The Poem

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A short poem in free verse, “The Young Housewife” consists of three stanzaic units of four, five, and three lines each. The poem is told by a first-person narrator who seems to be William Carlos Williams himself, although one has no way of knowing that this is the case. The title identifies a woman who is the object of attention of the poem’s narrator, indicating that she is young, recently married, and identified in relation to the house in which she and her husband live.

These motifs are elaborated in the poem’s first sentence, the emotional high point of which is the narrator’s fantasy of the woman “in negligee.” Clearly, the narrator knows her and is attracted to her. He apparently does not have access to the woman, however, and his story becomes a humorous variation on the theme that unrequited love (or lust) soon becomes a bore. The first four words of stanza 2 (“Then again she comes”) and the multiple indefinite objects of the woman’s calling (“the ice-man, fish-man”) suggest that stanza 1—indeed, the whole poem—does not describe a one-time event but rather recurrent events that happen fairly frequently. Perhaps the narrator drives by the woman’s house every day “at ten a.m.” on his way to work. The woman’s coming “to the curb” and the other events of stanzas 2 and 3 are repeated, too, though less frequently than his driving by her house.

Altogether, the poem is a generalized depiction of the narrator’s attraction to, sightings of, thoughts about, and actions toward a young married woman with whom he has limited contact—restricted, perhaps, to these chance encounters when he passes her in his car.

His attraction is apparent—as are his playfulness, humor, and cheerfulness—in his repeated actions: imagining her “in negligee,” comparing her to “a fallen leaf,” and bowing and passing smiling. If his fantasy suggests that he is a bit of a rogue, his transformation of the woman into “a fallen leaf” that he is a poet, and his running over her and the other “leaves” that he is a male chauvinist, his bowing and smiling nevertheless suggest that he is also a gentleman. Every time he sees her, he pays genuinely cheerful and friendly homage. The narrator’s behavior appears to be in conformity with Williams’s own remark about this poem to John Thirlwall: “Whenever a man sees a beautiful woman it’s an occasion for poetry—compensating beauty with beauty.”

Forms and Devices

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Parallelism may be the central principle informing the poem’s technique, form, and content. While the poem can be described as free verse, it nevertheless plays with the possibility of metrical and formal regularity. Many of its lines are four-and five-stress, eight-and nine-syllable lines. There are frequent stretches of regular meter among the lines. The poem is “almost” in quatrains. All of this parallels, without really adhering to, conventional English and American versification.

More specific parallelisms exist. The content of the three stanzaic units is arranged in a parallel manner: In each of them, the narrator first treats the woman, then himself. Stanza 1 initially sums up his fantasies of her as being “in negligee,” while stanza 2 initially sums up his perceptions of her, and stanza 3 initially sums up his imagined, metaphorical rendering of her fate. These are parallel modes of his conceiving of her, describing her, and imagining her. Still more local parallelisms occur in this material: For example, stanzas 1 and 2 begin with a time reference, which is followed by a reference to the woman herself, followed in turn by...

(This entire section contains 517 words.)

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an account of her actions that contains a reference to her clothing and, implicitly, her body. A kind of grammatical parallelism (a synthetic parallelism), built on the subject-predicate repetitions (“I pass,” “I compare,” “I bow and pass”), closes each of the three stanzas. In stanza 1, this grammatical figure is the heart of a complete, simple sentence; in stanza 2, it is the heart of an independent clause; and in stanza 3, it is the heart of a dependent clause. Grammatically, these subject-predicate constructions become less and less independent as they undergo a kind of shifting among parallel grammatical forms; at the same time, the narrator draws closer and closer to the woman in his car.

Parallelism also occurs among the sonic features of the poem. The main sonic event in the poem is the sound made by the narrator’s car as it rides over the dried leaves and crushes them. This event and sound should be understood as occurring throughout the poem, for, whether they are mentioned or not, the leaves are there in all three stanzas. The linguistic, sonic parallel to this event and sound is the onomatopoeia maintained throughout the poem, primarily by the repetitions of the hard c sound (as in “car” and “crackling”), but also by hard s sounds (as in “moves” and “leaves”), soft s sounds (as in “pass solitary” and “pass smiling”), and sh sounds (as in “she” and “rush”)—all of which can be heard in the noise a car’s wheels make crushing dried leaves.

Finally, the woman’s poetic fate parallels her “real” fate. In her role as a “young housewife,” she is defined in terms of her relationship with her husband; she is the caretaker of her husband’s house. She seems to have tucked away her individuality as casually as she tucks in her “stray ends of hair.” She fares no better in her role as the object of the narrator’s admiration. She is one fallen leaf among many—something to be swept away and forgotten.


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