Spring and All

Albert Gelpi: On "Spring and All"

The poem is a fine example of Williams' verbal Cubist Realism. The descriptiveness of the verses seems straightforward but is actually a carefully contrived verbal effect. The first line brings Whitman to Eliot's ailing world, the open road has led to the contagious hospital at the bleak end of winter. The first group of irregular, unrhymed lines seems to gloss The Waste Land, published the year before. "The wind / Crosses the brown land, unheard," Eliot wrote, and Williams' redaction also uses the reiterated dental consonants--d's and t's--especially at the end of words and syllables, to suggest the balked stasis of the scene: "road," "clouds," "cold," "wind," "mottled," "northeast," "cold wind," "beyond," "waste," "broad," "muddy," "fields," "dried weeds," "standing," and so on. In addition, the alliteration, assonance, and internal near rhymes further link the details in a pervasive sterility: "road," cold"; "driven, ""wind"; "northeast," "waste"; "broad," "brown"; "fields, "weeds"; "dried weeds." Though there is no human person present, the implications of the scene for human life are intimated not just by the hospital but by the anthropomorphic associations of words like "standing and fallen," "upstanding," "forked," and "naked" (the last two perhaps echoes of Lear's unillusioned description of man), So, from the very beginning, the word play and sound play insist to the reader on the character of the medium as medium and thus on the verbal composition of the scene.

The dropping of the expected capital letter at the beginning of each line insists on the interplay between lines, as does the heavy enjambment. But paradoxically, the enjambment also emphasizes the fact that each line is an individual structural unit shaped to reinforce the dynamic process of sensory and intellective apprehension rather than the syntactic organization of the sentence. The Whitmanian free verse line, capitalized and end-stopped, stretches itself out to be as long and inclusive as possible, gathering in detail after detail, phrasal group after phrasal group, concluding only when the breath has run out, to begin again with the next breath to sum up the interrelatedness of all things; the lines accumulate paratactically as repeated efforts to submerge the particulars in the cosmic design. Williams' line is shorter, tenser, more nervous; the enjambment cuts and splices the grammatical elements of the sentence, using the highlighting at the beginning and end of the verse to focus on the discrete but related elements of the re-created scene. The line units work against, rather than with, the sentence; and the resulting line fragments remake the sentence--and the scene--into a unique pattern.

Thus the suspension between "blue" and "mottled" emphasizes both adjectival qualities, individually and in contrast, before substantiating them in "clouds." The next two lines end, startlingly, in the unspecified article "the," emphasizing even more the nouns at the beginning of the following lines. The effect of such Cubistic rearrangement can be easily grasped if the same words are lineated to observe grammatical groupings:

under the surge

of the blue mottled clouds

driven from the northeast--

a cold wind.

Beyond, the waste of broad muddy fields


Or, in longer lines:

under the surge of the blue mottled clouds

driven from the northeast -- a cold wind.

Beyond, the waste of broad muddy fields.

The vivid particularity of details is muted without the hang and turn and shift of Williams'jagged enjambment, maintained throughout the poem. . . .

The turn in the poem takes place between the third and fourth verse paragraphs. The first-word rhyming of "leafless" and "lifeless" signals the association between "leaf" and "life." "Lifeless" repeats "leafless," just as "sluggish" picks up on "reddish, purplish ... stuff." But in the second half of the poem the association between "leaf" and "life" turns from negation to renewal: "wildcarrot leaf," "outline of leaf." Even from the start, the poem has given clues that spring will arrive to break winter's deadlock. The word "surge" is the first premonition (recall "Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world" from the third section of "Song of Myself"), and the wind as the breath of spring, though "cold" in the first paragraph, becomes "familiar" as it blows life in, the process punctuated by temporal markers: "Now," "tomorrow," "One by one," "But now," "Still." The last "all" finds the transformative wind "all about them," and the waste land is a "new world."

From A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance, 1910-1950. Copyright 1987 by Cambridge University Press.

Richard R. Frye: On "Spring and All"

Williams' Spring and All begins with a straight-forward set of impressions in a poem that moves into a quickened vision, by way of imagination, of what is stirring into being beneath the surface. The first four stanzas of poem I, quoted above, consist of a succession of what Kenneth Burke, in a well-known instance, called "minute fixations"; but those serried minutiae that follow in the stanzas thereafter are much more than the resolute observations of a connoisseur of perception (48). In stanza five a subtle change in tone signals a shift in perspective:

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches—

Hitherto a literal rendering of a series of visual fixations of objects in fields past which the poet is apparently driving, in this second phase the poem moves into a realm something like visionary personification. An emergent consciousness begins an intrinsic identification with "sluggish / dazed spring." The "objects" in the fields, as Stephen Tapscott notes, narrowly miss anthropomorphosis, assuming an energetic sentience flexible enough to service a complex network of analogous meanings (41).

This "second phase" constitutes a kind of clarified vision on the part of the mind within whose field of consciousness the scene appears that develops over the first four stanzas. Poem I, like the poems that follow it in Spring and All, represents (among other of Williams' assignments) a conscious attempt to externalize the form of the mind's perceptual intake of sense-experience. In the transition from perception to imagination, reality isn't changed but more fully and imaginatively entered. The description of a late-winter landscape metamorphoses, once the poet apprehends in advance the miraculous quickening of incipient life. In stanzas six and seven the process through which "dazed spring approaches" displays unmistakable dramatic elements; as a consequence, life in the poem bursts imaginatively into being:

They enter the new world naked, 

cold, uncertain of all 

save that they enter. All about them 

the cold, familiar wind—


Now the grass, tomorrow 

the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

The point at which the planes-in-relation converge in poem I penetrates many subtle disguises; the "process of miraculous verisimilitude," the agent of which is the regenerative power of the imagination, compels the barren late-winter landscape into flourishing life—and resonates on several levels (SAA 95). Perhaps one is a swipe at T. S. Eliot, in whose "waste" Williams discovers merely dormant life:

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches— (my emphasis)

These lines appear to have been written within weeks after The Dial published Eliot's "The Waste Land." The connecting series of verb phrases, primarily participles, with which Eliot’s poem begins is perhaps subtly parodied in Williams' own series of prepositional phrases at the start of poem I. Here is Eliot's famous opening to The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding 

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 

Memory and desire, stirring 

Dull roots with spring rain. 

Winter kept us warm, covering 

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding 

A little life with dried tubers.

These sentences act to appeal ironically to the reverdie tradition in English poetry (especially as rendered in Chaucer's "The General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales: "Whan that April with his showres soote / The droughte of March hath perced to the roote"). Eliot reverses the reverdie's popular form: a celebratory dance poem which serves as herald to spring. In The Waste Land, Tiresias instead laments the coming of spring; winter is recalled fondly, "feeding / A little life with dried tubers" but, mostly, "covering Earth in forgetful snow." Williams' opening lines, on the other hand, evoke an ostensibly sterile winter scene, the objective correlative, it would seem, of Tiresias' state of mind:

By the road to the contagious hospital 

under the surge of the blue 

mottled clouds driven from the


northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the 

waste of broad, muddy fields 

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen


patches of standing water 

the scattering of tall trees

Significantly, however, "the stark dignity" of Williams' barren field is "Lifeless in appearance" only; eventually, at the poem's close, "dazed spring approaches," its new green celebrated.

Another plane-convergence in the poem, the ambiguous pronoun reference in stanzas six through eight, also reaches several ways. While the "it" in stanza eight may refer exclusively to the burgeoning plant growth, it may also refer to the poet's perceptual linguistic rendering of that process. Perhaps it insinuates as well the early American settlers, about whom Williams was writing in 1923; most of In the American Grain (1925) was composed that year:

They enter the new world naked,  cold, uncertain of all  save that they enter. All about them  the cold, familiar wind—

Now the grass, tomorrow  the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined—  It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

These stanzas relate as well the transition of the vegetal world of vines to Williams' obstetrics; the poem's pronouns themselves intimate this: "All along the road the reddish . . . stuff . . . / They enter the new world naked." Why else this change in subject? And Audrey T. Rodgers, in Virgin and Whore (1987), offers yet another possible untrammeling: "The mythic theme of Kore—the rebirth and return to life to the soil out of pain and suffering"—which has "its counterpart in human birth" (36).

In Williams' idiosyncratic use of "planes in the geometric sense" the thrust is away from individual "signifiers" and toward the immutable structure of relations by which all the elements in a given poem are patterned. The tone of starkness and sterility early in poem I is a carefully crafted embodiment of a late-winter landscape. Williams apparently decided that if he could simulate in poetry the process of incipient growth which experience had taught him to be only latent beneath the barren ground, it would stand also as a linguistic graph of the mind's perceptual process. Ideally, the notion that the landscape and the mind share what amounts to a common process might provoke in the reader an awareness of systems of interconnectedness in which, conceivably, countless versions of a single process could be layered, one atop the other, in a unified, "objective" vision of the oneness of all initiation into life.

The use of geometric planes promotes multiple perspectives by careful arrangement of sentence elements. The primary syntactical unit by which setting-in-relation is enacted linguistically is the preposition:

By the road to the contagious hospital 

under the surge of the blue 

mottled clouds driven from the


northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the 

waste of broad, muddy fields 

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen


patches of standing water 

the scattering of tall trees

From these exertions a veritable landscape emerges, presupposing, as it heaves itself into focus, a mind quite experienced in distinguishing among such apparently familiar objects and in acknowledging their relation to one another.

From "Seeing the Signs: Objectivist Premonitions in Williams' Spring and All." Sagetrieb 8.3

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

John Hollander: On "Spring and All"

This is a poem of discovery, of the gradual emergence of the sense of spring from what looks otherwise like a disease of winter. The "contagious hospital" is both a colloquial usage, by doctors and patients, for the longer name, and a hospital that is itself contagious, that leaks its presence out onto the road. The cold wind will be revealed as a spring wind, but not before the poem's complex act of noticing has been completed. The meter here is a typographic strip about 30 ems wide with a general tendency to break syntax at tight points (lines 3 and 4 are normal, rather than exceptional); but notice the traditional use of discovery-enjambment in lines 2 and 3—"under the surge of the blue" because of its audible dactylic melody aims the syntax at a noun version of "blue," a metonymy for sky. But the next line discovers its mere adjectival use, appositively with "mottled," and the hopefulness of upward motion, the brief bit of visual and perhaps spiritual ascendancy is undercut by the bleakness of the wintry scene, and the totality of the non-greenness, even the exclusion of available blue. For the buds of spring do indeed look, at first, like tumorous nastinesses of the branch. But the poem moves toward the avowal of the discovery: "Now the grass, tomorrow / the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf." Its real conclusion, however, is revealed in the final moralization: "One by one objects are defined-- / It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf." The action of the poem is specifically discovered to be one of focusing; as one rotates a knob on the consciousness, the objects are defined, both in the world of the poem and by the poem, by poems in general. In its moralization, the poem is like "The Red Wheelbarrow," a manifesto about poetry. It is full of light, too, which it does not directly confront, the light that, as a younger poet has put it "wipes each thing to what it is,'' the light that takes us past what Stevens called "the evasions of metaphor." This is as visual a poem in every sense as one could find, a soundless picture of a soundless world, its form shaped rather than incanted, its surface like that of so much Modern poetry, now reflecting, now revealing its depths and, as the conscious wind of attention blows over it, now displaying the wavy texture of its surface. Put together from fragments of assertion, it has virtually no rhetorical sound. But its shape has become a familiar one—particularly for contemporary poetry of the eye—about its possibilities, betrayals and rewards, about rediscoveries of the visionary in the visual.

[. . . .]

Williams employs an enjambment which is directly in the line of Milton's type of revisionary disclosure:

By the road to the contagious hospital 

under the surge of the blue 

mottled clouds driven from the


northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the 

waste of broad, muddy fields 

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

"Blue" in the second line might be nominal, and the surge of azure sky might be a too-easily gained sign of spring; the enjambment pulls it back into adjectival status, paired with, and half-modifying, "mottled." The fairly hard but merely systematic enjambments of "the" in the next two lines tend to soften, in retrospect, the modulation of "blue," as if to suggest, perhaps, that closure is no norm, that linearity has no marked integrity other than the rough typographical width of somewhere around thirty ems.

From Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form. Copyright  1975 by Oxford University Press.

James E. Breslin: On "Spring and All"

This poem does not simply describe the physical qualities in a landscape; its center is an act of perception, "the stark dignity of / entrance," the slow penetration of a desolate landscape by an awakening observer. We follow the thrust of his imagination downward, through obstacles, to a new union with the physical environment. The progression in the poem is literally downward: the observer goes from "the blue / mottled clouds," across a distant view of "broad, muddy fields," to the quickening plant life right before him--and then penetrates even further downward, into the dark earth, as he imagines the roots taking hold again. The panoramic view, with its prospect of "muddy fields," dried weeds, "patches of standing water," offers nothing with which the imagination might joyously connect itself. At first an apparently blank and "lifeless" nature invites the observer to passivity and despair; but Williams pushes through vacancy to uncover dormant life.

Implicitly, "By the road" argues that Eliot's despair derives from his cosmopolitanism, his detachment from a locality. What the tenacious observer here finally perceives is no "waste" land but a "new world" and he makes his discovery by narrowing and focusing Whitman's panoramic vision upon the near and the ordinary. In the torpor of ordinary consciousness, what we find by the road to the contagious hospital is a desolate landscape. But the awakened consciousness, focused sharply and including everything in the scene, discovers novelty and life, the first "sluggish / dazed" stirrings of spring. Hence poet and landscape are gradually identified--as he too grips down and begins to awaken.