The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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 entire section is 448 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 457 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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

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