Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408
In “The Yachts,” Williams’s more typical penchant for imagistic presentation coexists with a tendency toward symbolism. Halfway through the poem, there is an interesting and unusual shift from an imagistic to a symbolic mode. The occasion is a yacht race in a bay protected from the “too-heavy blows/ of an ungoverned ocean.”
During the preparations for the race, the speaker is impressed by the physical beauty of the graceful craft, “Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute/ brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails.” Although the appeal is primarily imagistic, there is a metaphoric suggestion in the observation that the yachts, surrounded by more clumsy “sycophant” craft,
appear youthful, rareas the light of a happy eye, live with the graceof all that in the mind is feckless, free andnaturally to be desired.
As the race begins, however, after a delaying lull, the scene changes ominously. The waves of the roughening water now seem to be human bodies overridden and cut down by the sharp bows of the yachts: “It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair/ until the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind.” The original appeal of the beautiful spectacle of pleasure boats is broken and then displaced by the revelation of deeper meaning. The race is finally shown to be a symbol of human struggle, in which the masses are cut down and destroyed.
There remains a question as to the nature of the struggle. Is it to be understood simply as a common battle for survival in nature, in Darwinist terms, or does it have more specific social implications? The yachts inevitably suggest a privileged life. As the fruits of surplus wealth acquired within a protected socioeconomic preserve (like an enclosed bay), the leisure and beauty of the life they represent exists at the expense of an exploited class. For all its seductive appeal, supported by long custom and tradition, the spectacle of the yacht race in a poem of the Depression period (the poem was written in 1935) must be a reminder of social inequality and injustice.
The movement of the poem from imagistic charm to symbolic horror is in accord with the shift in the poet’s perception from a preoccupation with sensuous phenomena to an awareness of human meaning and value—the necessary movement, in short, from image to metaphor, without which the poetic presentation of such an event would remain an innocuous imagistic diversion.