Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The most important theme of “Spring and All” has already become apparent: The poem demonstrates that the awe-inspiring process of coming to life is a springtime miracle visible in the details of the thawing landscape. They come alive through close observation by the poet, who commits them realistically to language. The poem should be read in the context of a whole history of poetry heralding springtime. Writing in the early twentieth century, Williams looks for a way to treat a virtually hackneyed topic with freshness. For Williams that freshness comes from unadorned simple language and closely observed detail.

The time of the poem’s publication suggests another useful context for interpreting it. The poem appeared in 1923, the year after T. S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Waste Land (1922). Williams felt that Eliot’s The Waste Land took poetry in the wrong directions: away from American traditions and language and toward the European, and away from direct language and imagery and toward highly allusive quotations from literature and mythology. Williams’s evocation of a wasteland landscape in the opening lines (including the word “waste,” opening line 5) hints that this poem may be a response to Eliot’s work. In particular, the poem echoes the imagery of a depleted natural landscape with roots struggling to survive—images from the beginning of Eliot’s poem. Where Eliot’s use of roots becomes a metaphor for cultural traditions, however, Williams’s use of roots is organic, suggesting rootedness in the natural world. In this light, it makes sense to read the penultimate paragraph as Williams’s statement of a poetic credo. Then the concepts of “definition,” “clarity,” and “outline” make sense: The natural world offers to Williams a model for poetic expression. Poetry will quicken or come to life—freeing itself from the morbid excesses of late nineteenth century ornamentation and avoiding the arid excesses of Eliot’s appeal to scholarship—by faithfully outlining and defining the stuff of the world.