Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In his personal epic, Paterson (1946-1958), and in several other places, Williams writes, “No ideas but in things,” declaring that the poet’s role is to perceive and express through “immediate contact with the world” the objects which surround him. The poetic imagination can make a poem of anything, even a field of common wildflowers. Precisely such a poem, “Queen-Ann’s-Lace,” appeared in Sour Grapes (1921), a book of verse whose title reflected Williams’s mood at the time, one filled, as he writes in I Wanted to Write a Poem, with “disappointment, sorrow.[for he] felt rejected by the world.” This very positive poem and several others like it in Sour Grapes, however, embody his delight in physical things, and his ability to discover their hidden beauty. Beginning with straight observation, he transforms the wild carrot and makes a poem which is a woman.
In Poets of Reality (1969), critic J. Hillis Miller observes that “Queen-Ann’s-Lace” also admirably represents “Williams’s power to charge a whole scene with sexual meaning,” a “constant mode of his relation to the world” that is demonstrated throughout his work. Indeed, the poem reflects the relaxed sexual mores of the 1920’s in the United States, for Williams openly depicts the flower-woman’s sensual arousal and rapture under the sun-poet’s touch. The poem does not, on the other hand, embody the era’s new freedoms for women (for example, the right to vote guaranteed by ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in August, 1920). Displaying his opposition to such freedoms, Williams portrays the woman and the flower in “Queen-Ann’s-Lace” as both earthbound and submissive. In contrast, the sun and the man that touch them are unrestrained and dominant. The flower may thus prevail over “the grass/ [which] does not raise above it” and take “the field by force,” but it blossoms only wherever the male sun’s “hand has lain.” Likewise, the woman can only respond to the man’s erotic touch, which fulfills her “pious wish to whiteness,” purifies her, and makes her more than “nothing.” She (and the flower which represents her) may be lovely and sensual, but she owes her existence to the poetic hand and imagination that created her.