Cyclical Despair and Redemption:
A Close Reading of “Spring and All” by William Carlos Williams
The season of spring often connotes beauty and vitality; but perhaps the temporality of the season exudes tragedy as opposed to romantic optimism. William Carlos Williams’ poem “Spring and All” depicts the dawning of springtime as it enters and struggles against the incumbent, oppressive winter. The strong use of metaphorical device that radiates throughout the work indicates a human condition stretching beyond the seemingly descriptive landscape. Indeed, William’s stylistic and linguistic choices depict an element of futility in life, suggesting frustration at its ad nauseam cyclicality and inevitable mortality.
Williams utilizes the language to create a boldly dire exposition of the winter landscape, as demonstrated by the following passage:
… Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water (“Spring” 4-7)
Descriptive words such as “waste,” “muddy,” “brown,” “dried weeds,” and “fallen” all convey the desolation and stagnancy that permeate the locale, a place described as “[b]y the road to the contagious hospital” (1). The road is leading to a place of supposed healing; and yet illness, despair, and death dominate over the salubrious potential. The road is almost too direct, too certain – and its surroundings suggest its unavoidable destination. The immediate declaration of such a linear path reinforces the notion of Williams’ depiction of nature connecting to human life, as one frequently associates the imagery of a road with the depiction of the journey of one’s existence. Williams sets the destination with finality, for “to the contagious hospital” does not suggest that it serves a mere stop by the wayside of an infinite path, but instead is the end destination.
Contagious may further be developed to reflect the nature of the imminent emergence of spring through the rapid spread of symptoms as “It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf” (22). The seasonal components infuse the barren landscape in somewhat of an ironic matter. Disease corrupts and wears away an infected body, subjecting the physical form to nefarious effects; yet the decay is already present within the manifestation of nature Williams presents. Spring appears as an opportunity for rebirth, perhaps for even a more sustainable renewal. It enters into a bleak, faded landscape of “reddish” and “purplish” hues, set amongst “twiggy” shrubbery, “dead, brown leaves,” and “leafless vines” (9, 10, 12, 13). All are suggestive of absence – of something that once was brilliant but that has since passed away into decay.
Though one may associate spring with new life, Williams portends its demise as immediately as he recognizes its entrance. An essential, decisive line break indicates this:
leafless vines –
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches – (13-15)
This transition from the description of the dying earth to the entrance of spring foreshadows the fate of the naïve season; for the pairing of the lines places them in a shared physical space within the text, bridging the two notions together into what was and what will be. Spring enters tentatively, not exuding hope, but instead becoming an object of sympathy in its “naked,” “uncertain of all” existence (16, 17). By the process that clarifies “outline of leaf,” there is a hesitant shift from the abstract uncertainty from which the season forms. It is pregnant period, which in turn transitions to emergence, the process of definition emulating the birth of an infant being. The vulnerability of spring in this fledgling form makes it susceptible to the world’s cruelty. The expectation of death encompasses what should be joyous proceedings; by the very condition of existence, one begins to die the very day one is born.
Thus, the spring is not pretentious or presumptuous of the beauty it might bring; its unknowing innocence ultimately translates into naiveté that allows the world around it to overwhelm its elements as it later “begins to awaken” (27). This awakening indicates not only the profuse burst of diverse flora and activity of fauna, but also is a somewhat dreadful occurrence; for its entrance comes with “stark dignity” that recognizes the ephemerality of its beauty (24). This intrinsic transience will cause it to shift into a darker state of being, into that inevitable decay which surrounded its initial growth. The “profound change” serves as merely a distraction from the overwhelming reality of death (25). Vitality is fleeting, ethereal; it transitions into the lethargy of mediocrity. Though vitality dissolves, the product of decay is accumulated and left to rot.
Several elements of the poem remind the audience of its own mortality and vulnerability. These include the aforementioned image of the road to the hospital, as well as other imagery that personifies the season of spring. For example, qualifiers like “dazed,” “naked,” and “uncertain,” as well as verbs such as “approaches” and “awaken” may be associated with human forms and actions (15, 16, 17; 15, 27). This allows the season, the natural surroundings, and the human observer to converge into one state of being. This poem seems to suggest that ultimately, humans are highly intellectually developed animals which have electively distanced themselves from their natural origins through separatist mindset and mechanical developments. “Spring and All” reminds the human race of the carbon which comprises all life, that which all are essentially formed from and shall one day return to.
A distinct theme of cyclicality is present in the piece. Williams’ prose held within the volume Spring and All substantiates this idea. In Chapter VI he states, “Through the orderly sequences of unmentionable time EVOLUTION HAS REPEATED ITSELF FROM THE BEGINNING” (804). Williams appropriately titles Chapter XIX – which immediately precedes the poem “Spring and All” in the book – as “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism”. Williams cites parallels throughout the earth’s existence. Perhaps there has been some hint of progression, but nature has essentially never truly changed, having only gone through a series of cyclical processes that have led to little revelation as to meaning of existence or even hinting to the direction in which one should aim to move. The poem essentially carries this theme forth by emphasizing life’s futile struggle towards beauty and the inevitable decay and destruction of everything prized. People continue to make the same mistakes: there is love, hate, war, poverty, misunderstanding – most feelings and actions remain calculable. This pattern of existence has not evolved; there is yet to be a revolutionary shift in human sentiment or in the functions of the world, except when artificially implemented. This in turn indicates a stagnancy in existence, effectively instilling futility into the concept of being.
Though this pessimistic notion may be perturbing to realize, there is also a great dark splendor contained within, for it inspires one to consider the expanse of the universe and the consistency with which it operates. Is not the clockwork magnificent? “Spring and All” dwells upon fatalistic beauty of nature; yet the dualism of the phrase “This too shall pass” rings throughout its lines. Indeed, “Spring and All” may further stimulate – as opposed to stifle – the desire for distinction and individuality; for while the brilliance proffered by the idea of spring may rapidly fade, its audacious attempt at existence offers the crucial hope that the weary extant world lacks.