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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Nantucket” reads as a humble list of things etched out with such care that taken together they add up to a poem spoken by a lover in anticipation of a rendezvous, who savors everything associated with this most significant afternoon. With great delicacy, the poem declines to mention either the beloved or the self, or to speak in what is usually considered the language of emotion. A setting only is described, without the characters, without the action, like a set design revealed for admiration before the action of a play begins. The setting is a bedroom of surpassing beauty and privacy—perhaps in a cottage guesthouse on Nantucket in high summer—as yet untouched, all in readiness, redolent of its own imminent moment of romantic intimacy, passion, and fulfillment.

Like a white page, the white bed awaits its inevitable story. The flowers “changed by white curtains” and the sunshine are all of the wide outdoors that is admitted; the key assures privacy and suggests possession, for a time, of a room’s contours and comforts. “For love, all love of other sights controls,/ And makes one little room, an everywhere” as the seventeenth century metaphysical poet John Donne would have it, in his own poem extolling a room set apart for lovemaking, “The Good-Morrow.”

Throughout his career, Williams believed in the energies of love and sexual attraction and in the clear presentation of what was in front of his eyes. In this poem, he uses the latter to increase the unspoken power of the former. The poem delights precisely because it does not insist on its own profundity or importance, or on a melodramatic or ideological defense of sexual love; it merely luxuriates in its own present physical surroundings, which are felt to reflect the observer’s desire and anticipate its fulfillment.

The poem “Nantucket” serves to demonstrate, within its small compass, many of Williams’s characteristic themes, and particularly his conviction that the world is always full of fresh meaning, available by means of close attention and aesthetic imagination. As in so many of his poems, it is charged with eroticism, more startling and wonderful here for being held back, diffused through the...

(The entire section is 546 words.)