William Carlos Williams' "Paterson" attempts to tell the story of Paterson, a city on the Passaic River, in mythic form. As a result, many items in the poem, including the river, take on a symbolic or mythic significance.
In "Paterson," the river and its flow represent expressive language. When the falls are first introduced, Paterson, the protagonist, notes, "the river comes pouring in above the city, ... what common language to unravel?" The protagonist's attempt to figure out this "common language" is central to the poem's plot, and the river and falls play a key role in that attempt.
At times, images of the river are combined with images of silence to further underscore the relationship between the river and language. For instance, in the scene in which the protagonist contemplates divorce, he notes that "Divorce is/the sign of knowledge in our time ... with the roar of the river/forever in our ears (arrears)/inducing sleep and silence."
Divorce can be seen as a breakdown of communication that eventually leads to silence and separation rather than reconciliation through a common language. Here, the protagonist's inability to understand the expressive language of the river causes its roar to "induc[e] sleep and silence" rather than to aid communication.
The pollution gathered by the river as it flows through Paterson also symbolizes the residents' inability to communicate with one another. The falls above the city are described as pristine, indicating that humans' natural state is to love and understand one another. As the river flows through Paterson, however, it becomes corrupted with pollution and diverted from its natural path:
Half the river red, half steaming purple
from the factory vents, spewed out hot,
swirling, bubbling. The dead bank,
Near the end of the poem, the river finally flows its way to the sea. In this scene, images of the river's flow are paired directly with questions about language: "Haven't you forgotten your virgin purpose,/the language? What language?" The river itself disappears into the sea: "all but for the tides, there is no river."
All rivers, the poem notes, flow to the sea. Yet at the end of book IV, the speaker in the poem warns us not to see the dissolution of language and communication as inevitable: "I warn you, the sea is not our home." Our "home," rather, is in the attempt to craft meaning from language, in the form of songs or tales of epic journeys.