How does personification contribute to "The Yachts" by William Carlos Williams?

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Personification plays a major role in William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Yachts.”  The very first word of the poem – “contend” – suggests that the yachts are almost alive and almost have human ambitions. Later the personification becomes far more explicit when the speaker says of the yachts that

they appear youthful, rare

as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace

of all that in the mind is feckless, free and

naturally to be desired. (15-18)

In lines such as these, the speaker makes the yachts appear full of life and full of a kind of vital beauty. They are presented not merely as dead mechanical instruments but as nearly alive, so that we can relate to them far more fully than we would relate to mere pieces of sea-born wood. The speaker encourages us to cheer them on as they race, to take a kind of personal interest in their fortunes. His decision to use personification in this way is especially important since yachts could easily seem merely the playthings of the self-indulgent rich. By personifying the yachts, the speaker makes them seem almost human in a way that makes them appear less emotionally distant from us than they might otherwise have seemed. Yet they are personified not only as humans but also as animals – specifically horses – as when the speaker describes them “jockeying for a start,” and then notes that

the signal is set and they

are off. (22-23)

Ironically, in the latter part of the poem, metaphorical personification of the yachts gives way to a far more explicit focus on human beings, either as literal persons or as yet another example of personification. Some critics read the final lines as referring to real people; others read them as referring to personified waves. However one interprets these lines, the tone of the poem becomes much darker and more ominous as the speaker describes

Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows.

Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside.

It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair

until the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind;

the whole sea become an entanglement of watery bodies

lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold. (25-30)

Whether these lines refer to real people thrown overboard or to waves described as if they were suffering persons, the poem ends on a note of grim and threatening darkness.

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