Study Guide

Spring and All

Spring and All Summary

Someone has stopped by the side of a road that leads to a hospital, and he or she is looking at the landscape. This person (the speaker of the poem) begins by describing the scene: the dead plants that cover everything at the end of winter. Then, the poem shifts, and the speaker describes the coming of spring, imagining how new life will emerge from this landscape as it begins to wake up.

  • Section I (lines 1-8)

    Line 1

    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?

    Lines 2-4

    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.

    Lines 5-8

    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?
  • Section II (lines 9-15)

    Lines 9-13

    All along the road the reddish
    purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
    stuff of bushes and small trees
    with dead, brown leaves under them
    leafless vines-

    • More fun with dead plants.
    • Around the edges, Williams does start to breathe some life into the scene. Some new colors do appear – reddish and purplish – but, for the most part, we’re still up close and personal with dry, brown leaves and trees.

    Lines 14-15

    Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
    dazed spring approaches-

    • Then, just as you might be getting tired of this stuff… WHAM. The poem shifts, and we catch our first glimpse of spring.
    • It doesn’t happen right away; in fact, it sort of sneaks into the line, appearing in the distance.
    • At first, we can’t even tell it’s there. The landscape still seems "lifeless," just like the vines in line 13 were "leafless."
    • But, something has changed, and Williams wants us to look more closely. Spring is there, waiting for us to see it.
    • Even though there aren’t any real characters in this poem, spring is introduced as if it has a personality. Like some creature waking up, it is "sluggish" and "dazed."
    • This is the first sign of life, and it’s also the first thing Williams treats like a living being.
    • He’s not going to beat you over the head with it, but this is a big moment. The entire book is called "Spring and All," and now… here’s spring.
    • OK, so we sort of beat you over the head with it – sorry about that.
  • Section III (lines 16-23)

    Lines 16-19

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

    • Now that you’ve had a line or two to get used to spring, here come more new things. The next section tells us that other things are approaching, too.
    • "They enter," Williams tells us, but who are they? He only tells us a few things: they’re naked and cold, and, well, they’re entering.
    • It’s a little bit of a mystery, and it forces you to guess, to look for clues, and to read more closely. Think of the moment in a movie when new characters show up, and you don’t know anything about them yet. We know that they are different from "sluggish" spring, but we have to wait to learn more.
    • Williams could just say who they are from the beginning, but he teases us a little. He wants to make his poems clear, but maybe not always too easy.
    • Also, do you see how the image of these plants coming into the world might make us think of human babies being born? This little trick is called personification, and he uses it in a few spots in the poem. It’s one of a lot of ways that he twists together the human and the natural worlds, and suggests that they’re really just aspects of the same thing.
    • Oh, yeah, and see how he brings back that cold wind from the fourth line? Nice touch, huh?

    Lines 20-23

    Now the grass, tomorrow
    the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
    One by one objects are defined-
    It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

    • Now, things start to pick up speed, and Williams solves our mini-mystery.
    • It looks like "they" are the new plants that poke up through the dead leaves, although he never quite comes out and says so.
    • Things get clearer, as spring takes hold.
    • Do you feel how the mood of the poem changes? After the groggy feeling of winter, things are beginning to thaw, to pop out and change.
    • For example, look at the word "quickens." Here, it means "comes back to life," but it also hints at the way the world speeds up in spring. Even the sound of the word is fast and lively, the opposite of the "sluggish" feeling the poem talked about a minute ago.
    • Things are about to change, and, when they do, it will move fast.
  • Section IV (lines 24-27)

    Lines 24-27

    But now the stark dignity of
    entrance-Still, the profound change
    has come upon them: rooted, they
    grip down and begin to awaken

    • But… we’re not quite there yet. The poem gets ahead of itself.
    • This poem isn’t about things actually happening – it’s about things beginning to happen. The word "entrance" is really key here. We’re just setting the stage for spring, not actually watching the play that’s about to start.
    • If Williams speeded things up in the last few lines, now he slows them down again.
    • Don’t believe us? Try saying "stark dignity" a few times. Feel how serious-sounding those words are, how they pull down the corners of your mouth.
    • We’re back at the beginning point, in a way, but something has changed. Down at the roots, things are waking up. We’re looking for things to happen on the surface, but the real changes are going on underground.