William Carlos Williams

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What themes, poetic devices, and imagery are in "Burning the Christmas Greens" by William Carlos Williams?

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The poem “Burning the Christmas Greens” by William Carlos Williams embodies the themes of ritual and regeneration. The poetic devices include stunning imagery as well as simile, personification, and symbolism. Most stanzas of the poem contain imagery, from the evocative auditory image “go up in a roar” in the first stanza to the visual “shining fauna of that fire” in the final stanza.

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How does this poem embody the themes of ritual and regeneration? “Burning the Christmas Greens” describes a seasonal ritual: the taking down and burning of greenery used as decoration during the Christmas season. Bringing evergreens and their branches indoors is a ritual that predates Christianity. The nature of evergreens, unchanged by winter, is “a challenge above the snow’s hard shell,” and the color green is a promise that the earth will reawaken. The burning of the greens is also a ritual. Once they have served their purpose and become dried out, the evergreen branches are set on fire as part of the cycle of the year. Fire serves a regenerative purpose, symbolized in the poem by the “infant landscape” created in the fireplace once the greens become ash.

Imagery is a literary device in which words are used to evoke the senses, and this poem is rich in imagery. Stanza 5 provides a great example and paints a clear picture of a dark and very cold winter’s day:

At the thick of the dark
at the moment of the cold’s
deepest plunge we brought branches
cut from the green trees

In the second stanza we come across the simile “red as blood wakes / on the ash—” and within it personification of the color red, which “wakes.” The poet’s use of these two literary devices creates the sense of fire as a living and regenerative force. In Stanza 10 we come across another example of personification, the “log’s smouldering eye, / red and closing under them.” Again, the personification conveys a sense of the fire as something quite alive and life-giving.

The color green itself is symbolic in this poem. In Stanza 11 we read: “Green is a solace / a promise of peace.” Yet even the green does not remain eternal but, it due time, dies in the fire in order to give life to another season.

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What is the imagery, metaphor, and structure of the poem "Burning the Christmas Greens" By William Carlos Williams?

In the poem “Burning the Christmas Greens,” William Carlos Williams recalls the post-Christmas ritual of collecting and burning discarded trees whose “time past.” The poet makes an occasion that could be sad—a marker of the end of a holiday—briefly full of energy, albeit destructive energy. He demonstrates how sparks of life can be seen in the flames of burning trees through imagery, metaphors (short and extended), and poetic structural design.

Through both visual and aural imagery, Williams recreates the scene and presents intangible ideas of life and death. First, he uses specific colors to show different stages in the process of vitality and annihilation. Natural green objects like the holly, balsam, and hemlock trees are living; these organic objects are nurturing and protective.

Green is a solace
a promise of peace, a fort
against the cold (though we

did not say so) a challenge
above the snow’s
hard shell.

In this metaphor, green is a warm, protective cave for birds to hide, sing, and take shelter from “bullets of storms” (another short metaphor for weaponry and attacks). It protects them from white snow’s “hard shell.” The color white represents coldness and lack of life, as in the white ash left after the branches have burned away. White combats green, as shown by “green spruce boughs / pulled down by a weight of / snow.” The color red represents fire, energy, and destruction. The simile “a living red, / flame red, red as blood” compares fire to blood, which symbolizes both vitality and injury. When Williams and his friends feed the trees into the fire, he sees a personified “log’s smouldering eye, / opening red and closing under them.” He presents a sequence of colors as the branches burn:

In the jagged flames green
to red, instant and alive. Green!
those sure abutments... Gone!
lost to mind

and quick in the contracting
tunnel of the grate
appeared a world! Black
mountains, black and red—as

yet uncolored—and ash white....

He cycles from green to red to black (charred remains) to white (final absence of any life).

Williams also uses aural imagery, such as onomatopoeia (“cracked” to recreate the breaking of the branches being pulled down and their fate in the crackling fire) and alliteration:

Recreant! roared to life
as the flame rose through and
our eyes recoiled from it.

The repetition of r in this stanza emphasizes the forceful energy of the fire; the severed branches are “Recreant!” and “roar” to life as the flame engulfs or rises through them. The effect is so powerful that Williams and his friends “recoil” from the sight of the conflagration. Another example of alliteration is found in this passage:

In the jagged flames green
to red, instant and alive. Green!
those sure abutments... Gone!

The repetition of g stresses how the green foliage is destroyed, or “gone.”

The poem’s extended metaphor is of a changing landscape. Williams states early on that he and his friends will create a “landscape of flame” from a landscape which they first build from discarded trees they manage to collect. In addition to hanging branches above doorways and in windows, “On the mantle we built a green forest.” In the foliage, they position deer decorations to create a tableau of a herd walking through a forest. After they throw the branches into the fire, the wood burns before fizzling into

mountains, black and red—as

yet uncolored—and ash white,
an infant landscape of shimmering
ash and flame.

The “mountains” are remains of charred wood that give way to a primitive or “infant landscape” as if there is potentiality after destruction. Williams and his friend feel life-affirming warmth from the burning wood, which creates a “the shining fauna of that fire.”

The poem’s structure consists of nineteen stanzas, with the first three stanzas respectively containing three, five, and three lines and the remaining sixteen stanzas containing four lines (or quatrains). The poem’s third-person narrator is a young Williams with his friends. Williams the grown poet promotes a flowing effect with line breaks and enjambment. He uses these techniques in this passage to describe where they put branches:

about paper Christmas
bells covered with tinfoil
and fastened by red ribbons

we stuck the green prongs
in the windows hung
woven wreaths and above pictures
the living green. On the

mantle we built a green forest....

The words “Christmas” and “bells” describe a single object yet are separated into different lines. The description of bells and other man-made items quickly and without break run into the boys’ decorating actions. The use of enjambment (“the living green. On the/ mantle we built…”) continues the energetic flow of their boisterous ritual. They brought in branches

At the thick of the dark
the moment of the cold’s
deepest plunge....

The line break of “the cold’s / deepest plunge” creates a bit of suspense by leaving the reader momentarily hanging and asking “cold’s what?” The “deepest plunge” simulates a sharp dive into low, frigid temperatures.

Finally, Williams inserts interjections in the poem that emphasize the ideas and the fire’s energy. The green foliage burns and becomes


Violence leaped and appeared.

The branches burn and disappear in the fire only to be reborn as red flames. They no longer are the strong structures they used to be as trees but are instead ash and embers in the end:

those sure abutments... Gone!

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