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Last Updated on July 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 385

"Spring and All" combines the speaker's notice of the bleak visual surroundings of a late winter landscape with his imagination of the slow and almost imperceptible arrival of spring.

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The gloomy mood at the beginning of this poem is set with imagery. The speaker provides descriptions of "broad, muddy fields / brown with dried weeds." The repetition of the color brown continues when Williams's speaker comments on "dead, brown leaves" hanging from the trees. This color repetition is used to emphasize the decay and spiritless environment that winter presents to those who look upon it. Even so, the speaker envisions the approach of spring. Though the landscape around the speaker looks dead, he states that it is only void of life in "appearance," as the first stirrings of spring are beginning beneath the surface.

Making its imagined entrance, spring is personified as "sluggish" and "dazed" and is described as very lethargically and hesitantly entering the melancholy landscape. The speaker describes spring's arrival as almost akin to a foreigner trudging cautiously into an unknown environment or a "naked" newborn fresh from the womb, arriving into a confusing world. Spring enters with trepidation, trembling with cold and "uncertain" of its purpose and relationship to the terrain. The speaker's imagination continues to bloom as he surveys the landscape, noting how the grass looks subtly different and prophesying the gradual changes to come, such as the "stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf."

The pace of the poem increases as the speaker's prophesies of spring accumulate. As small, singular actions happen "one by one," spring becomes more lively, and its appearance becomes more prominent as the speaker's fantasy of the season to come gains momentum. He envisions a growing "clarity" and lively transformation, noticing "outlines" of foliage where twigs used to be.

Williams's poem holds a message of careful hope, in which dark times of human gloom slowly reveal newer, more beautiful transformations for an individual in the end. It seems to urge the reader to understand the true nature of time. The world is constantly shifting: whether we see its movement or not, "the profound change" is in progress. Finally, Williams's poem is a commentary on the nature of the human imagination and the power it has to fly over its immediate landscape of existence and see aspects of the future.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 321

“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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894

“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 poem (written by a pediatrician who assisted at hundreds of deliveries) as a poem about the birthing process. Perhaps the ambiguous words “and all” of the title connect the traditional images of spring to the conditions that precede it and connect the burgeoning of the natural world with the human life cycle. The title “Spring and All” thus unites the typical Williams understatement—a sort of a shrug—with a celebration of universality.

In a poem dominated by natural imagery, abstract terms such as “dignity” and “profound” in the concluding lines stand out. These more abstract words, with their connotations of importance, contrast with the realist assembling of drab natural details that characterizes the poem. “No ideas but in things” is Williams’s famous dictum, and here it implies that the assertions of the final lines must be earned by the painstaking description earlier in the poem. The poet is a clear-eyed observer, who, by paying attention to the early signs of spring growth in a muddy field, is allowed a glimpse of “the profound change” represented by coming alive. The concreteness of the bulk of the poem supports the abstraction of its conclusion.

Consistent with the refusal of the poem to engage in poetic effusiveness about spring is the virtual absence of figurative language. There is no metaphor in the poem, unless one takes “naked” figuratively. Spring is personified, but even that figure of speech undermines traditional associations by stressing the “sluggish/ dazed” quality of the season. More subtly, the new growths are personified by being granted uncertainty and the ability to feel the cold.

Williams plays with the sounds of words throughout the poem. The consonance of r, s, t, and f works effectively in the following lines to suggest the roughness of the scrubby landscape: “All along the road the reddish/ purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy/ stuff of bushes and small trees.” The most meaningful wordplay is the sound echo that transforms “leafless” to “lifeless” between the third and fourth stanzas. These similar sounding words have similar meanings, but the latter is qualified by the phrase “in appearance,” which marks the turning point of the poem and the introduction of spring. The leafless landscape appears lifeless but, on closer examination, reveals itself to be full of the early growth.

Line endings significantly add slight (and unexpected) pauses. The line and stanza break after “fallen” (lines 6-7) illustrates a typical characteristic of Williams’s verse. The break makes the phrase “standing and fallen” ambiguous: Does it modify the “dried weeds” or the “patches of standing water”? Williams uses unusual line breaks to create an expectant pause after “tomorrow” (line 20) and to break the phrase “dignity of/ entrance” over two lines (24-25). These may seem minor points, but they are important in free verse. Since meter does not determine where lines end, the poet must have a different and distinct rationale—or he or she might as well be writing prose. Williams often breaks lines in mid-phrase (or, as he does famously in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” in mid-word). The effect is to slow the reading, to force the reader’s attention to detail, and to call attention to the poem as a made object.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194

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