Peter Schmidt

Peter Schmidt: On "The Young Sycamore"

One poem that does appear to be a literal transcription of a visual experience is "Young Sycamore" (1927). As Dijkstra has shown, it is probably based on a photograph by Stieglitz entitled "Spring Showers." Dijkstra praises the poem as a literal record of the eye's "linear movement" as it takes in the photograph. A second reading, however, will show that the poem is hardly without personification or metaphor, although they are implied rather than stated. Williams hints that Stieglitz' sycamore is also a tree of life, starting with youth's "round and firm trunk" and then "waning" gradually until the branches are "bending forward" like the bodies of the old; Both men and trees have offspring: seed "cocoons" hang from the leafless branches. The eye’s movement thus merges with the inner eye’s vision of time’s passage.

From "Some Versions of Modernist Pastoral: Williams and the Precisionists." Contemporary Literature 21:3 (1980), 383-406.

Peter Schmidt: On "Spring and All"

As the poem begins "on the road to the contagious hospital," Williams has difficulty seeing any outline or order: "mottled," "patches," "waste," and "scattering" are some of the words he uses.His problems culminate in the third stanza, where inexact adjectives, often afflicted with the suffixes "-ish" or "-y," glut an entire line before a noun can be found. And even then the noun is imprecise: "All along the road the reddish / purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy / stuff . . . " Like the contagious diseases in the hospital Williams drives toward, imprecision is a contagion of the mind, potentially fatal.

As "one by one objects are defined by the advancing season, however, Williams' language is also reborn, and he can identify the wildcarrot, the only named species in the poem. His battle to see and to name has a "stark dignity" equal to spring's battle with winter, or a chicory's battle to create light from darkness. Like the plants, the poet's mind must "grip down," struggling to wrest a name from anonymity, The right name is a strong root; new poetry, and a new world, will grow from it as invincibly as the wildcarrot leaf uncurls,

"Spring and All" shows that Williams' pastoral lyrics use an archetypal plot borrowed from and Biblical myth: the occurence of an Eden or a Golden Age, man's loss and its eventual return. In the Bible, of course, such an advent signifies the end of history, whereas in Vergil inaugurates yet another historical cycle. Williams well represents romanticism's distinctive revision of this myth. The large historical cycles between Iron and Golden Ages, or Old Adam and New Messiah, are internalized and speeded up; the rebirth experienced in "Spring and All" is continually lost, found, and lost again.

From "Some Versions of Modernist Pastoral: Williams and the Precisionists." Contemporary Literature 21:3 (1980), 383-406

Peter Schmidt: On "Queen-Anne's-Lace"

Stieglitz' experiments with combining the still life and the landscape are also reflected in Williams' work. The four flower studies he published in Sour Grapes (1921), "Daisy," "Primrose," "Queen Anne's Lace," and "Great Mullen," are especially interesting for their sense of scale. "Daisy," for example, moves from a rapid overview of "Spring . . . gone down in purple," "weeds . . . high in the corn," a clotted furrow, and a branch heavy with new leaves, to a close-up of the poem's flower: "One turns the thing over / in his hand and looks / at it from the rear: brown edged / green and pointed scales / armor his yellow." Along with these visual devices Williams introduces metaphor, personification, dramatic debate, and apostrophe, and varies their tone from the restrained, dignified voice of "Queen Anne's Lace" to the grotesque shouting-match of "Great Mullen."

In "Queen Anne's Lace," literal and figurative description have been carefully joined, rather than simply juxtaposed as in "Daisy." And the poem's breadth of focus is breathtaking-it is a still life, a landscape, and a time-lapse photographic sequence. As if the poet were a botanist and we his best students, Williams shows us how the stem splits into a cluster of stems radiating upward, each supporting a white flowerette which, edging the others, composes the flower's lacy head. When Williams personifies the plant, his rhetoric carefully preserves its unique structure. The sun becomes an ardent male who creates a lover for himself touch by touch: "Each part / is a blossom under his touch / to which the fibres of her being / stem one by one." Williams then rapidly accelerates the pace of the poem, so that we see the field becoming populated in spring and the lovers increasing the momentum of their lovemaking. Then, suddenly, winter has come again, and the couple lies spent: ". . . stem one by one, each to its end, / until the whole field is a / white desire, empty, a single stem, / a cluster, flower by flower, / a pious wish to whiteness gone over— / or nothing." Pumping blood into Emerson's rather cerebral equation of natural and spiritual facts, Williams' "Queen Anne's Lace" shows them to be signs of sexual facts as well. Metaphor, personification, and myth-making accompany literal description, and the still life's landscape is emptied or filled within the leap of a line of verse.

From "Some Versions of Modernist Pastoral: Williams and the Precisionists." Contemporary Literature 21:3 (1980), 383-406.