Thomas R. Whitaker: On "To Elsie"

"To Elsie" focuses three of Williams' main concerns: a despoiled America, the alienated and self-alienating human condition, and the ravished Eden of the imagination.

The considerable power of this poem resides neither in the summary image of Elsie herself, which occupies so few lines, nor in any texture of precise particulars. The diction is often general and seemingly flaccid: "devil-may-care men who have taken / to railroading / out of sheer lust of adventure," or "young slatterns, bathed / in filth." As a dramatic monologue, however, the poem surmounts such language. Its major focus is the speaker himself, who sums up--in swift, passionate, and broken utterance --the human condition in which he participates. The well-worn

counters give the speed and immediacy of actual speech; but, through the careful disposition of those words, Williams presents the speaker's fresh awareness. . . .

Here a fresh juxtaposition of cliches ("pure products . . . go crazy") leads into precise, natural description that is symbolically resonant ("ribbed north end" and "Isolate lakes"), and on into parallelism that pulls together seemingly disparate elements in the syndrome of degradation ("lakes and / valleys, . . . deafmutes, thieves / old names / and promiscuity"). And later the emptiness of

        succumbing without

emotion

save numbed terror

is sharpened by a sudden movement into more specific (and suggestive) naming, the two sequences bound together by sound-pattern:

under some hedge of choke-cherry

or viburnum--

which they cannot express--

However, this texture could not sustain a mounting intensity for 66 lines without the poem's major syntactical and prosodic devices. Syntactically, most of the poem is one long sequence of progressive subordination--a sequence that is not anticlimactic because it renders the proliferation of the speaker's thought. He does not set forth a position; instead, be discovers and seeks to express the increasingly immediate and stifling implications of his first brief intuition. Hence the poem's forward thrust; and hence the fact that every phrase comes as a present apprehension. . . .

But that flow of commonplace diction and progressive subordination plays against a quite regular prosodic structure. By means of the long-short-long triplets (a more rigorous scheme than the later triadic line), with each line a unit of attention, Williams renders the varying pace of the concerned mind, as it feels its way among the data of experience, rushes on, revises, pauses to give a phrase deliberate weight or ironic point, searches again, shifts the angle of vision, or suddenly hits upon a new meaning.

After that sustained and intense sequence of subordination, the following brief assertions (with unexpected shorter lines and a final sentence fragment) carry unusual weight. . . .

The vague phrases render the speaker's own straining to perceive and articulate. He too "cannot express." But "isolate flecks"--with its reminders of "isolate lakes," "desolate," "voluptuous water / expressing," and the distant image of deer--transcends that inarticulateness. And so does the final colloquial metaphor. The imagination in this poem does not merely strain after deer; it confronts our chronic and devastating blindness and inflexibility.

From William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1968 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

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Criticism Overview
Title Thomas R. Whitaker: On "To Elsie" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Thomas R. Whitaker Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication William Carlos Williams
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