The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Spring and All” is a short descriptive poem in free verse. The scene described is not what the title would lead one to expect: It is a muddy field populated by a few trees and bushes beside “the contagious hospital,” Williams’s phrase for a sanitorium that isolates people with contagious diseases. This unlikely setting becomes the occasion for one of poetry’s oldest tasks—the description of springtime.

The poem begins with a series of prepositional phrases, followed by some noun phrases. The uninviting landscape is wet and cold; the leaves are “dead” and the vines “leafless.” At line 14, however, something changes. Spring is personified as a drowsy slumberer awakening. The next verse paragraph introduces an ambiguous “they,” which “enter[s] the new world naked.” Though that phrasing understandably may remind one of newborn babies, the context suggests that the speaker is referring to emerging spring growth, the puny stems of grass and weeds that arise from the mud into the “cold, familiar wind.” The reader realizes that this unlikely landscape represents the very beginning of spring. The ground is wet from rains or melting snows, and the first harbingers of the more conventionally celebrated spring are making their appearance.

The speaker then enumerates some of the new growth and anticipates the appearance of “the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf.” The coming of new growth is described as a kind of definition whereby individual plants take on clarity and individuality from the undifferentiated muck from which they sprout. The final lines celebrate this process as possessing “stark dignity” and representing a “profound change,” presumably from nonexistence to life. The new growth is described as downward as well as upward: the roots “grip down,” and the plants “begin to awaken.” Though the scene has not changed much from the initial, uninviting landscape, the final word “awaken,” echoing the life-giving associations of the earlier “quickens,” seems appropriate for a poem of spring.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Spring and All” is primarily descriptive. As such, it abounds in imagery. Though the imagery is rich and detailed, it is not lush in the traditional manner of poems to spring. No blossoms, buzzing bees, or sweet perfumes animate the poem. Instead, the imagery focuses on precision, on a realistic rather than romantic evocation of natural detail. The clouds are “mottled” and driven by a wind that the poet notes comes from the northeast. Brown is the most common color; the word appears twice and is relieved only by “reddish” and “purplish.” The items delineated early in the poem seem to be distributed randomly: “patches of standing water,” “the scattering of tall trees,” “twiggy/ stuff of bushes.” After the appearance of spring in line 15, objects take on definition and are enumerated “one by one,” as individual living things. Though the clarity of outline characteristic of the latter part of the poem contrasts with the “broad” indiscriminate waste of the first half, the description is still unreservedly spartan. No romantic effusion is permitted.

The stark visual imagery is complemented by the tactile imagery of coldness. The wind is twice described as “cold,” and the word “cold” modifies “they”—presumably new spring plants—of line 16. This repetition is significant: The warmth of spring is only anticipated in the poem. The birth of spring is a harsher process, but it is also a familiar one, repeated every year and undergone by all living things. This quality is expressed by the unusual word choice of “familiar” to describe the cold wind of line 19. The pain of passing into existence is shared by all of the animate, natural world; it is a familiar coldness. The bleak landscape into which the blades of grass emerge is the world’s stage on which all creatures have their day. The presence of a hospital nearby connects the images of birth with those of death: The cold wind that welcomes the new plants casts a chill over the suffering souls in the hospital, who may not live to see another spring. The setting unites birth and death.

The adjective “naked” suggests human birth, and, indeed, one can read this...

(The entire section is 894 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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