The Widow's Lament in Springtime

by William Carlos Williams

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Themes and Meanings

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As a member for a while of the Imagists and Objectivists in the modernist movement, Williams was, at this early stage in his career, following the model of his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound. Williams was striving for the simple, clear, concise, sharp image, presented as objectively as possible, with virtually no editorializing or commentary. In several ways “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” anticipates this strategy, seen in slightly later Williams poems such as “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “Spring and All” (both published in the 1923 collection Spring and All). For Williams, the poem was both a picture and a “machine made of words,” and, as he famously said in his long poem Paterson (1946-1958), there are “[N]o ideas but in things.” That is, the abstract concepts in poetry are to be derived from, or couched in, concrete particulars. Like those two later short poems, “Widow’s Lament” creates a series of sharp images in free verse and, for the most part, in unadorned, simple language, inverts the usual symbolism of spring and utilizes continual enjambment, connecting short phrases of sentences that run down the page.

Several elements foreshadow the widow’s suicidal impulse at the end. One is the gradual movement of the four locations in nature—from her yard, to the meadows and woods, and finally to the swamp. Another is the symbol of the white flowers, mentioned immediately after (and associated with) the previous line about her years with her husband. The symbol of the white flowers on the trees appears again in line 24, which immediately triggers her desire to “sink into the marsh near them,” and so be in death with the white flowers that remind her of her lost husband. Her immersion into the former “joy” of the springtime flowers and into the oblivion of the reunion with her dead husband demonstrate the seductiveness, sensuousness, and escape from grief her death wish promises.

This motif of enclosure, entrapment, and engulfment—the inability of the widow to “turn away” and escape the “cold fire/ that closes round” her—encircles the poem as her grief encircles her. Her own yard, once a source of joy, surrounds her, and the new grass “closes round” her. At the end, her son’s attempt to distract or cheer her by pointing out the beautiful white flowers on the distant trees becomes counterproductive, since she merely formulates the desire to submerge herself in the marsh, a suffocating engulfment that attempts to escape her grief. The repetition of the phrase “masses of flowers” in lines 10 and 11 and the dual connotation of “masses” underscore both the heaviness and the abundance or omnipresence of her grief. These elements, coupled with the connotation of heaviness in the verb “load” in the very next phrase, suggest the flowers represent a kind of funeral wreath to her.

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