The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

William Carlos Williams’s “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” is a twenty-eight-line, free-verse lyric in which a widow expresses her grief over the death of her husband as she looks at the growing plants and flowers of spring that remind her of her loss. It is a modernist version of a pastoral elegy that uses images of nature to lament the death of a loved one. Unlike earlier elegies such as John Milton’s seventeenth century “Lycidas” or Walt Whitman’s nineteenth century “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” there is not the usual coming to terms with the fact of mortality—no consolation, no hope, nor even resignation hold out in the end. Instead, the poem uses the dramatic interior monologue of the widow to express her sorrow as she looks at the trees, bushes, and flowers, ending with her final suicidal wish to be immersed in the marsh, and so be with her husband in death.

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The poem begins with the widow thinking, “Sorrow is my own yard/ where the new grass/ flames as it has flamed/ often before.” Yet this year, rather than a sign of springtime joy, it is a “cold fire” that surrounds her and reminds her of her deceased husband and bereavement. Lines 7-8 jump suddenly into the past tense to explain, tersely, that she has lived for thirty-five years with her husband.

Lines 9 19 come back to the present to describe the springtime growth: First, the white plum tree with its “masses of flowers,” and then the cherry branches and the yellow and red “masses of flowers.” However, the beauty, color, and vitality of these spring trees and flowers, rather than symbolizing the usual ideas of joy, newness, birth, growth, and development, now represent grief, the past, death, loss, and deprivation. In a flat tone, she notes that her grief in her now colorless world overpowers any joy or beauty they once held for her. In fact, they are now only a source of sorrow. She observes, “today I notice them/ and turn away forgetting.” In lines 20-24 the widow mentions that her son has told her about “trees of white flowers” in the distant meadows.

In the last of the six, flowing sentences which often use enjambment and run on to the succeeding line, lines 25-28 give her final death wish and a sense of the sensual, seductiveness of death to her: “I feel that I would like/ to go there/ and fall into those flowers/ and sink into the marsh near them.” In later years Williams described the poem as his “imagination of what mother would be thinking” after his father died of cancer on Christmas day, 1918.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

Without using any pattern of rhyme or rhythm, the poem concentrates on an objective, flat, and unemotional description of the springtime images, emphasizing the sharp contrasts, anthitheses, and inversions of standard symbols initially with striking figures of speech (metaphors such as “Sorrow is my own yard” and “the new grass/ flames,” as well as the oxymoron “cold fire,”) and several proximate repetitions (“flames” and “flamed” in line 3, “year” and “years” in lines 6 and 7, “masses of flowers” in lines 10 and 11, and “today” in lines 18 and 20).

The unusual metaphor “new grass flames” creates both a visual comparison of brightness and shape and a kinetic one of a flame flickering and grass blowing. The title itself seems to foreshadow the tension between a flat, prosaic, objective description—an almost deadening, hypnotic, unemotional effect heightened by the nearly continual enjambment and simple conjunctions and prepositions that string the phrases together—and an overwhelming, inescapable grief in the widow’s dramatic monologue, where one seems to overhear the speaker’s thoughts, rather than be directly addressed. The title describes a detached viewpoint from outside the widow, whereas the poem itself is in the first person and completely interior.

In addition to this flat tone, the widow’s voice is somewhat halting and disjointed, sometimes abruptly shifting focus without logical coherence, as if her mind, numbed by grief, is flitting from image to image and conjuring up its inevitable associations. For example, the only two relatively short sentences, which parallel each other (lines 7-8 and lines 9-10), shift to the past tense and then back to the present again with the first sentence inverted (“Thirtyfive years/ I lived with my husband”), highlighting the disconnectedness of each sentence with the previous one in terms of subject matter. Thus, the repetitions, including the repeating of “flowers” four times, serve as not logical but rather associational links in the widow’s bereaved mind to stitch together discordant, discrete images and thoughts.

Since earlier published versions of the poems also changed the verb tenses to past—“load” to “loaded” in line 12 in Selected Poems (1949) and “turn” to “turned” in line 19 in Collected Early Poems (1951)—one may surmise that Williams was quite conscious of the tense shift when he let the one in line 8 stand. The running together of “Thirtyfive years” may signal that disintegration of the “unit” which was her marriage and perhaps the irrevocable break between the discrete past and the sorrowful present. For the first seventeen lines, the widow uses mostly simple verbs that do not state she is initiating an action in the present; beginning in line 18 the active verbs of the present (“notice,” “turn away,” “feel,” “fall,” “sink”) show her wish for initiating actions that eventually lead to the idea of commiting suicide.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194

Axelrod, Steven Gould, and Helen Deese, eds. Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

Beck, John. Writing the Radical Center: William Carlos Williams, John Dewey, and American Cultural Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Bremen, Brian A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Copestake, Ian D., ed. Rigor of Beauty: Essays in Commemoration of William Carlos Williams. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann W. William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.

Gish, Robert. William Carlos Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Laughlin, James. Remembering William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Lenhart, Gary, ed. The Teachers and Writers Guide to William Carlos Williams. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1998.

Lowney, John. The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. 1981. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Vendler, Helen, ed. Voices and Visions: The Poet in America. New York: Random House, 1987.

Whitaker, Thomas R. William Carlos Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

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Themes