The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 243

“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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

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   inhabited by hordes     heretofore unrealized.

In Williams’s view, each short grouping constituted a measure, and the three taken together constituted a longer measure, or a line. He made much use of the form throughout the rest of his poetic career, not only in short lyric poems but also in such later long poems as “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” and “The Desert Music.”

Apart from the introduction of the new form, “The Descent” is unusual in Williams’s work for the general quality of its imagery. In most of his verse, Williams used concrete and detailed images (he was frequently referred to as an Imagist poet), whether drawn from the natural world or from precise observation of human beings and their behavior. In “The Descent,” however, the imagery is general and lacking in detail; many of the nouns used refer to groups or general qualities. Williams refers to “hordes” and “movements,” and he repeats the word “world” several times. One near approach to specific imagery is his use of “white” and “whiteness,” but it could be argued that white is the least evocative of colors—in fact, the word is often used to indicate something free from color. The image of night advancing is suggestive but also general.

The reason for this generality is that “The Descent” is meditative, a style in which Williams was not accustomed to writing, and in the poem he was less concerned with evoking the reader’s response to specific images than he was in conveying the idea of what it is to age and the consolations of aging. When he returned to these subjects later in his writing career (for example, in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”), he presented his ideas more often through specific sensory imagery.

In “The Descent,” the overriding image is the general one of descending, used as a metaphor for the aging process. Because Williams distrusted metaphor, this general one is the only figure of speech (other than personification) used in the poem. Williams immediately rejects the notion that descending into age is repugnant by insisting that it “beckons” and that memory can open the way to new places, not arid and sparse but inhabited by “hordes.” Even if the descent consists of “despairs,” it also implies “a new awakening:/ which is a reversal/ of despair.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194

Axelrod, Steven Gould, and Helen Deese, eds. Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

Beck, John. Writing the Radical Center: William Carlos Williams, John Dewey, and American Cultural Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Bremen, Brian A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Copestake, Ian D., ed. Rigor of Beauty: Essays in Commemoration of William Carlos Williams. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann W. William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.

Gish, Robert. William Carlos Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Laughlin, James. Remembering William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Lenhart, Gary, ed. The Teachers and Writers Guide to William Carlos Williams. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1998.

Lowney, John. The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. 1981. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Vendler, Helen, ed. Voices and Visions: The Poet in America. New York: Random House, 1987.

Whitaker, Thomas R. William Carlos Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

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Themes