William Carlos Williams Poems
Modern Romance: Reading “Queen Anne’s Lace”
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.
“My English Grandmother” Still Lives: Tone, Perspective, and Emotional Progression
William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Last Words of My English Grandmother” departs from traditional elegies in many ways. The composition does not follow elegiac meter or structure, though normally a poem with elegiac meter should consist of four iambs and have elegiac couplets. (For its part, the elegiac couplet should consist of dactylic hexameter followed by a line in dactylic pentameter.) This poem only consists of lines with three iambs, and has four line quatrain stanzas. The Academy of American Poetry states that an elegy is traditionally “written in the response to the death of a person or group” (Poetic Form). Instead, in Williams’s poem, a sassy grandmother argues with the speaker about how she is being treated at the end of her life. Offering a sharp contrast to a normal elegy, no one is dead yet in this poem. This is one of the biggest differences between Williams’s elegy and others. This poem also departs from familiar conventions of elegy in tone, perspective, and emotional progression.
Williams’s tone is different from the tone used in other elegies, since traditional elegies are lamentations. According again to the Academy of American Poetry, a lamentation is “a poem or song expression of grief” (Poetic Form). An elegy is used as a way for a poet to express feelings and memories for those who are no longer with us. The poet may not always write about a personal death, but possibly about a loss in general. In a traditional elegy, the speaker is passionately grieving or mourning for those who are deceased. In this poem, the speaker does not give us any of these elements. The speaker is not grieving or mourning, because the grandmother is still alive in this story. Instead of lamenting, the speaker is sharing a memory of the dying grandmother, even though is not typical for an elegy to be a memory of the living. Overall, the narrative is about the strong-willed grandmother, who strongly protests against being taken to the hospital:
Give me something to eat- They’re starving me I’m all right I won’t go To the hospital. No, no, no (Norton, 9-12).
Rather than passionately grieving, the speaker expresses annoyance with the grandmother’s situation. When the grandmother cries for food and begs to stay home, the speaker insists:
Let me take you To the hospital, I said And after you are well You can do as you please (Norton, 20).
In the fourth stanza, the speaker also suggests that the best course is acceptance of the situation of the grandmother: namely, to accept that the grandmother is ill and needs to go to the hospital. Williams’s narrator understands that it is the grandmother’s time to go, and that soon she will be in a “better place” where she can do as she pleases.
The speaker’s perspective in this poem is also unconventional. Normally, an elegy is a poem written by one survivor, about a person who is already deceased. Although the speaker in this poem is expressing a memory, that same speaker is not necessarily memorializing someone’s death, because the grandmother is still alive. In this poem, William has two speakers. Not only is there a speaker who is telling the story, but the grandmother is also speaking. In many instances in the poem, the grandmother gives her own opinions on how she wants to live the end of her life. “Is this what you call/making me comfortable?”(Norton, 23-24), she says, ridiculing the speaker. Additionally, elegies usually look back on the deceased persons’ life, but here the speaker is experiencing the grandmother’s final moments prior to the grieving period. This setup does not allow time for the speaker to undertake the usual grieving time one would have in a traditional elegy. The perspective changes from remembering or memorializing to experiencing the last days of the living.
Along with the departures in tone and perspective, “The Last Words of My English Grandmother” does not follow the traditional emotional progression that a standard elegy would exhibit. The Academy of American Poetry states that an elegy should consist of three major stages: “there is a lament, where the speaker expresses grief and sorrow, then praise and admiration of the idealized dead, and finally consolation and solace”. Yet Williams’s poem lingers in lamentation followed by consolation, and then jumps back to more lamentation. In the beginning of the poem, rather than starting in lamentation, the speaker starts with a description of what is immediately seen: There were some dirty plates And a glass of milk Beside her on a small table Near the rank, disheveled bed- (Norton, 1-4).
In this poem, rather than the speaker lamenting, it is the grandmother who is lamenting. The grandmother is aware of her situation but still would like to live her last moments as she sees fit. In a sense, the grandmother is grieving for herself. She wants to stay in the home and eat, but the speaker has chosen otherwise for her. There cannot be any true consolation in this poem because the grandmother is still alive and breathing. The speaker is not comforting to anyone who is grieving, no one has died, and there is no expression of hope towards the situation. Also, unlike a normal elegy, this poem skips the praise and admiration phase. Neither the speaker nor the grandmother shows any praise or admiration in this story. Again, although Williams has taken as his topic a sad situation, the speaker suggests that he is annoyed and that the grandmother is sassy and demanding. This poem skips this important factor in the traditional format, and jumps back into lamentation; for her part, the grandmother becomes more annoyed about going to the hospital throughout the end of the poem. When the ambulance takes her away, she comments on the scenery, leaving her last words as:
What are all those Fuzzy-looking things out there? Trees? Well, I’m tired Of them and rolled her head away (Norton, 35-40). Although William Carlos Williams does not follow familiar conventions of elegy, his poem still channels his own voice. This composition paints a realistic picture for readers because it is easier to relate to than a loftier elegy would be. Rather than praising the dead, the speaker shows what it is like to deal with the dying. Often, people are more involved in dealing with the dying than in dealing with the deceased. For many, it is a lot harder to deal with the knowledge that a loved one is dying, and faces a fate that cannot in any way be changed. Although this poem is not a typical elegy, the speaker still expresses raw emotions such as annoyance, pain, anger, and sorrow.
Elegy: Poetic Form. Academy of American Poets, n.d. https://poets.org/glossary/elegy. 20 Feb. 2014. Web.25 Oct. 2016.
“Elegiac Couplet.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. . 28 Oct. 2016.
“Glossary | For Better for Verse.” For Better for Verse RSS. University of Virginia: Department of English, n.d. https://prosody.lib.virginia.edu/about/rules-of-thumb/ thumb/Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. “The Last Words of My English Grandmother”. 229-300. Print
Distinguishing Between Human and Non-Human in Spring and All
Although established as nonhuman, poets often use animals, nature, and other objects to comment about the human condition in poetry. While in some cases this may lead to a clear distinction between human and non-human, William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All [By the road to the contagious hospital], breaks down the barrier between what is human and what is not. By analogizing the coming of spring, and relying on imagery and line, Williams comes to an understanding about being stuck between life and death, and concludes that the intersections between human and non-human are too intermingled to be separated.
Williams uses decaying imagery to create a bleak depiction of the human life cycle. That is to say, Williams uses imagery to say something about humanity by describing the nature that surrounds it. The subject of the poem begins “By the road to the contagious hospital,” an image which juxtaposes something deadly—like a contagious disease—to something life-giving—like a hospital. This image immediately blurs distinctions between humanity and nature, suggesting the road to be the path of life, a path with an inevitably pitiful end. Williams doesn’t even allow for the possibility of an alternative path. Instead of other roads, “the road to the contagious hospital” is surrounded by “broad, muddy fields/ brown with dried weeds,” suggesting that humanity is completely powerless to the natural world and a predetermined path toward death. He expands this idea with the “cold wind” in line 5, which brings “mottled clouds” to the scene. Williams suggests the sky is vast and untouchable, while the subject is small and insignificant. The imagery Williams uses to describe the winter landscape induces an anxious sense of foreboding. With no other options, and completely alone, the subject must embark on the tumultuous path of life.
Williams also creates movement in Spring and All, starting with a large image and moving toward a smaller, more focused one. The zoomed-out image of the “waste of broad, muddy fields” underneath “the surge of the blue/ mottled clouds” begins to zero in on the nature that lines the road in the stanza. Still, almost unbearably slow crawl toward clarity leaves the sense of unease in the reader. The third stanza reads “All along the road the reddish/ purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy/ stuff of bushes and small trees/ with dead, brown leaves under them/ leafless vines-” Although this stanza mainly consists of detailed descriptions of the scene around the subject, the image is still broad and unclear. Instead of focusing on the individual characteristics of the nature in the scene, Williams combines them, blending the image of the bushes with that of the trees in line 12. And although this stanza features more color than the barren brown of the first, he avoids using a distinct hue, instead describing the image as “reddish/ purplish.” Williams’s refusal to give the reader a clear image, in conjunction with the images of decay, introduce a sense of frustration in the reader—frustration over not being able to grasp the image, and also, frustration over the cemented quality of human existence, always stuck between life and death, with no control over it’s pace. Here, Williams’s images of the non-human becomes entangled with vulnerability: one of the most prominent emotions in the human world.
And this vulnerability that Williams addresses is expanded in the imagery of the following stanzas, where a “sluggish/ dazed spring approaches.” The imagery of the oncoming spring described in Spring and All, however, differs from the hopeful connotations we normally associate with the season. Though the end of winter finally brings a hyper-focused image, even focusing on individual blades of grass and “clarity, outline of leaf,” the image described is far from cheerful. Perhaps the most startling language used in the poem is in the fifth stanza, where Williams describes the budding of plants: “They enter the new world naked,/ cold, uncertain of all/ save that they enter. All about them/ the cold, familiar wind-” Describing plant life as “enter[ing] the new world naked” is Williams’s most blatant use of anthropomorphism, as he relates nature to childbirth. This connection is rooted in Williams’s omission of a distinct they, as well as the use of the word naked, shifting the poem from images of nature to images of childbirth, and indicating that the meaning of the poem extends past the realm of non-human. Buried under images of winter and spring, Williams reaches a fundamental truth of human existence: a person is vulnerable in their birth, in their death, and at every moment in-between. Additionally, Williams suggests that the human life cycle is cynical and doesn’t leave anyone behind; all those birthed in spring must eventually die in the winter. Finally, one should be weary of looking for beauty (spring) in winter.
Through the imagery alone gives Spring and All much of its meaning, the conspicuous anxiety of the poem is heightened by William’s use of line and syntax. The two longest stanzas—stanzas two and three—are mainly compromised of descriptions of winter. As the poem shifts to clearer images of spring, the stanzas get shorter. While this serves to allude to the drawn-out length of winter and its accompanied suffering, it also draws out the length of time the reader must wait for a clear image, thus extending their frustration. The poem does begin, however, with a single I separated form the other stanzas. This isolation of the subject introduces an overwhelming loneliness that Williams strings throughout the rest of the poem.
Line also plays an important role in building the tone of Williams’s poem. Williams uses enjambment throughout Spring and All to deprive the reader of familiar structures and further distort his images, therefore contributing to the sense of foreboding and anxiety throughout the poem. For example, Williams’s description of “the blue/ mottled clouds driven from the/ northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the/ waste of broad, muddy fields” breaks up the images he describes, adding to the fuzziness of the poem’s imagery, and the frustration that it induces.
Williams takes the choppiness of his line breaks a step further by frequently using dashes to break up ideas, leaving fragmented thoughts scattered throughout the poem, like in the line “One by one objects are defined-/ It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf” or “But now the stark dignity of/ entrance-Still, the profound change has come upon them.” Though these unfinished thoughts give the reader little closure, their frequent and constant use throughout the text gives a consistent and cyclical impression to the poem, reminding the reader of the undeviating cycle of life and death.
All of these elements come together in Williams Carlos Williams’s Spring and All [Road to the contagious hospital] to break down the distinctions between what is human and what is not. Williams’s distortion of the line between nature and humanity leads to epiphanies about the cycle of human existence.
Deceptively Simple: An Analysis of “The Red Wheelbarrow”
William Carlos Williams’s poem titled “The Red Wheelbarrow” paints a picture of a wheelbarrow outside in the rain. It is composed of just sixteen words that are divided equally into four stanzas. At first glance, it may seem like a concise and straightforward poem. The author uses fundamental words that even a child could understand. Williams, however, managed to produce much complexity regardless of the shortness and simplicity of his work. The conciseness of the poem initially leaves the audience with a great deal of ambiguity as to what the author was trying to express, though Williams’s writing ultimately indicates the theme of an appreciation for everyday yet intriguing sights such as the wheelbarrow itself.
Williams uses figurative language to poetically communicate how important the wheelbarrow is to the rest of the scene. Despite the fact that “The Red Wheelbarrow” lacks any sort of rhyme scheme, it does follow a general rhythm. Each stanza is composed of just four words and two lines. The first lines of each of the stanzas have three words while the last lines have just one, two-syllable word. Also, the first lines of the first and last stanzas have four syllables while the first lines of the second and third stanzas have three syllables. Williams was conscious of keeping the poem’s rhythm because he broke up the words “wheelbarrow” and “rainwater” to make it consistent. For instance, the second stanza reads, “a red wheel / barrow,” and the third stanza reads, “glazed with rain / water” (1471). These unusual pauses in the words prevent a smooth flow when one reads the poem. It is as if each word has its own individual beat. Williams uses a consistent rhythm in his poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Most of the poem, with the exception of the first stanza, is designated to expressing imagery. The first stanza, however, is part of Williams’s use of concrete imagery because each stanza is shaped like a wheelbarrow. Williams uses the color “red” to describe the wheelbarrow and “white” to describe the chickens in the following lines, “a red wheel / barrow” and “beside the white / chickens” (1471). These colors are very ordinary and there is nothing really spectacular about them. In the third stanza, however, Williams chooses to describe the rainwater as “glazed.” This word shows the beauty of how the rainwater is coating the wheelbarrow. “Glazed” gives the wheelbarrow a glossy and fresh feel. It is not “drenched” or “soaked” with rain, as these words would make the wheelbarrow seem unattractive and dirty. The imagery that Williams shares with the audience is a mundane setting that people could witness almost any day.
It is the first stanza that makes the poem more than just an everyday scene. The first lines, “so much depends / upon” (1471), illustrate Williams’s tone for the poem. It assigns a sense of importance towards the forthcoming object, the red wheelbarrow. He even breaks up the word “wheelbarrow” into “wheel” and “barrow” by placing them on separate lines. Not only is he keeping a consistent rhythm, he is dissecting the object to allow the audience to examine it in its simplest form: a wheel and a barrow. Williams believes that this manmade object is the most important element in the scene. For instance, the chickens are “beside” the wheelbarrow; the wheelbarrow is not “beside” the chickens. It is as if the author sees the wheelbarrow as some sort of king or leader and the other objects are beneath it. Even though Williams’s eyes will naturally be attracted to the largest and brightest object in the scene, the wheelbarrow is more than just a big, bright object. He sees the manmade object, the wheelbarrow, as having an important role on earth. Wheelbarrows were and still are an essential tool to have on a farm. For instance, they can be used to carry seeds for planting or feed for the chickens. They were especially important to farmers during the early 20th century, the time this poem was written, because they did not have the machinery that exists today. Even though the wheelbarrow seems to be superior to the other objects, it does not pose any threat to the chickens or the rainwater. One could argue that the rainwater actually poses a threat to the wheelbarrow because it can cause it to rust and rot. Williams does not bring this thought to the reader’s attention, however. He therefore suggests a harmonious relationship between the three elements in the scene.
Williams’s picturesque poem makes people think about the world that they see around them everyday. These scenes that people witness do not have to be anything extravagant in order to be considered beautiful. Beauty can therefore be found in the simplest things. Another way in which people can relate to this poem is if they tend to take things for granted. It is if Williams is telling them to stop and appreciate not only the beauty of the objects around them, but the objects for what they are worth. People tend to assume that everyday objects, such as a wheelbarrow, will always be there for them. People may not appreciate the fact that they are available for use. It is like the cliché, “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” Taking the poem into account, a farmer may not realize the extent to which he depends on the wheelbarrow until it is broken or destroyed. Williams uses “The Red Wheelbarrow” to illustrate the beauty that he found in such a simple scene and also to make the audience think about the things that they take for granted.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” conveys a powerful message to the audience even though it is composed of just sixteen words. Williams uses imagery and a consistent rhythm to place emphasis on the poem’s theme. He tells the audience that a wheelbarrow has an important role on earth. Williams does not tell readers how or why a wheelbarrow is so essential, but he did not need to. The author makes the audience realize that they may take things for granted. Williams wants them to be thankful for what they have. The poem also shows readers the beauty that can be found in the most ordinary things. William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a concise poem that tells the audience to have appreciation for the things around them, even if they are so simple and ordinary.
Williams, William C. “The Red Wheelbarrow.” 1923. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. 6th ed. Vol. D. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010. 1471. Print.
Visual Forms in “The Red Wheelbarrow”
The period of modernism in the literature has brought the new forms and the new ways of expressing the ideas. With the development of the imagist movement in the poetry, the free verse and the clarity of expression as well as clear language came to the foreground. The poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams is one of the best examples of true imagist poem since it places value on the simplicity of the created image and on the imagery in general, instead of prioritizing some abstract ideas and sophisticated words. The most important point in the poem is the picture of the farm that arises in front of the reader and is created by only 14 words. This simple and still engaging scene on the farm is, however, more than just a description of the rainy day, considering the sense that the author has placed in his visual images and the form of the poem.
First of all, the situation that the reader can imagine after reading the poem is rather vivid and bright. This is one of the peculiarities of the imagist poetry when the most important task is to create a picture. Nevertheless, the beginning of the poem does not allow to perceive this poem as descriptive only. Conforming to the idea that a poem can be transformed into a painting, the author created a piece of poetry that creates a visual scene while the first stanza about depending plays a role of the frame, encouraging the reader to immerse in the latter imagery. Moreover, starting the writing with the idea of dependency, William Carlos Williams prepares the reader that there is something behind the picture. Not characteristic of this literature movement, the poet makes an attempt to indicate another layer in his poem. Having read completely, the readers realize that it is not about a thing itself, but about a farmer who suddenly realizes the importance of the thing that he might have believed was not of high value to him and on which he is dependent.
Another important aspect to consider in this poem is the power of its structure. Consisting of four stanzas, the poem contains only a single sentence. However, it is divided into four parts that follow one another and provide additional information regarding the setting involved in the poem. Such structure puts emphasis on the most important words, making them appear on the neutral background. Moreover, splitting the complex nouns into two parts was also the way for the author to give those words additional and even stronger meaning besides slowing down the readers and making them reconsider the ideas hidden behind those words. While the reader, having composed the word “wheelbarrow” sees the respective image, he realizes that wheels are the essential basis of this device. The same happens with the use of the word “water” after the “rain”. In this way, the author emphasizes the role of the water within that setting, which might be connected with the symbolic meaning of cleaning since there is no dirt in the depicted scene.
The symbolic meaning of the separate elements of the setting created by the author allows to notice the deeper meaning, sometimes even multiple meanings, of the poem. Here, an important point for consideration are the colors. The author accents the red color of the wheelbarrow, which might be interpreted in a range of ways. However, considering the setting of the farm and the meaning of red color as a symbol of distress, it is possible to conclude that the red color symbolizes the turmoil which the farmer has to overcome. Furthermore, the red color builds contrast with the white color of the chicken surrounding it. This might be used to show the innocence of the farmer’s work or nature when compared to the man-made devices or objects. Here, it is possible to speak also about the opposing of the controlled by a person society with nature. Even more, since the wheelbarrow is the central image of the poem, this opposition could be characterized by the higher importance of the society rather than nature. Besides, a symbolic meaning could also be ascribed to the glazing of the rain which, to some extent, reminds of the process of art creation or polishing something, making it perfect. Therefore, the symbolism of the poem distinguishes it from the merely descriptive one.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams presents an outstanding example of the imagist poetry creating a bright and vivid scene. Making the readers observe such a real picture is possible through the use of respective colors and images as well as trough the structure of the poem. Comprising of a single sentence only, the poem flows smoothly from one image to another, making the readers completely immersed in the process of visualizing and reconsidering the ideas. Nevertheless, the poem is not about the scene itself, it might also be regarded as symbolical due to the symbolism of colors and images, enabling a range of different interpretations.
Elderly Care in William Carlos Williams’ Last Words
Far from the elegiac or lamenting tone the reader may approach a poem with the premise of death implied in the “last words” of the title, Williams delivers an uncompromising picture of the mental and physiological effects of aging. The extent of these highlight some of the moral dilemmas that occur in elderly care, also demonstrating how it impacts family members by imposing difficult or impossible choices on them. This includes the conflict between a responsibility to minimize suffering but also a primal compulsion to keep vulnerable family members alive.
Williams opens the first stanza with imagery of squalor (“there were some dirty plates” l.1) that indicates a low quality of life. The Grandmother is given a distinct lack of dignity, with olfactory language of a “rank” (l.4) smell and a “glass of milk” (l.2) which has likely gone off given its surroundings. As well as these instances of decay mirroring her own aging process in which she is experiencing physical deterioration at the end of her life span, they also contribute to an underlying sense of stasis in the opening sections. The objects exist in an untouched state, with the accumulation of “dirty plates” and “disheveled bed” (l.4) indicating that this has been the case for some time. Formal elements support this, with a lack of rhyme, rhythm and punctuation reflecting the unstructured inertia of her existence. The Grandmother’s verbal action, or inaction, is also decidedly passive in the second stanza. Other than the inherent stillness of “lay” (l.6) , her movements of “snoring” (l.6) and “rousing” (l.7)are involuntary. The latter, though implying a sudden jolt, is not a conscious action in the context of sleep. The only exception to this inactivity, her “cry for food” (l.8), highlights a lack of self sufficiency as the purpose of “cry[ing]” to bring about a response by another party. The connotations of infancy with this verb, especially when it applies to food, also shows how age induced dependency effects family structures. Unable to fulfil the traditional feminine roles of domestic upkeep, preparing food or looking after younger family members, she is reliant on these around her in the same way a child is. Following her appeal for food, she then demands it rudely with an informal contraction “gimme something to eat” (l.9), signposting a change of tone that is mirrored by the initial trochee. The flowing enjambement that had earlier induced stasis also becomes fragmented, with short three and four word sentences disrupting and accelerating the rhythm as the Grandmother becomes increasingly confused and paranoid. This evidenced through contradictions that emerge in her speech, simultaneously “all-right” (l.11) and “starv[ed]” (l.10), with the latter claim undermined by the evidence that she is provided food but choses not to eat it (“dirty plates” “glass of milk”). The identity of who she refers to as “they” is also conspicuously ambiguous. Williams does not specify if she is in a residential facility with nurses, or even if the speaker acts as a carer, achieving a disorientating that gives an insight into the muddled brain of the subject. It is even feasible that these people are a figment of her senile imagination, seeing as the Grandmother’s has displayed paranoia and lack of independent capability symptomatic of Alzheimers, which is more or less confirmed confirmed later by “her mind was now clear” (l.26).
Deprived of physical and mental faculty, the subject loses autonomy of her life as Williams demonstrates the balance of power within the exchange. Despite making her position clear that she “won’t go to hospital”, the Grandmother finds herself being “lifted…on to the stretcher” (l.22) by “ambulance men”. The image of multiple, physically capable men working in unison to take her somewhere she does not want to go is a poignant reminder of her lack of self-determination and the assonance and metric correspondence between “oh, oh, oh” (l.21) and “no, no, no” (l.12) emphasize that she is being subjecting to pain despite these initial objections. Overriding the subject’s wants touches on the moral quandary mentioned in the introduction to this analysis, with the speaker’s decision to hospitalize his Grandmother for the benefit of her health causing significant discomfort. In doing so, this encroaches on another commitment to alleviate pain that the Grandmother asserts in “is this what you call // making me comfortable?” (l.25), with the spanning of this question between two stanzas making it seem like the it is being asked as she is being hoisted up on the stretcher, causing her distress. In a broader sense, it also alludes to the perceived duty of younger generations to look after their elderly relatives, seeing as they would likely have had an instrumental role in their upbringing. The Grandmother’s “tired[ness]” (l.39) in the final stanza is easy to empathize with: stripped of authority regarding her own life (“you do what you please first/ then I can do what I please”(l.20)), mental state of confused paranoia and sense of alienation is increasingly worsening (“you think your so smart/ you young people” (l.27)) and a very limited sensory engagement of the world (“nearly blind”(l.5)). With the nexus between life and the natural world being consistently reinforced throughout literary and cultural history (Hooke, 59), “roll[ing] her head away (l.40)” from trees can be seen as a rejection of life itself. Her only exhibition of concerted movement, it is a final and defiant action that fully evidences the extent to which she is suffering.
In conclusion, through vivid descriptions supported by formal techniques, Williams shows how age ravages the human mind and body, presenting some of the ethical challenges that occur in elderly care. Often, attempts to improve physiological health through treatment leads to extreme distress and goes against the wishes of the subject. Equally, especially in the case of Alzheimers, reduced mental capabilities mean that they are not fully able to make these decisions on their own and adds to the pressure of younger generations who are already subject to social norms that dictate elderly family members should be cared for. Tellingly, Williams forms no concrete conclusion with regard to the right way to go about these choices, illustrating how age also has devastating effects on family members by implicating them in impossible decisions.