Confronting Death in Richard Wilbur's The Pardon
Death is the issue at the heart of Richard Wilbur's poem "The Pardon." This is apparent from the opening line, "My dog lay dead five days without a grave." What is not immediately apparent, however, is that this is not simply a poem about a young boy's sadness over the loss of his dog. What Wilbur discusses in this piece is much more profound, cutting through the superficialities of death and confronting fears and doubts that all of us experience at different points in our lives. This is a poem about atonement, about facing the mistakes of the past and confronting them directly. More specifically, it is about reconciling ourselves with death and everything that life's deepest tragedies entail. The adult narrator of the poem is haunted by his past, unable to cope with feelings and emotions that he had as a youth. He even seems to have attempted to repress a portion of his life. However, as a result of a chillingly realistic dream, he is at last forced to face what he thought was buried for good. The realization that comes because of this, the realization that death is not something to run from, is the true meaning of the poem and the crux of what Wilbur is trying to say to the reader.
"The Pardon" can be divided into three distinct parts. The first sub-section is made up of stanzas one and two, which detail a tragic event that occurred in the life of the narrator when he was ten years old: the death of his dog. It is in these first eight lines that the narrator tries to give the reader an understanding of what he felt when this happened. He uses very descriptive words and phrases, providing vivid imagery of the various sights, smells, and sounds that he experienced. He remembers entering "a jungle of grass and honeysuckle-vine," smelling a "heavy honeysuckle-smell twined with an odor heavier still," and listening to "the flies' intolerable buzz." This shows that the narrator still has a very distinct sense of what went on that day, despite the fact that it occurred so many years before. In fact, the poem seems to be told from the point of view of a man who is an adult, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties, meaning that nearly twenty years have gone by since the time of this event. This shows the reader right away that what the narrator is describing here must be a critical period of his life, otherwise the details of what occurred would not be so fresh in his mind. I feel that this focuses the reader's attention and makes him more aware of what the narrator is talking about.
The first two stanzas also begin to give us clues as to why this experience was so important. In lines one and two, we learn that the boy's dog was dead for five days before it was buried, while lines five through eight describe the boy's trepidation in approaching the dog. This account seems to be a bit ambiguous, in that it is never really made clear whether or not the boy has known that his...