The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The title of William Carlos Williams’s “The Yachts” serves as the first two words of the poem. Making the title and the poem continuous in this manner is a technique he uses elsewhere, in poems such as “To a Poor Old Woman” and “The Raper from Passenack.” It calls into question the separability of the poem’s subject and its expression. Yachts have always been an emblem of wealth, but beginning in the 1890’s they became particularly strongly identified with American business magnates who did battle for the America’s Cup in races off Newport, Rhode Island. Seeking both to retain the cup and to avoid being the first American to lose, J. P. Morgan, the Vanderbilts, and other tycoons sailed against foreign contenders such as Sir Thomas Lipton in huge racing craft that were aesthetic and engineering wonders driven by acres of canvas.

The poem is descriptive and narrative through the first eight stanzas but becomes nightmarish in the final three stanzas. Sea and harbor are very different domains, and the yachts that “contend” in stanza 1 do so with one another and not directly with the “ungoverned ocean.” Here, the yachts seem fragile and face outside the harbor an inimical force that “sinks them pitilessly.” Their implied delicacy of construction is confirmed when the yachts are described as “Mothlike in mists” and “scintillant in the minute brilliance of cloudless days”—a phrase that gives the entire scene the shimmer...

(The entire section is 473 words.)