William Carlos Williams

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What is the imagery, metaphor, and structure of the poem "Burning the Christmas Greens" By William Carlos Williams?

William Carlos Williams’s poem “Burning the Christmas Greens” contains imagery, metaphors, and structural elements that demonstrate the destructive yet briefly redemptive nature of burning wood. Williams recounts his post-Christmas practice of setting fire to used holiday trees through visual and auditory imagery as well as an extended metaphor of landscape. The poem’s structure recreates the energy of Williams and his friends’ ritual.

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In the poem “Burning the Christmas Greens,” William Carlos Williams recalls the post-Christmas ritual of collecting and burning discarded trees whose “time past.” The poet makes an occasion that could be sad—a marker of the end of a holiday—briefly full of energy, albeit destructive energy. He demonstrates how sparks of...

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In the poem “Burning the Christmas Greens,” William Carlos Williams recalls the post-Christmas ritual of collecting and burning discarded trees whose “time past.” The poet makes an occasion that could be sad—a marker of the end of a holiday—briefly full of energy, albeit destructive energy. He demonstrates how sparks of life can be seen in the flames of burning trees through imagery, metaphors (short and extended), and poetic structural design.

Through both visual and aural imagery, Williams recreates the scene and presents intangible ideas of life and death. First, he uses specific colors to show different stages in the process of vitality and annihilation. Natural green objects like the holly, balsam, and hemlock trees are living; these organic objects are nurturing and protective.

Green is a solace
a promise of peace, a fort
against the cold (though we

did not say so) a challenge
above the snow’s
hard shell.

In this metaphor, green is a warm, protective cave for birds to hide, sing, and take shelter from “bullets of storms” (another short metaphor for weaponry and attacks). It protects them from white snow’s “hard shell.” The color white represents coldness and lack of life, as in the white ash left after the branches have burned away. White combats green, as shown by “green spruce boughs / pulled down by a weight of / snow.” The color red represents fire, energy, and destruction. The simile “a living red, / flame red, red as blood” compares fire to blood, which symbolizes both vitality and injury. When Williams and his friends feed the trees into the fire, he sees a personified “log’s smouldering eye, / opening red and closing under them.” He presents a sequence of colors as the branches burn:

In the jagged flames green
to red, instant and alive. Green!
those sure abutments... Gone!
lost to mind

and quick in the contracting
tunnel of the grate
appeared a world! Black
mountains, black and red—as

yet uncolored—and ash white....

He cycles from green to red to black (charred remains) to white (final absence of any life).

Williams also uses aural imagery, such as onomatopoeia (“cracked” to recreate the breaking of the branches being pulled down and their fate in the crackling fire) and alliteration:

Recreant! roared to life
as the flame rose through and
our eyes recoiled from it.

The repetition of r in this stanza emphasizes the forceful energy of the fire; the severed branches are “Recreant!” and “roar” to life as the flame engulfs or rises through them. The effect is so powerful that Williams and his friends “recoil” from the sight of the conflagration. Another example of alliteration is found in this passage:

In the jagged flames green
to red, instant and alive. Green!
those sure abutments... Gone!

The repetition of g stresses how the green foliage is destroyed, or “gone.”

The poem’s extended metaphor is of a changing landscape. Williams states early on that he and his friends will create a “landscape of flame” from a landscape which they first build from discarded trees they manage to collect. In addition to hanging branches above doorways and in windows, “On the mantle we built a green forest.” In the foliage, they position deer decorations to create a tableau of a herd walking through a forest. After they throw the branches into the fire, the wood burns before fizzling into

Black
mountains, black and red—as

yet uncolored—and ash white,
an infant landscape of shimmering
ash and flame.

The “mountains” are remains of charred wood that give way to a primitive or “infant landscape” as if there is potentiality after destruction. Williams and his friend feel life-affirming warmth from the burning wood, which creates a “the shining fauna of that fire.”

The poem’s structure consists of nineteen stanzas, with the first three stanzas respectively containing three, five, and three lines and the remaining sixteen stanzas containing four lines (or quatrains). The poem’s third-person narrator is a young Williams with his friends. Williams the grown poet promotes a flowing effect with line breaks and enjambment. He uses these techniques in this passage to describe where they put branches:

about paper Christmas
bells covered with tinfoil
and fastened by red ribbons

we stuck the green prongs
in the windows hung
woven wreaths and above pictures
the living green. On the

mantle we built a green forest....

The words “Christmas” and “bells” describe a single object yet are separated into different lines. The description of bells and other man-made items quickly and without break run into the boys’ decorating actions. The use of enjambment (“the living green. On the/ mantle we built…”) continues the energetic flow of their boisterous ritual. They brought in branches

At the thick of the dark
the moment of the cold’s
deepest plunge....

The line break of “the cold’s / deepest plunge” creates a bit of suspense by leaving the reader momentarily hanging and asking “cold’s what?” The “deepest plunge” simulates a sharp dive into low, frigid temperatures.

Finally, Williams inserts interjections in the poem that emphasize the ideas and the fire’s energy. The green foliage burns and becomes

Transformed!

Violence leaped and appeared.
Recreant!

The branches burn and disappear in the fire only to be reborn as red flames. They no longer are the strong structures they used to be as trees but are instead ash and embers in the end:

Green!
those sure abutments... Gone!

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