A favorite poem: William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All”

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast–a cold wind.  Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen.

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leaflets vines–

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches–

They enter the new world naked
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.  All about them
the cold, familiar wind–

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curls of wildcdarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined–
It quickens:  clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance–Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken.

I’ve always liked the poetry of William Carlos Williams.  I like how he doesn’t put on airs, uses everyday vernacular, is strident for justice and filled with compassion.

Is he a romantic.  I can’t answer that.   Wallace Stevens said he was.  Williams, however, said no.

I do know that I cherish his imagistic prowess and his maxim, “No ideas, but in things.”  Accordingly, his poems sparkle with the presence of everyday objects like even a red wheelbarrow unlikely to attract our attention.

Reticent in symbolism, his poems nonetheless are latent with nuance and ultimately translate the local into the universal.

I haven’t  done a post on poetry in recent days, but it’s springtime now, bringing with it thoughts of one of my favorite Williams’ poems:  “Spring and All.”

It belongs to a genre  tracing back to the 13th century called “Reverie,” or poetry  celebrating spring.

I think of spring as the moodiest season of the year, sometimes stormy; other times, gentle.  Often it takes its time to make an appearance, stubborn, cross, and perverse.  Were it a psychological client, one might suspect borderline personality disorder.

Williams takes all of this in quite well when he likens a landscape adjacent to a road that leads to a “contagious hospital” (a facility for diseases  like tuberculosis) as analogous to the hospital, or replete with putrefaction and contagion, hinting at malady and death:  trees and bushes splotchy with red and purplish hue.

It’s Williams’ ingenuity, however, to undermine our usual negative take on “contagion” into just its opposite:  if there is contagion, then it’s not that of mortality, despite the ” dead, brown leaves under them/leaflets vines–”

In short, the small buds of reddish hue tell of spring’s incipient quickening of landscape as it makes its “sluggish,” “dazed” approach.

In essence,  William draws on the archetype of rebirth and restoration.  Spring emerges, inexorably, reversing winter’s tenacious sovereignty of the poem’s initial three stanzas.

They enter (i.e., the red buds) the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.   All around them
the cold familiar wind–

Now the grass, tomorrow,
the stiff curls of wildcdarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined–
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf.

Williams’ poem isn’t simply a listing poem of quick observations.   If you look carefully, you’ll find it’s carefully structured as dialectic, or into an antithesis of life and death, with the former achieving the new synthesis.

Dialectic informs the very imagery in its couplings of stillness vs. motion and of sky with earth in the initial stanza.

Appearance with its mortality nuances gets routed by spring’s  slow, dazed, but inevitable entrance.

…now the stark dignity of
entrance–Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken.

Addressing the human context, which Williams never neglects in any of this poems, the poem mirrors the continuity of life and hints of human resolve in spite of the ambience of mortality as a universal tenet.

I read somewhere, I think in the New York Times, that many critics regard “Spring and All” as one the last century’s greatest poems. You’ll get no argument from me.

















Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

3 thoughts on “A favorite poem: William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All””

  1. Well, I love me some William Carlos Williams, and I learned to love and appreciate his work in your class, a few years back! “You cannot get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” (..part of an essay, I think, and quoted from memory so it may not be verbatim but I believe the essence is there.”

    Glad to have just discovered your blog!


    1. Thank you for your comments, Mike. WCW remains one of my favorites, a poet who in simple language got things right.


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