It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loath to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river—
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.
Here is a poem for our fall season by one of my favorite poets. For me, it speaks ultimately of that tenacious defiance in the context of mortality, “oblivious to winter, “ which should define the way we live our lives up to the very end.
Less robust in tone than Dylan Thomas’ more famous “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night,” it nonetheless succeeds in its implied imperative and proves no less skilled in its artifice. Intriguingly, the persona exhibits empathy for the willow—and why not?—for the tree is like ourselves, fated for that long sleep (note repeated “grow paler”), yet resilient.
Williams had a penchant for writing poems in vernacular language, unlike his fellow modernists such as Eliot and Stevens, rendering his poetry highly accessible by the public. A physician tending to progressive, if not socialist, beliefs, this simple language represented a linguistic practicum of his credo.
Having said this, I would contend Williams remains a sophisticated poet in his subtlety of technique, careful observation of the natural world, and ability to extract human relevance—all of this true of “The Willow Poem.”
Take, for example, its fourteen line construction, usually suggesting the traditional sonnet mode, except it doesn’t conform to the iambic pentameter meter, closed couplet, or sestet formulae. I take this as deliberately mirroring the poem’s theme of resistance, if not rebellion, a tree transcending autumnal demise, or at least holding out amid nature’s seasonal rhythms.
In abandoning typical sonnet protocol, Williams nevertheless manages to maintain unity, implementing language and even occasional meter in an otherwise free verse poem.
Notice the many dictional occurrences of of words ending in er: “over,” “river,” “paler” and “winter. “
Note the heavy spondee element in the poem’s frequent preference for monosyllabic diction: “The leaves cling and grow paler,/swing and grow paler” (ll. 6-7). Not least, there is the word repetition throughout.
Absent of human intrusion, the poem’s sole subject is the tree. And yet human application is suggested in its personification. An imagist poet proclaiming ‘no ideas but in things,” Williams is faithful to his creed. The tree remains a tree, yet emerging from the persona’s non-intrusive observations are potential analogies to the human quest to indulge and survive amid Nature’s ceaseless flow and inevitable sovereignty.
The willow’s river location hints at passage. A “swirling” river, it suggests Nature’s dynamism. The summer has gone. Fall, season of decline, suggests ending. Yet the tree appears impervious to Nature’s laws. Its leaves, “nor/bitten by the sun/turned orange and crimson, “ appear transcendent over temporality.
Continuing personification amplifies an ambience of resistance, its leaves “as loath to let go,” even as incipient change, and the mortality it confers, coalesce here in the increasing pallor of the leaves.
Archetypal elements, e.g., “summer,” “river,” winter,” nuancing generation, decline and death, further foreground the poem’s resonating Nature’s cyclic rhythms, without nullifying what Schopenhauer termed Wille zum Leben, or what I prefer to call “life force, “ or self-preservation instinct present in all Nature.
Simple, yet sublime, the poem validates William’s artistic acumen and esteemed standing among modern American poets.