Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

By the time Williams wrote Paterson (Book Two), containing the lines which eventually were entitled “The Descent,” he was in his early sixties. The series of strokes that would eventually lead him to turn his medical practice over to his son was still in the future, but he had begun to devote more attention in his poetry to the approach of old age and death. Part 3 of Paterson (Book Two) opens with a brief lyric advising poets to look for “the nul,” which is the final end, “the death of all.” Yet, that lyric ends with the amused, resigned lines, “But Spring shall come and flowers will bloom/ and man must chatter of his doom.” The lines of “The Descent” follow immediately, an example of humankind’s “chatter” but also a response to nonsense about doom.

In a real sense, “The Descent” is a general comment on Williams’s new concern with aging and approaching death. Almost at once, he began to present the general in more specific terms; the poem in Paterson (Book Two) is followed immediately by a short lyric, enjoining the reader to listen to “the pouring water!/ The dogs and trees/ [which] conspire to invent/ a world—gone!” Every world is invented—and will disappear—but this one is to be enjoyed as long as it lasts. When the poem appeared in The Desert Music and Other Poems, it was placed first in the volume, followed by “To Daphne and Virginia,” a poem about his daughters-in-law that associates them with love and with the particularly sensuous odor of boxwood.

“The Descent,” then, is the introduction to a theme that would preoccupy Williams during his later years and that would become the subject of his later long poems, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” and “The Desert Music.” He would go on to elaborate the themes of the blessings of memory and the rewards of a love in which passion plays a lesser role, and he would introduce new themes, refinements and extensions of the ideas introduced in “The Descent.” Ultimately, however, “The Descent” is the necessary first statement of that abiding concern.