This will probably seem silly at first, but bear with us. Have you ever heard one of those tapes that plays sounds that are supposed to make you feel like you’re at the beach, or in a rainforest, so that you can fall asleep faster? So, we don’t want to take away from the genius of Williams, or say that he puts us to sleep, but think for a second about how the sounds of this poem might help put you in the landscape it describes.
When Spring is in its full rush, and Williams tells us that "it quickens, clarity, outline of a leaf," (line 23) listen to the knife-like sound of those words. They make us feel the fast spreading of the leaf and the sharpness of its edge. We get the same feeling a few lines before, when he talks about the "stiff curl" of a new leaf. The texture of those words perfectly captures the strong, tightly packed curve of a leaf unfolding.
When the roots in the final line "grip down," we can feel not just how they grow, but how strong and determined and relentless they are. As spring builds up, the whole poem fills with the rustling sound of growing, moving plants. Although, now that we think about it, maybe the total effect is a little more creepy than soothing, so don’t hold your breath for a "Spring and All" relaxation CD.
Actually, for this poem, let’s get even more basic. How about "What is the title?" This poem was the first in the book "Spring and All," and the only title Williams gave it was "I" (as in the roman numeral one, not me, myself and… confused yet?) People who needed a way to refer to this poem just called it by its first line: "By the road to the contagious hospital." Pretty simple, right? Hold on. As the poem became more popular, it got pulled out of the book it was published in, and started to be printed as a stand-alone poem. In some cases, the book’s title was slapped onto the poem. Check out the link above to poets.org. They call this poem "Spring and All."
Poetry purists would definitely get their undies in a bunch over this. To some, changing the poet’s work like this is a big mistake. Maybe (probably?) this change doesn’t bug you in quite the same way, and we’re not here to try and convince you that it’s a big deal. But… (you knew there was a ‘but’) it does make a difference.
Think of the title as a sign that’s planted at the beginning of a trail. The memory of that sign will affect your whole trip. If the sign says "This way to the hospital," it’ll put you in a different frame of mind than if the sign says: "This way to spring, green grass, flowers, etc." If the poem is called "Spring and All," then we may not be so surprised when spring finally appears in the middle. If the poem has no title except the first line, maybe the appearance of spring will feel like more of a change.
In the summary for line 1 (above), we talked about how the contagious hospital looms over the poem, so maybe we have a sense of how it works as a title. But, how about the other possibility? The "Spring" part makes a lot of sense, but how about the "and All?" If we look at it from one side, these two words provide the little bit of mystery and extra complication that Williams loves. His poems focus on basic ideas and simple images, but they approach them in a way that forces you to think a little more about their meaning. Adding the "and All" gives your imagination some space to play, to think of new and different possibilities.
The whole poem is basically describing the setting, that famous road to the hospital with the dead plants all around it. Seems simple enough, right? At the same time, some other person could describe this same landscape in a totally different way. A big part of the setting is not just the trees and plants that happen to be standing around, but the mood created by the description.
When we read about this place, it makes us feel alone, surrounded by a sort of brownish-grey emptiness. There’s a kind of loneliness to everything that we lay eyes on. There are no other people, and not even a deer or a chipmunk wanders into the frame. Plants rule this world, or at least the dried skeletons of plants. So, for example, if humans went to war with trees (don’t think too hard about why this would happen) and the trees won, but only barely, this might be how the last surviving human would see the world.
OK, so maybe you don’t see anything as freaky as a plant apocalypse in this poem. Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny that there’s something desolate about this setting that sinks into you a little, which is hard to forget about or ignore. Of course, spring does eventually show up, and the idea is that it will drive away the bleakness of winter. But does it? Do you feel like things in this poem come to life by the end, and the setting is transformed? Or, are we left in the same wasteland, but with some hope that things might soon change?
Our speaker is someone who stops by the side of a road, looking at the landscape in late winter and telling us about it.
That’s about all the information we get about the speaker of this poem. We know where he or she is, and what he/she is looking at, but we don’t know much else. Now, we always make a point of saying that the speaker is a fictional character, a creation of the author, rather than the author himself. Even if the poem is autobiographical, the speaker is still a made-up version of the author.
In this case though, we know that Williams was a doctor, and so it seems convenient that this character would be headed to a hospital. So, if it helps, imagine the dashing Dr. Williams getting out of his car, and looking at the field. You might even wonder if, as he stood there, he was annoyed that his name was William Williams. Did the kids at school used to tease him? Were his parents just not very creative? OK, maybe that’s not what interests you. Maybe this is just a guy by the road. Hard to say, but fun to try to guess.
So, basically, we don’t know much about the way this person looks, or even if they are a man or a woman. To make up for that though, we do get a lot of information about how this person sounds. Say this was an email you got from a person you had never met. What guesses would you make about his or her personality, based on the way he/she writes?
You might decide that the speaker of this poem writes a bit like a scientist. Personal emotion is held back. Even as things speed up or slow down, we don’t get a sense that the speaker lets him or herself get carried away. The words are precise and short, without any extra flourishes. They all serve a purpose. In a sense these words are like tiny scalpels, dissecting this landscape, looking for its secrets. Objects in the poem are described as "cold," "stiff," and "stark." It’s almost like we’re watching someone perform an operation. It’s not that it isn’t exciting or important, but there’s no room for error. Words and images can’t wander, or take their time. Above all, this speaker is in control of the situation, and wants us to know it.
This poem is pretty direct and straightforward, and Williams wants it that way. He throws you a few curveballs – sometimes it’s a little hard to tell who or what he’s referring to. For the most part though, this should be an easy climb.
It’s definitely up to you to decide how clear and easy Williams’s poems are in general. There’s no doubt that some of his other poetry gets a lot weirder and more experimental. In any case, no matter how strange the poems get, you can usually tell a Williams piece by the way he uses images. Like in this poem, the individual lines are mostly clear and direct. These short lines are meant to create a mental picture immediately. Even if he mixes up the order of the pictures, each one stays in sharp focus. That’s Williams’s style, and you’ll find it all over his poems.
This poem doesn’t have a regular meter, and the lines don’t rhyme. This is the stuff that English teachers call "free verse." Williams wasn’t real interested in the fancy traditions of poetry, and he was working hard to avoid getting stuck in old ways of doing things. He needed a poetic style that was modern, unpretentious, and direct, and that’s pretty much what he got in his poem. Now, we don’t want to sound defensive, but it’s always important to see that just because it doesn’t rhyme or have an even rhythm doesn’t mean that a poem doesn’t have any form. The choice of words, the arrangement of the lines, and the use of images in this poem are all very precise, and designed to create specific effects.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
As you might have guessed from the title, Spring is a pretty important part of this poem. Eventually, it emerges as a kind of weird main character, taking on almost human characteristics as it changes the world of the poem.
The poem is chock full of plants, both the dead old ones that Winter has left behind, and the new ones that are emerging with spring.
The man-made objects that open the poem have a big influence on the way we look at the nature scenes that follow. The hospital becomes a kind of lens that changes the way we see the world in the poem.
Sorry, folks, not much sex here. Oh, wait, some of the plants are "naked!" On the other hand, the speaker makes a big deal about how cold it is, and then there’s that hospital. Maybe not so sexy, after all.