The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

Written in nonmetrical verse, “Queen-Ann’s-Lace” is a single-stanza, twenty-one line poem. Its title suggests it is about the common field flower also known as the wild carrot. A wide, white flower about a hand’s width in size, Queen Anne’s lace contains scores of tiny blossoms and, in the center, a dark spot. In I Wanted to Write a Poem (1958), William Carlos Williams said that he used “straight observationin [his] four poems about flowers, ‘Daisy,’ ‘Primrose,’‘Queen Ann’s Lace,’ and ‘Great Mullen.’” He “thought of them as still lifes. [and] looked at the actual flowers as they grew.” Indeed, the poem’s speaker might be observing a field of Queen Anne’s lace as the sun’s rays touch it.

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The poem’s opening line, however, announces a much different subject: the whiteness of a woman’s body, which the speaker contrasts briefly in the first three lines with “anemone petals.” He finds “Her body is not so white,” “nor so smooth—nor/ so remote a thing.” Then, throughout the remainder of the poem, he compares her body’s whiteness with a commonplace “field/ of the wild carrot.” With this comparison, there is “no question” of too much “whiteness,” for at each flower’s center rests “a purple mole.”

Initially, the wildflower exerts its power, “taking/ the field by force,” not allowing the grass to “raise above it.” In the second half of the poem, however, the woman’s body responds to her male lover, “a blossom under his touch.” “Wherever/ his hand has lain there is/ a tiny purple blemish.” Ultimately, his touch erotically transforms and purifies her (and the whole field of Queen Anne’s lace), first into “a/ white desire,” then “to whiteness gone over.” Just as such a field of wildflowers would respond to the light and warmth of the sun and could not live without them, the woman responds to her male lover.

Clearly, Williams moved well beyond his “straight observation” of actual flowers, the still life which was the starting point for this poem. Rather than being simply a poem about a flower, “Queen-Ann’s-Lace” represents an intense human experience, a moment during which the poetic imagination transforms straight observation of a common wildflower into a sensuous—and sensual—moment of awareness. Focusing, at this point in his career, on the essence of physical things, Williams later explained, “Emotion clusters about common things, the pathetic often stimulates the imagination to new patterns.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 714

At the time Williams wrote “Queen-Ann’s-Lace,” he had been, for several years, a member of the Imagists, a small group of early twentieth century poets that included Ezra Pound, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), John Gould Fletcher, Amy Lowell, and Wallace Stevens. Rejecting Romantic idealism and Victorian moralism, the Imagists advocated, instead, the use of common speech and concrete images, the freedom to choose any subject matter, and the need to create new rhythms. “Queen-Ann’s-Lace” exhibits all of these principles. With only one word that might puzzle some readers (“anemone,” a flower in the buttercup family), its language is simple. The poem, furthermore, presents, in detail, an image of a common wildflower that most readers have already experienced or easily can. Likewise, its subject is not the typical rose of Romantic and Victorian poetry but a wild carrot and a woman’s body, both energized with sexual meaning.

Although Williams begins the poem with a simile that contrasts the whiteness of a woman’s body with the anemone, it is mainly through metaphor that he transforms his straight observation, his still life, into a dynamic field of action that reveals the life and energy hidden in Queen Anne’s lace. To create this dynamic field, Williams uses a central metaphor: Her body “is a field/ of the wild carrot taking/ the field by force.” He then extends the analogy throughout the remainder of the poem. Forceful, but not “white as can be” and certainly not virginal, the woman (and the flowers) respond to the lover’s caresses with increasing intensity marked by changing color. Thus, instead of the “remote” whiteness of anemone petals, “Wherever/ his hand has lain there is/ a tiny purple blemish,” then “a/ white desire,” and finally “whiteness gone over.”

While the poem’s movement from beginning to end may seem circular, from “white as/ anemone petals” to “whiteness gone over,” it is actually spiral. It does not return to where it began but moves to a different plane. The “white desire,” the “pious wish to whiteness gone over” are not “remote”; they depend upon the lover’s touch, just as the transformation of the flower depends upon the poet’s subjective observation and interpretation. As critic Peter Halter notes in The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams (1994), “Throughout his life Williams was to remain diffident with regard to too facile use of metaphors and similes, but throughout his life he was to use them as a poetic device for making the energy in things manifest.”

In “Queen-Ann’s-Lace,” as in many of his other poems, Williams does not employ traditional metrical or stanzaic patterns. As critic Stephen Cushman notes in William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure (1985), Williams’s prosody is “based not on time, accents, sounds, or recurrent phrases, but on lineation” marked by enjambment (run-on lines). Thus, to create the “new rhythms” called for by his fellow Imagists and his own particular form of “free verse,” Williams systematically used enjambed lineation, carrying rhythmical and grammatical sense from one line to the next without pause or punctuation. As a result, the lines of “Queen-Ann’s-Lace” often do not begin or end as the reader might expect. Only three of six sentences, for instance, begin at the start of a line, and only three end at the conclusion of a line. Likewise, only eight of the poem’s twenty-one lines end with pauses or stops; conversely, eleven lines contain one or more internal pauses or stops. Ultimately, however, the dominant run-on lines of Williams’s nonmetrical verse establish rhythm between lines and connect line to line.

Because enjambment appears so frequently in Williams’s poetry, its absence—a change in the fundamental pattern—becomes noteworthy. In “Queen-Ann’s-Lace,” the last four lines are end-stopped, not enjambed. Significantly, these lines describe, in a series of images, what the poet’s “touch” has caused the field of flowers to become “white desire, empty, a single stem,/ a cluster, flower by flower,/ a pious wish to whiteness gone over—/ or nothing.” Arresting and emphatic, the punctuation and rhythm here parallel each striking, powerful, and discrete image. These effects would be blunted if the images were broken up and carried over from one line to another.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 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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