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.