Marjorie Perloff: On "The Young Housewife"

Generically, to begin with, "The Young Housewife" is best read as a parodic courtly love poem: the "solitary" physician at the wheel of his car recalls the knight on his charger, approaching the fortified castle where his lady is kept in captivity by the tyrannical lord of the manor. Given this context, the analogy between busy young housewife, coming to the curb "to call the ice-man, fish-man," and "fallen leaf" seems patently absurd. If anything, the young housewife seems to resemble a flower in early bloom or a budding tree; there is nothing the least bit "fallen" about her. The odd construction "in negligee," for instance (the normal syntax would be "in her negligee"), implies that being "in negligee" is the young housewife's inherent state, an implication borne out by the curious line break after "behind" so that we visualize the woman's "in negligee behind." The same thing happens in lines 7-8, where the poet, passing "solitary in [his] car," first surmises that the young woman is "uncorseted" and then observes her "tucking in" what the line break anticipates will be her flesh, deliciously not yet tucked into her corset, but which turns out to be, in the next line, "stray ends of hair."

With the image of those enticing "stray ends of hair," the poet's erotic fantasy reaches its peak. Far from presenting a "prosaic" subject with "tough, colloquial flatness," the poem presents its speaker as secret voyeur, longing to penetrate those "wooden walls of her husband's house" and wishing the lady of the house would call, not the ice-man or fish-man (with the obvious double entendre those "calls" entail) but himself to her side. Only by making a mock-Whitmanian grand gesture--"and I compare her/to a fallen leaf"--can the poet play out his fantasy. For look what happens:

The noiseless wheels of my car 

rush with a crackling sound over

dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

To say that these lines embody a rape fantasy would be accurate although it would also be to ignore the delicacy and humor of their tone. The poet-doctor knows that normalcy must prevail, that it is 10 A.M. on an ordinary weekday and probably time for him to make hospital rounds. The desire to "rush with a crackling sound over/dried leaves" is fleeting and subliminal, a momentary wish to "have" what belongs to another man. But because, within the suburban context of the poem, such things are possible only in fantasy, nothing happens: the driver "bow[s] and pass[es] smiling."

What especially interests me in "The Young Housewife" is the shift in the position of the fallen or dried leaf. Whereas the lover of The Tempers walks with his sweetheart over the "leaftread" in the brown forest, now, in the lyric that follows Williams' marriage, there is a split between man and woman, the woman becoming, so to speak, the object of man's "tread." We have already seen that in "Love Song," the "stain of love" "eats into the leaves" and then "drips from leaf to leaf." No longer, then, are the lovers viewed as a pair, silhouetted against a recognizable natural world. Rather, the natural world splits and fragments, challenging the poet-lover to find what are, so to speak, new fields to conquer. Or at least to fantasize about.

From "The Fallen Leaf and the Stain of Love: The Displacement of Desire in Williams's Early Love Poetry." In The Rhetoric of Love in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. Cristina Giorcelli and Maria Anita Stefanelli. Copyright © 1993 by Edizioni Associate (Rome).

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Criticism Overview
Title Marjorie Perloff: On "The Young Housewife" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Marjorie Perloff Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Rhetoric of Love in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams
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