In the early 1900s, a woman’s purity was viewed as her most important aspect. So much so that it effected society’s perception of her personality and subsequent treatment of her. It often was a deciding factor in marriage arrangements. In fact, if a woman had sex before she was married and garnered a reputation for such activity, it was very likely she would never be married at all. This societal construct does not matter to William Carlos Williams. In an astoundingly progressive action for his time, Williams declares his affinity for a traditionally impure woman in his poem “Queen-Anne’s Lace.” Using symbolic colors, comparison to flowers, change of tense and coarse diction, Williams characterizes the rough and wild nature of his mistress.
The most obvious literary device Williams uses to describe the liberated nature of his mistress is the symbolism of colors. The one he most often refers to is white. This color is well know to symbolize purity and innocence. In the poem, Williams illustrates her body as being “not so white as / anemony petals” (1-2) and her “whiteness gone over” (20). Since the overall meaning is about her impurity, it is logical why the poet so often describes her symbolic lack of a white appearance. Again, this traditional impurity does not matter to Williams. This is reinforced when he says “Here is no question of whiteness” (7) meaning that he does not bring her purity into question, for it is irrelevant. Williams also uses the symbolic meaning of purple to depict his love for her. Purple is often used to symbolize royalty or rank. Thus, even thought she is marked by “a tiny purple blemish” (13), he views it as regal or something he admires about her. The motif of royalty and Willaims’ lofty feelings about this woman is even clearly illustrated in the name of the flower he is comparing her to. He loves her not only despite her impurity, but because of it.
Williams carefully compares and contrasts his lover to certain flowers in order to depict her impurity. As readers can see from the title of the poem, the poet compares the woman to a flower of the same name. While women are often compared to flowers in poetry, he chose to compare his lover to Queen-Anne’s Lace for a specific reason. This flower can be “any of several plants of the family Apieceae; wild carrot; cow parsley” (OED). The fact that it can be one of several plants means that it a common, lowly weed. The idea of Queen-Anne’s Lace of being a weed is demonstrated when Williams writes how it takes “the field by force; the grass / does not raise above it” (5-6). While it may seem odd for a poet to compare his mistress to a weed, Williams does so on purpose. Because of this woman’s impurity, she is treated like a weed by the rest of society. She is unwanted and cast aside. Furthermore, Queen-Anne’s is most often white with a dark mark at its canter. This is symbolic for her being marked by adultery. Williams reinforces this symbolism when he says “Wherever / his hand has lain this is / a tiny purple blemish” (11-13). In addition, he contrast her to the anemony flower. The anemony is “a genus of plants with handsome flowers” (OED). Yet she is nothing like this traditionally beautiful, delicate flower. She is “not so white… / nor so smooth-nor / so remote” (1-3). Of course this does not matter because, at least to Williams, she doesn’t have to be in order to be loved.
Though subtle, Williams uses a slight change of tense to characterize the woman. Despite its single occurrence, it is pivotal to the meaning of the poem. The entire poem occurs in the first person. For example, Williams writes “Each part / is a blossom under his touch / to which the fibers of her being / stem one by one, each to its end/ until the whole field is a / white desire” (13-18). Since he is currently in love with the woman, it can be assumed that he is talking about himself. “His touch” (14) is Williams’ touch. Yet earlier, he writes “Wherever / his hand has lain this is / a tiny purple blemish” (11-13). In this one line only, he switches to past tense. This switch of tenses makes it clear that the hand who left the “tiny purple blemish” (13) is another man, some past lover the woman has had. This of course, does not matter to Williams and he lusts after her anyway.
The most critical literary device Williams uses to illustrate his free spirited lover is coarse diction. She is “wild” (4) and is marked by a metaphorical “blemish” (13) or “mole” (8) because of her past sexual experiences. In addition, one can assume that the field, since it is overcome with “a / white desire” (17-18), is symbolic for the lover’s sexuality. Thus when she takes “the field by force” (5), readers come to understand that she is sexually liberated. Williams uses such harsh diction to describe the woman’s impurity because that is how others would have seen this woman at the time. Instead of being seen as a progressive woman, she would have been seen as wild and forceful; essentially unladylike. Her distasteful behavior would have marked her as easily and as unflatteringly as a mole or blemish would have. Though the woman’s impurity was concerning to society at the time, Williams is able to look past them and love the woman anyway.
Through the use of the symbolism colors, comparison to flowers, change of tense and rough diction, Williams characterizes the impurity of his mistress. Unlike many men and the rest of society at the time, Williams is relatively unconcerned with sexual purity. In fact, the absence of sexual restriction is even a factor as to why he is attracted to his mistress in the first place. He prizes her sexual liberation and admires her for it. Williams’ support of his mistress’ past lovers and subsequent support of women’s sexual equality makes “Queen-Anne’s Lace” a truly progressive declaration of love.