“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
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