Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
By the road to the contagious hospital
- Alright, get out the highlighters for this first line, because it’s really important.
- The phrase "By the road" begins to set the scene. It doesn’t tell us exactly where we are, but it makes it easy to imagine the speaker traveling, moving from Point A to Point B, and stopping to look out over the landscape described in the poem.
- The last two words in the line make a much bigger difference. We learn that this road leads to the "contagious hospital."
- Any way you look at it, that phrase sounds like bad news, a place you already don’t want to go.
- The word "contagious" sets the mood for the poem, so bear with us as we dig into the background just a little.
- It seems important to know that Williams earned his living as a doctor. We can’t know if this poem is about an experience he had, but he definitely would have been familiar with hospitals.
- The difference between an open field and a hospital ward might seem clear to us, but it would have been very real for Williams. At the time that the poem was written, infectious disease was still a big deal in America, and you needed separate spaces to confine anyone with a disease like smallpox.
- Don’t worry; we won’t do too much medical history. Just keep in mind that the word "contagious" makes the image of the hospital even more intense. It’s a place you really don’t want to end up in – maybe even as a doctor.
- To our ears, the wording of the phrase might even make you feel like the hospital itself is contagious, so filled with sickness that it starts to spread disease.
- What does it mean to start a poem about nature with the image of a road and a scary, disease-ridden building?
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
- Immediately, the road and the hospital disappear, and the sentence continues with a description of the clouds.
- Thinking of your standard clouds, you might imagine a sort of cheerful, fluffy thing in the sky.
- Not these clouds. There’s nothing scary about them exactly, but nothing comforting either.
- These clouds don’t "drift" or "float" – they "surge." These clouds rush into the poem, filled with power, hurried along by the wind.
- Where some clouds might be a comforting, even white, these are "blue-mottled."
- Finally, we end the sentence with "a cold wind."
- We haven’t seen very much yet, but we’ve learned a lot about the texture, the mood of this scene.
- We don’t mean to run this into the ground, but this is definitely a poem that’s designed to make you practically taste every word, to feel how cold that wind is, to imagine that hospital looming in the distance.
- Bottom line, this starts out on a pretty bleak note. Not miserable, necessarily, just a cold, blustery and not-too-welcoming sky.
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
- Things don’t get a lot happier here.
- As if we are watching a shot in a movie, we pan down toward the land and outward toward the fields. For the first time, we see plants, brown and dry, as well as mud, dirty water, etc.
- It’s a "waste," as the speaker puts it: an empty space, without any life that the eye can see.
- Yet, as we move on, we also start to look closer, to see how the elements of the landscape and the poem fit together.
- Williams isn’t big on rhyme and meter, but check out the sneaky way that he ties together the pieces of this poem. In the sixth line, we see weeds that are "standing and fallen." Then, in the seventh, we see "patches of standing water."
- We know that weeds and water don’t "stand" in the same way, but the repetition of that word fits those two lines together like puzzle pieces. So, even if the landscape isn’t exactly pretty, it does "rhyme" in a way.
- Also, the next line includes the word "tall" which sounds a lot like "fallen."
- Notice how Williams has given up on periods? You’ll get a handful of dashes here and there, and a few commas, but, as far as full sentences go, that first one is about all he offers. What effect does this have on your experience as you read the poem?