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.