Course: AP English Literature and Composition
Richard Wilbur, "Death of a Toad"

Step 5: Sample Student Essays

Question: Read the following poem carefully. Then write a well-organized essay in which you explain how formal elements such as structure, syntax, diction, and imagery reveal the speaker’s response to the death of a toad.

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Sample Essay 1: Excellent (score of 9)


Richard Wilbur’s “Death of a Toad" reflects on the appearance and thoughts that even a toad might have at the approach of death. Through careful structure, diction, and vivid imagery, Wilbur slowly reveals the feelings of the contemplative speaker. To the speaker, the toad’s death begins as a simple cessation of breathing; but it turns into a mystical journey.

The sequence and division of events follows the thoughts and changes that the speaker’s attitude undergoes. The poem opens bluntly with the speaker’s rather callous observation, “A toad the power mower caught.” The initial lack of sympathy is evident in the objective description given in the next few lines about the toad’s injury and movements. However, when the toad hides itself in the cineraria leaves, the speaker seizes on the symbolism and begins to exhibit some interest. He at least concludes that the toad will die in this “final glade” (6). In the second stanza, the physical death of the toad is depicted by the now curious speaker, who observes the flow of blood and the glazing eyes. Watching the stillness of the toad makes the speaker think that the toad is “attending...towards some deep monotone” (11). Impressed by this, the speaker reflects in the third stanza on the life that the toad is losing, “Amphibia’s empires” (14) which is as precious to it as life is to the speaker. Finally, all light dies out of the toad’s eyes, leaving the speaker alone on the lawn in “haggard daylight.” The transformation from neutral observer to melancholy philosopher is complete.

Wilbur’s word choice grows from nothing to complex as the speaker’s feelings expand from nothing to poetic heights. The opening two lines, about the accident, are as simple and clear as casual conversation. However, the speaker’s use of “sanctuaried” shows his realization of the toad’s plight, and words such as “cineraria,” “ashen” and “final” convey a deathly atmosphere. Realizing that any creature, even a toad, can die a tragic death, the speaker watches the “rare original bloodshed” flow out; he now sees the importance and uniqueness of this blood. All the descriptive adjectives in stanza two (i.e. wizenings, banked, staring) shows that the speaker is paying close attention to the toad. This new caring and sympathy leads him to wax eloquent on the “misted and ebullient seas” (13) that the toad is leaving, and to watch with regret the “drowning” of light in the toad’s “antique eyes.” The chief importance of such word choices is that the speaker sees the toad as something precious. Once it does, it leaves the “castrate lawn” and “haggard daylight”—without the toad, the light is bleak and the lawn was foolishly cut at such a price. These critical words demonstrate the formidable change that the speaker’s attitude has passed through.

The images that the speaker conjures up are important in impressing upon the reader precisely what passes through his mind. First, a toad’s leg is cut off by a lawnmower. The harshness and clearness of the image betray his lack of sympathy, but the next picture is softened because of his pity. Here the toad is under a dim glade of heart shaped leaves; the name which (cineraria) is reminiscent of the Greeks and the perfection of their lives. The detailed and tragic image given in the second stanza evokes pity and sorrow, but also wonderment. Where does the toad die towards? The speaker answers with an image of “cooling shores,” a veritable empire for a toad. Suddenly, the image dies as the speaker’s attention is snapped back to the dimming eyes of the toad. His depiction of the bleak landscape left when the toad dies fully shows the reader what he experiences emotionally and adds to the sense of loss already felt.

The combined force of Wilbur’s vivid imagery, excellent diction, and logical structure give the reader a strong sense of empathy with the poem’s speaker. Beginning with his careless sighting of the toad and ending with his mourning, “Death of a Toad” serves as a reminder of the lack of appreciation that people often exhibit when it comes to the creatures less intelligent than we.

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