Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

Williams’s commitment to concrete, “embodied” meaning was shared by many of his contemporaries, including the poet Ezra Pound, a fellow student at the University of Pennsylvania, where Williams obtained his medical degree. Pound argued that poems should be a “presentation” rather than a telling, that they should communicate through “images.” He and another contemporary, Amy Lowell, were largely responsible for Imagism, an approach to the writing of poetry that entailed communication through concrete language. The novelist Joseph Conrad had a comparable belief that “all artappeals primarily to the senses.” The young James Joyce, working to create “epiphanies,” moments of sudden insight built up out of mundane events, concurred, and T. S. Eliot wrote of the need for “objective correlatives” that convey through the senses the significant content of a work of art. What lies behind such dedicated attempts to ground truths in physical evidence is the realization that received beliefs are frequently wrong.

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Even received words seemed to Williams suspect. He not only preferred everyday words to the presumptuous terminology of intellectuals but also sought to cleanse his words of “packed” connotations, falsifying associations that attach to them over time. “To All Gentleness” is part of a volume he called The Wedge, a title he associated with “LangWedge”; language, he thought, if misused, can divide people within themselves, separate them from one another, and keep them from understanding.

On the other hand, precise language provides access to truths, glimpses of what nineteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant called the numenal world. Those opposite possibilities, both derived from language, help one to see from yet another perspective the essential point of “To All Gentleness”: that opposites, properly approached, interpenetrate constructively. As the experience of the pilot thrown into the water from his crashing war plane demonstrates, both death in nature and being sustained and saved by nature are features of existence. Williams himself, the child of parents who combined Basque, Dutch-Jewish, English, and French heritages, was composed of apparently contradictory sets, an American melting pot in microcosm.

The term “anti-poetic,” to Williams’s chagrin, was used by his friend and contemporary, poet Wallace Stevens, to describe his poems. Stevens, like Williams, functioned in both the practical daily world and the world of art: Williams was a physician; Stevens was an insurance executive. However, Stevens distinguished between the two worlds he occupied, whereas Williams saw them as unified. As this poem demonstrates, a pregnant factory worker is no more or less poetic than a rose, a fighter pilot, or a plumber’s tank. The seemingly contradictory elements in the factory worker and in her life actually form a unity, and her sinewy strength has a beauty that poems should aspire to attain. “To All Gentleness” wonderfully presents the paradoxes and urges readers to resolve the contradictions of their own lives in quest of a better world, created and peopled by an accepting and generous humanity.

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