William Carlos Williams

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In the poem "Raleigh Was Right" By William Carlos Williams, what is the theme?

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As the other educators indicate, the "Raleigh" referenced in the title is Sir Walter Raleigh, and in this poem, Williams aligns himself firmly on Raleigh's side of the Marlowe/Raleigh debate.

This poem was written in 1940 and in a time of great industrial growth in America, with unemployment down significantly and the country finally rebounding from the Great Depression. The world was at war once again, and the United States was right on the precipice of joining this effort. In the midst of this climate, Williams criticizes the long-held belief of some that nature is an escape from the worries of the world. Williams says that "the country will bring us / no peace," isolating those final two words on a line to emphasize the inherent loneliness in nature. He asserts that nature itself provides no guidance and cannot provide wisdom on its "furry stems / in the long grass."

Williams also uses a metaphor to connect love itself to nature:

Love itself is a flower
With roots in a parched ground.

He therefore links love to nature and shows that it struggles to survive in a climate of drought. If nature can bring no peace, neither can love. The romanticized images of other poets, showing the peace of being connected to the land through manual labor such as farming is dismissed by Williams who questions if such sentiments were ever true.

In the end, Williams asserts that peace does not come from the country, from nature, or from love. Having just recovered from an economic hardship that shook the country and looking at the likelihood of joining another war effort, Williams refuses to support the Romantic ideals of nature's ability to provide peace.

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The theme of "Raleigh Was Right" is the loss of innocence over time. In the original poem that Christopher Marlowe wrote, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," the speaker tries to persuade his beloved to "come live with [him] and be [his] love" in the countryside, where he will give her all sorts of natural gifts. The Walter Raleigh poem "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" features the beloved woman pointing out that the flowers and all the gifts will fade away, as will love itself, and she would be naïve to believe otherwise. The nymph does not have the innocence that the shepherd expected of her.

William Carlos Williams obviously agrees with Raleigh, as his title makes clear. Yet he also goes farther, contrasting his own time with the simpler days in which the original poem is set. His time, he shows, has completely lost the innocence that existed before. Williams wrote his poem in 1944, during some of the darkest days of World War Two. He describes how "the country will bring us no peace" even if they were to go there, because "love itself [is] a flower with roots in a parched ground." Love will not grow in the world, as Williams sees it, whether in the country or otherwise. He points out that both the classical time period in which Marlowe sets his poem and the Renaissance, when Marlowe and Raleigh were writing, were "long ago! / long ago!" He repeats this phrase to emphasize how different things are now given the horrors of his own time period. These earlier time periods may have held some innocence, but his own does not.

Note also that both Marlowe and Raleigh—as well as John Donne, who also wrote a reply to Marlowe's poem during the Renaissance—use iambic pentameter couplets. Williams, by contrast, writes without meter or rhyme, in the free verse mode typical of the twentieth-century. This choice shows that Williams was a man of his time, and it was also typical of his poetry in general. However, the contrast he sets up with the intricately wrought beauty of the poems to which he is responding serves to underline the loss of innocence over time that is the theme of his poem.

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The major theme of "Raleigh was Right" by William Carlos Williams is nature, specifically nature as an insufficient balm to mankind's troubled, modern mind. This theme is expressed directly in the repeated lines "for the country will give us / no peace," and also implied in the less-than-idyllic language Williams uses to describe the country. He mentions "small violets" as growing on "fuzzy stems," which is not a very romantic description of a flower, and describes the grass as "lance-shaped." This imagery of leaves as a weapon transforms a bucolic field into a dangerous place.

"Raleigh was Right" is Williams inserting himself into a conversation with two earlier poets, responding to Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love" and Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd." In the second stanza of Williams's poem, the speaker addresses, and dismisses, the way nature has long been idolized in poetry (including in Marlowe's original poem). Of the loveliness that was once found in nature, he says "it was long ago," and then goes on to question whether the claims the romantic poets made about nature were ever really true at all.

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This poem is a reference to Walter Raleigh's poem "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" (which is a reply in turn to Marlowe's poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"). In Marlowe's pastoral poem, a shepherd begs his mistress to savor the delights of nature with him. In Raleigh's response, the nymph argues that a blissful, pastoral existence is not possible in a world in which people grow old and flowers fade.

By agreeing with Raleigh in the title of his poem, William Carlos Williams states his belief that nature does not offer a blissful respite from worldly cares. Instead, he writes that even violets are nested among "lance-shaped leaves," symbolizing the ways in which violence (represented by these lance-shaped leaves) lurks even among the beauties of nature.

Williams doubts that nature ever offered the beautiful respite that poets wrote about years ago, and he's sure that it doesn't now. The theme of his poem is that blissful ignorance in today's world, even among the delights of nature, is impossible. Instead, today, love is similar to "a flower with roots in parched ground," as our world lacks the means to foster love. 

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