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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Dance” reveals several of Williams’s preoccupations as a poet, preoccupations that mark him as a modernist. First, he said, a poem demands careful attention to the object itself without consideration of the object’s meaning. “No ideas but in things,” he declares. “The Dance” concentrates on a single moment in time. Yet because it focuses so closely on the details of that moment, the dance acts as a synecdoche for the cultural life that the poem depicts. Beginning as an Imagist, although he later disassociated himself from the movement over its insistence on free verse and called himself an Objectivist, Williams remained true to the Imagist principle of depicting the “thing” or the object itself through vivid images without reference to what the image may symbolize.

Another of Williams’s modernist concerns was to find or invent a new language for poetry that would render a new way of seeing. He found part of the answer to this problem in the colloquial speech patterns of the ordinary American. Ironically, the language of “The Dance,” by being based on the speech of twentieth century working people, captures the spirit of sixteenth century Dutch peasants.

Third, Williams believed that to be universal, an experience must be lived fully within the local. In “The Dance,” peasants celebrate a holiday that is entirely local. The peasants’ life is by necessity confined to the local, but they live in it fully and with great verve; they work hard and they play hard—they dance.

Throughout Williams’s lifelong career as a doctor in his native New Jersey, he was necessarily tied to the chthonic: He dealt in birth and death, delivered babies, and treated people’s sometimes embarrassing ailments. He perceived that the instinctual life, which urban conditions have almost bred and educated out of men and women in the twenty-first century, is a necessity for meaningful existence. That instinctual life is less confined in the conditions of simple people like the ones in Bruegel’s painting than...

(The entire section is 508 words.)