William Carlos Williams’s “The Dance” consists of twelve lines of rhythmic verse written in response to a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569). The painting, “The Kermess,” or “Peasant Dance,” depicts sturdy, well-fed peasants on holiday—dancing, drinking, making music, venting the sexual impulse, and abandoning themselves to the spirit of carnival. Williams’s poem captures the hearty vitality that the painting evokes. Through concrete visual and auditory images and through the strong, measured rhythm, Williams renders the hearty jubilance of common, working folk enjoying a day of recreation. The celebrants in the poem dance with vigor: They “go round, they go round and/ around” to the “squeal and the blare and the/ tweedle of bagpipes.” In their portliness, they tip “their bellies” (and they might be a little tipsy), which are “round as the thick-/ sided glasses whose wash they impound.Kicking and rolling about/ the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts” to the “rollicking measures,” they “prance as they dance.” Yet this seemingly formless abandon is shaped through the traditional, communal forms of the folk dance, just as, through the discipline of language and measure, the poem is given form and structure.
Williams was fascinated by Bruegel’s scenes of peasant life with all its drudgery, its matter-of-fact violence, its ugliness, and its enduring vitality. In fact, Williams titled a series of poems Pictures from Brueghel (1962); “The Dance,” however, had been written earlier and was not included in this collection. The word kermess (or kermis) in Bruegel’s title and in Williams’s first line refers to an outdoor fair or carnival, but it originally meant the celebration of a local patron saint; thus, the dancers in the painting and in the poem celebrate both a holiday and a holy day. Their vigorous dance and rough festivities extol the value of life vis-à-vis the inevitable dissolution of death. They set traditional religious values in abeyance to give an airing to the desires of the flesh: lust, gluttony, and ribaldry. Their return to their everyday lives of labor and abstemiousness will be rendered more endurable by the earthy sensuality of the holy day.
“The Dance” evokes, through the medium of words, the emotions that the picture, through the medium of paint on canvas, rouses in the viewer. The circular shapes of the painting—the full-fleshed bodies of the dancers as well as their fat faces and rounded heads, the round ewer and tankards that hold the “wash,” the bladder-shaped bagpipes, the bouffant skirts of the women—as well as the circular movement the painting demands of the viewer—find poetic expression in the circular shape of the poem. The eye device of the parentheses also reproduces the circle—“(round as the thick-/ sided glasses whose wash they impound)”—as does the repetition of the word “round”: “the dancers go round, they go round and/ around.”
Just as the peasants in the picture dance heedlessly forward, so Williams’s poem moves forward at breakneck speed. The enjambed lines provide no stopping point. Williams ends line 2 with the conjunction “and”; he separates the article “the” and the adjectives “those” and “such” from the nouns they modify; he separates the preposition “about” from its object; he even hyphenates a word (“thick-” ) at the end of a line. There are no capital letters at the beginnings of lines to provide a new beginning. The poem’s beginning and ending with the same line not only reproduces the circular movement of the painting but also suggests something endless. When the poem arrives at the last line, it has returned to its beginning; thus, the poem...
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could go on forever, just as the life of the peasant, timeless and eternal, is symbolized by the circle.
Williams also paid careful attention to what he called “measure,” which he opposed to “free verse.” Eight of the twelve lines contain nine syllables; each of the twelve lines contains either three or four stresses, with variable feet. The first line contains four stresses—“In Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess”—with the word “great” getting full stress. Thus the poem begins with a rough, irregular rhythm, just as the dancers in the painting might get off to a halting start; they then begin to move with the measure of the music, as the next two lines exhibit a more regular rhythm, with three stresses each. Williams uses the variable foot in other places as well to evoke the coarse rhythms and the uneven measures of the dance itself—“Kicking and rolling about/ the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts.” One can imagine the peasants good-naturedly clashing into each other during their spirited dance. The only full caesura occurs at the period in the middle of line 8, which crashes to a sudden stop, and then the poem rollicks forward again.
The onomatopoetic diction suggests the cacophonous music that fills the hamlet: “the squeal and the blare and the/ tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles.” Much of the diction is colloquial: The dancers swing “their butts,” they tip “their bellies,” the dancers have sound “shanks,” their “hips and their bellies [are] off balance.” Such usage, although twentieth century American, suggests the kind of language that these dancers, unhampered by the demands of polite society, might use. The internal rhyme of “prance as they dance” is the only rhyme of the poem, but the assonance of “dance,” “blare,” “glasses,” and “shanks” suggests the cacophonous “rollicking measures” of the musicians. The word “wash” is an unexpected and appropriate choice of words, connoting a cheap, undistilled liquor such as peasants might drink. The fact that the peasants “impound” it connotes several meanings; one meaning of the word is to gather a liquid (which they have done), but it also carries overtones of something slightly illegal (as in “impounding a document”), and it takes the vague coloring of animals (as in “impounding an animal”). These peasants have impounded the wash, and their unselfconscious animal instincts dominate for the day.
“The Dance,” by re-creating a moment, stands as a powerful antidote to those who think a poem should have “meaning.” It lets the readers participate vicariously in the celebrations of simple people who live not by the intellect but by the powerful rhythms of the earth.
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