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.


Title James E. Breslin: On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James E. Breslin Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication William Carlos Williams: An American Artist
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