“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.”