The Poem

“The Descent” is a brief lyric of forty-four lines, most of which contain five or six syllables. It is noteworthy, in part, because it is William Carlos Williams’s first use of the forms that became a pattern for much of his later verse, the triadic line and the variable foot. This pattern provided Williams with a style that was flexible enough to allow him to avoid what he regarded as the straitjacket of strict meter.

This poem was written in Williams’s later years and is concerned with the limitations and the consolations of growing old. Memory provides some relief from the cares of age, he says, “. . . a kind/ of accomplishment,/ a sort of renewal,” since it presents the past in a new light and therefore opens the way to formerly unexplored territory.

Aging is a kind of defeat, he acknowledges. Yet even defeat is never total, since it, too, introduces the individual to “a world unsuspected.” More important, “With evening, love wakens,” and it is somehow new, because it is no longer attached as closely to physical desire. Instead, it takes on a new character: It becomes “Love without shadows.”

In the concluding section, he recognizes again “The descent/ made up of despairs/ and without accomplishment.” Still, it brings “a new awakening” that cannot be destroyed. Accomplishment, some kinds of love, and the eager hope for the future may all be gone, but the rewards of the descent itself are “indestructible.”

Forms and Devices

Almost from the beginning of his career as a poet (he was also a physician), Williams avoided the traditional forms. His verse was consequently called “free verse,” but he disliked the name and its implications and tried for many years to find a form that would provide a general pattern without unduly restricting the writer.

Williams believed that he had found such a form, and it saw its first extended use in “The Descent,” which appeared first in the second installment (Book Two) of his long poem Paterson and which was later printed separately. The terms Williams used to describe this new “measure” were the “variable foot” and the “triadic line,” terms that referred to the way in which the poem should be read and the way in which it appeared on the printed page. The variable foot was the unit of the line or measure, and most lines (though by no means all) contained three such feet and could thus be called triadic. The first section of “The Descent” neatly illustrates the form:

the descent beckons as the ascent beckoned. Memory is a kindof accomplishment, a sort of renewal evenan initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places

(The entire section is 585 words.)


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