Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I

Peter Baker: On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I"

In Williams' very last poems, the conflict of engendering the work of art subsides somewhat. As we have seen previously (Chapter One), the more radical poetic practice of early Williams tied to memory as the place where this imaginative conflict occurs, yields in the later poems to a vision of personal memory. Perhaps not surprisingly, this later development allows Williams to write some of his most moving love poems, among them "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (PB, 153-182). Thus we come to an examination of Williams' later style in full awareness of its permutations. The compassionate understanding present throughout his work here takes the form of a love poem written to his wife Flossie.

I want to examine the end of the poem where the poet/speaker describes the memory of his wedding:

For our wedding, too, 

                the light was wakened 

                                    and shone. The light! 

the light stood before us 

                waiting! 

                                    I thought the world 

stood still. 

                At the altar 

                                    so intent was I 

before my vows, 

                so moved by your presence 

                                    a girl so pale 

and ready to faint 

                that I pitied 

                                    and wanted to protect you. 

As I think of it now, 

                after a lifetime, 

                                    it is as if 

a sweet-scented flower 

                were poised 

                                    and for me did open. 

Asphodel 

                has no odor 

                                    save to the imagination 

but it too 

                celebrates the light. 

                                    It is late 

but an odor 

                as from our wedding 

                                    has revived for me 

and begun again to penetrate 

                into all crevices 

                                    of my world.

Although I almost feel it as an impertinence to offer a commentary to this poem, I think we might notice the quality of gentle precision in the diction here. In ''as if / a sweet-scented flower / were poised / and for me did open," the somewhat archaic verb form at the end seems to render the gentle touch of someone who is being very careful. The world of which the poet speaks at the end of the poem is a world known well by any student of Williams' work. His is a freedom born of compassion, earned in the conflict of the imagination, and exemplified in the grace of an unmatched expressive style.

From Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Marjorie Perloff: On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I"

In one of the last poetry readings he was able to give, at Wellesley in 1956, Williams read "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower." Lowell movingly recalls the hush that fell over the enormous audience when the now-famous poet, "one whole side partly paralysed, his voice just audible," read this "triumph of simple confession". . . .

Like "Paterson, Five," "Asphodel" marks a return to tradition, in this case the pastoral love poem in which the penitent husband makes amends to his long-suffering wife. No more snatches of documentary prose, no Cubist or Surrealist superpositions or dislocations. The poem is stately and consistent, an autobiographical lyric in the Romantic tradition.

"Asphodel, that Greeny Flower" can be regarded as a garland for the fifties. But the Williams who speaks to the poets of our own generation is, I think, less the loving, apologetic husband of "Asphodel" or the aspiring American bard of Paterson than he is a Voyager to Pagany, to the Paris of the twenties; he is the poet as passionate defender of the faith that "to engage roses / becomes a geometry."

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Copyright © 1981 by Marjorie Perloff.

Joseph Riddel: On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I"

"Asphodel". . .speaks from a plane beyond differentiation, from the site of memory where "all appears/ as if seen/ wavering through water," perspectiveless like the time of beginning itself. It is a "cry/ of recognition" which penetrates the veil of history to connect his "Approaching death" with his origins. Interestingly, it has been the poem most praised by critics because of Williams' late breakthrough, presumably like Stevens', to a new lyricism. And this signifies not simply an advance beyond Paterson but a reversal, perhaps, ironically, a return to the tradition. But the tradition to which "Asphodel" appeals is that of the "rituals of the hunt/ on the walls/ of prehistoric// caves in the Pyrenees." As was suggested earlier, the caves offer man a present entry into time and place, of the primordial origins of art itself. At the impending moment of his own death, the poet sings of origins: the "cave" which is both beginning and end, and the "hunt" or quest to which man is compelled in his desire.

"Asphodel". . .comes very near to suggesting a poetics no longer resigned to failure or to the hermeneutical circle. It comes very near to insisting that the "secret word" has been possessed, the son reconciled with the father, and thus a language fully achieved--that the "place/ dedicated in the imagination/ to memory// of the dead" has come to be more real than the world. . . .It is not a poem of quest or effort, but a dream of virtue recovered and held "against time."

From The Inverted Bell: Modernism and the Counterpoetics of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press.

James E. Breslin: On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I"

"Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" is a rather long meditative poem, divided into three books and a coda. The poet is addressing his wife, whom he has abused through his sexual and artistic pursuits. He is approaching her one last time, reviewing their life together and asking her forgiveness. Here Williams is no longer dispersing himself into a set of objects; the "I," slowly purged from his verse in the teens, now returns in the figure of a wise old man who, while aware of loss and suffering, offers advice, hope and consolation. Old age has always held its right to its opinions and Williams is now not reluctant to state his explicitly.

. . .

[I]n "Asphodel" Williams often explains the significances of his images. After describing "the statue / of Colleoni's horse / with the thickset little man // on top / in armor / presenting a naked sword" and "the horse rampant / roused by the mare in / the Venus and Adonis," Williams comments that "these are pictures / of crude force." "Of love, abiding love // it will be telling," he says of the asphodel. As we shall see, the images in this poem are rich, fluid, complex; his comments by no means exhaust their significance. But the effect of this discursive quality is to ease the reader's movement through the verse. "It is not // a flute note either, it is the relation / of a flute note / to a drum," Williams writes in "The Orchestra." Relations here emerge as more important than discrete objects, and these relations are often articulated at the surface of the poetry. Creative activity now takes place at a "higher" level of consciousness; Williams does not take us to the edge of unconscious chaos but to a place in the mind where form and continuity become more predominant.

Williams's poetry of the 1950's thus has a more accessible surface--a fact that accounts for its greater critical popularity. Other manifestations of this loosening up are his unequivocal acceptance of romantic feeling and his dependence on personal, biographical material. In "Asphodel," emotions, like ideas, are often stated: "with fear in my heart," "I regret," "I adore," "I am tortured // and cannot rest." Moreover, these feelings are much tenderer than any Williams had previously been willing to admit to his verse.

In the poem, Williams now turns to address his wife directly and remorsefully. Old, nearing death, he approaches her "perhaps for the last time." The time is winter, but this is more an internal state than a season in Rutherford--defined by the strong sense of loss, fading, and mutability with which the poem begins. "Today // I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers / that we both loved," Williams says. He recalls first the "poor // colorless" asphodel, a flower that grows in the meadows of New Jersey, but also (he had read in Homer) along the fields in the underworld. In fact, Williams speaks at the start as if from among the dead, identifying with their groping recollection as they gaze at the asphodel: "What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped?"--"There is something / something urgent" which he must say, but he does not want to rush it--"while I drink in / the joy of your approach, / perhaps for the last time"--and fading powers of memory make it hard to begin. There is an urgency about the very act of speech: "I dare not stop. / Listen while I talk on // against time."

. . .

He gropes for memory, for speech, for his wife's love--the three will become identified in the course of the poem--for these have the power to save him from time's push toward oblivion; they can bring him back from the realm of the dead.

At the end of Book III of "Asphodel" Williams does gain the forgiveness he seeks: "You have forgiven me / making me new again." And the asphodel becomes the appropriate symbol for this renewal of love in the poet's old age: though colorless and odorless, "little prized among the living" it is a sturdy perennial: "I have invoked the flower / in that // frail as it is / after winter's harshness / it comes again."

From William Carlos Williams: An American Artist. Copyright © 1970 by James E. Breslin.