Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“To Elsie” is found in Williams’s book Spring and All (1923), which critic Jimmy Breslin reads as a reaffirmation of the creative principle, thwarted and repressed as it may be in America. Williams, a practicing physician, diagnoses his culture’s disease as rapaciousness, a craving for stolen pleasures and quick, easy wealth. America’s history chronicles her rash exploitation of the land. Both adventurers and Puritans pursued a mastery of nature that misprized the earth as a mere dung heap.

In this context, Elsie—her impressionable mind and voluptuous body suffering humiliation and decay—becomes an American Persephone. Stolen away and ravished by Pluto, god of avarice and death, Persephone personifies the virgin American wilderness, despoiled by greed for wealth and conquest. She embodies the buried creative principle, whose resurrection and transfiguration usher in spring and its fulfillment of promise.

D. H. Lawrence credits Williams with having taught him two ways of being American. The “chief” way, by “gutting the great continent in frenzies of mean fear,” is the “Puritan way.” An alternative, “heroic” way demands contact with America “as she is; dare to touch her!” Williams’s concrete, tactile verse—what Anthony Libby called a “mysticism of particulars”—constituted the poet’s way of knowing America with the intimacy and candor of touch.

This ready engagement enabled Williams to hear the “inarticulate poems” of his patients. Such responsiveness to the lives of others demonstrates one of the poet’s most attractive qualities: his humanity. It helped him to achieve what John Keats termed “negative capability,” or the ability to dissolve the boundaries between perceiver and perceived, which is to unify experience.