Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Spring and All” is a poem of only twenty-seven lines, yet it echoes some of the imagery as well as the concepts of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and is filled with Williams’s desire to break with poetic tradition. The poem reveals this in the second and third words of the title. Spring is one of the most traditional themes of poetry; “and All” deflates it.
The poem corrects poetic notions of spring—those one finds, for example, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous opening of The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), in which he describes the “sweet” season of flowers, bird songs, and balmy winds. Beginning with a description of a bleak winter scene on a road through muddy fields, the poem turns (in stanza five) to the tentative awakening of spring and the “naked,/ cold, uncertain” leaves of grass which are the first evidence of the return of life to the world. At first unconscious, the spring plants gradually acquire awareness as they come to life: “rooted, they/ grip down and begin to awaken.”
Thus the poem depicts the cyclical rebirth of life, which is here, through the allusion to the “awakening” and awareness of plants, connected to intelligence and thus to humanity. A deft touch is the transition from winter images to images of spring, achieved in only seven words in the fifth stanza; the two lines of the stanza are connected organically to the preceding passage by one word, “lifeless,” which echoes “leafless” in the fourth stanza. The poem’s simple and understated ending is typical of Williams’s pared-down style. Through Williams’s sensitive concentration on the new life of trees and shrubs struggling into being in the cold spring wind, “Spring and All” celebrates the struggle of all new life to assert itself.