Elisabeth Schneider: On "The Yachts"

No reader of Modern Painters is likely to forget the description and the accompanying illustration of the painting that Ruskin considered J. M. W. Turner's greatest (hence, in Ruskin's view, perhaps the greatest of all paintings), that called "The Slave Ship." Though my own reading of Modern Painters preceded my first encounter with William Carlos Williams' poetry by some dozen or more years, still "The Yachts" on a first reading at once recalled the picture and the passage in Ruskin. It seems probable that this association does in fact underlie the poem, and, if so, it provides a natural associative link for what strikes many readers as a wrenched and arbitrary conclusion.

The problem of interpreting "The Yachts" arises with the shift, in the last three stanzas, from objective description to a fantastic picture of the stormy waves as either consisting of or filled with human bodies in agony. This shift is abrupt even though the sea's destructive power has been introduced into the opening lines. The wild symbolic picture at the end must represent human suffering that is felt to underlie the perfection and luxury symbolized by the yachts. The strangeness of the passage lies in its composite visual image of sea resembling bodies and bodies resembling sea.

The Turner-Ruskin association provides for the poem both the humanitarian concern and the visual image in which angular, fantastic waves both contain and resemble agonized human bodies. In Ruskin's passage, which forms part of the section devoted to "truth of water" in the first volume of Modern Painters (Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, London, 1903, III, 571-573, and see also the preceding observations on waves), the painting is said to represent "a sunset on the Atlantic, after prolonged storm." In the middle distance the vessel, with grace and delicacy in the outline of hull and masts, rides out the storm. "She is a slaver," Ruskin says, "throwing her slaves overboard. The near sea is encumbered with corpses." The foreground shows ridges of "enormous swell . . . after the torture of the storm . . . the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it." "The burning clouds," he continues, "give to the reckless waves the added motion of their own fiery flying" as night advances "like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship." In the painting itself, and in the photogravure of it in the 1903 edition of Ruskin's works, bodies or fragments of distorted bodies float, scarcely distinguishable from the torn and chaotic waves.

Williams admired the work of Turner. I have not seen any printed reference by him to Modern Painters, but at least two passages in the pubblished selection of his letters describe sky and sea in strongly Ruskinese terms. During the first quarter of this century the work was read and admired by almost everyone interested in art; and Williams' early attempts to paint, as well as hi mother’s years as an art student in Paris and her continued interest in painting, make it improbable that he would have missed reading at least the first volume. A number of descriptive words in Ruskin's account of waves appear also in "The Yachts"—"tortured," "tossing," "entangled," "reckless," "horror."

Though a link with Ruskin and "The Slave Ship" is not essential to a literal interpretation of "The Yachts," it does, by bridging a gap, make evident in the poem a degree of coherence and harmony, within which the violent symbolic close may be felt to be less arbitrary or forced than it often appears. Ruskin and Turner may also perhaps share credit for having stimulated Williams to a more than usually imaginative handling of a subject.

From The Explicator 25: 5, Item # 40, January 1967.

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Criticism Overview
Title Elisabeth Schneider: On "The Yachts" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Elisabeth Schneider Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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