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.