderstruck:
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 wizening, 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’s 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.
—enchanted majorly, I think, by the span of Wilbur’s magical address. Of course the poet would be permitted ‘misted and ebullient seas / And cooling shores’ talking about ‘Amphibia’s empires’ (I marvel now at the nerve of those lines’ prosody), but never, never did I imagine a poet could invent a scene that simultaneously held ‘power mower[s]’ and ‘gutters’ with ‘castrate lawn,’ ‘ashen and heartshaped leaves,’ and ‘a dim / Low, and a final glade.’ The section of questions following “The Death of a Toad” seemed stupidly obvious, unequal to Wilbur’s unfurling Art.
I mowed the lawn that summer with tender care, though I was as likely to run over a frog in West Babylon as a unicorn.
The following September, my teacher, Dr. Simpson, said I had gotten only a few points marked off for the entire exam. I wanted a look at said questions, mostly to scoff at the test-makers’ inability to properly word things (a robust self-doubt presided in me even then). I was gobsmacked to find that one such query was a straightforward evaluation of the poet’s tone in “The Death of a Toad.” I cannot remember the exact choices, but all except the one closest to (A): earnest read as nonsense. Certainly (D): ironic or (D): morbidly comic was the most pea-brained of the lot—and this was the correct letter? I protested to Doc that we’d have to get AP personnel on the phone, haul back all tests and re-score them. He was a deeply kind man and knew, already, the seriousness of my investment in poems; yet even he was surprised at my insistence on (A)—as if this question had been the easiest to get right of the few I missed.
I read the poem now—I’ve included it in every lit class and poetry workshop I’ve taught—and still believe there’s a 50% chance the test-writers got it wrong.
It may be that the very maintenance of register which dazzled me as a high school student strikes another reader as demanding a disinvested reading. (Must a comic reading be disinvested? if not, it must at least resolve itself quickly, happily, neatly, and often pre-emptively; I appropriate Schopenhauer here: ‘[Comedy] must bring before our eyes suffering and adversity; but it presents it to us as passing, resolving itself into joy, in general mingled with success, victory, and hopes, which in the end preponderate . . . [C]ertainly it must hasten to drop the curtain at the moment of joy, so that we may not see what comes after.’) Said reader might see compulsory comedy in calling the frog’s eyes ‘gutters’ alongside yard work; in the ‘[C]hewed and clipped of a leg’; in the onomatopoetic back-half of ‘deep monotone‘ and the sound of croaks; in the dying frog’s vision of heaven being a hyped-up seaside scene—his life, bionicized.
Except for the fact that the poem’s subject is an animal, where is the irony in resurrection? Isn’t the best most of us can imagine of heaven this life, minus sadness, plus wings? Is this frog’s death to be understood as comic because it is the product of a human chore—that we wield powerful thanatos in even our ‘haggard daylight steer’? must it be understood as comic to avoid any demand for contrition, or, better, mourning? I won’t be swayed from reading profound sorrow in the last line, specifically: ‘haggard daylight steer’ as both the numb mode of the mower driver, the ‘nine-to-fiver’ who so often sleeps through her days; finally, the collapse of the human antagonist into the dreadful life of a ‘castrated’ male cow, allowed one more march-toward-death to fill out the loin cut.
Compare, if you will, the ‘dreamful ease’ that befalls Ulysses’ crew in “The Lotos-Eaters” to ‘the gutters of the banked and staring eyes’ and ‘soundless[ ] attending’ in Wilbur: but for a switch in species-protagonist, the conditions are the same. Perhaps one refuses a satirical read of “The Lotos-Eaters” because it too closely approximates his 48-week work year.
During a lecture discussing Ted Hughes, the protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, Elizabeth Costello, remarks: ‘[W]riters teach us more than they are aware of.’ The text of an invested (invested) poem is there to be honored, examined, and approached with generosity. Past the text, there are the thousand turnings of the poet’s unconscious and the cosmic Poetic that filters through the ether to direct her—impalpable, inestimable things. The truest encounters with poetry marry what a poem says with what one cannot—before the encounter—begin to understand.
And what, afterward, might transfix for a lifetime.