Study Guide

The Last Words of My English Grandmother Analysis

By William Carlos Williams

  • Sound Check

    This poem is really conversational. It sounds like you're just hanging out with a friend in a coffee shop, and he's telling you a story about the last words his grandma ever said. The poet includes slang and gives a choppy rhythm that reminds us the way real conversations go down. Check out the following stanza:

    Gimme something to eat—
    They're starving me—
    I'm all right—I won't go
    to the hospital. No, no, no
    (9-12)

    So we've got the slang word "Gimme," which makes it feel way more conversational than any old school poem you've read (9). (Shakespearean sonnet, this is not.) We talk more about this in "Form and Meter," but notice how Williams uses dashes and that period in line 12 to create kind of an erratic rhythm. It gives us a real sense of the panic the grandmother must be feeling. It also reminds us of the way people talk about things in conversation sometimes—you know, like it's not always a well-crafted story. It comes in bursts of images since most memories are far from perfect.

    We'd also be selling you short if we didn't point out the only rhyme in the poem. You probably already noticed the "go" at the end of line 11 and "No, no, no" at the end of 12. To us, this rhyme seriously accentuates the terror that the grandmother is feeling about going to the hospital. Later in the poem the grandmother cries, "Oh, oh, oh!" as the ambulance dudes are taking her away (21). This of course rhymes with and directly parallels the "No, no, no" from before (12). This repetition of sound kind of tracks the grandmother's progression from sickbed to the ambulance and highlights the fact that she's doing the exact thing she was so panicked about before. It's cool how Williams manages to make the poem sound like such a natural conversation, but at the same time carefully sculpts the language to draw our attention to certain things. Well, we think it's cool, anyway.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Williams is definitely not trying to be too cryptic with this title. The poem builds up to the speaker's grandmother's last words, so what the title promises, the poem delivers. The title also puts some tension into the poem. We assume from the beginning that the grandmother we meet is going to die, so we're waiting the entire time to hear what her last words will be.

    Is the title too on the nose? Should it be more metaphorical or something? Not according to Williams. He was all about poems with specific but conversational language, which describes this poem for sure. So, this title totally works, because its plain, direct style sets us up for the language of the poem itself.

    One question, though: why did he bother to include the detail that the grandmother is English? There's nothing in the poem about that. Even though there's dialogue, we don't hear any English-isms in her speech. Well, Williams's real grandma was English, so that's probably where this detail came from. We still wonder why he bothered to put it in the title if it doesn't pay off in the poem.

  • Setting

    The speaker gives his most specific setting description in the first stanza—and it ain't pretty. He starts by giving us the grim details of the room his grandmother's been bed-ridden in: "There were some dirty plates/ and a glass of milk/ beside her on a small table/ near the rank, disheveled bed—" (1-4). With just a few words, he makes us feel just how depressing this room is. It's dirty, it smells, and it seems like no one has changed the sheets of the grandmother's bed. It makes us wonder where this sickroom is. Is it a low-rent nursing home that doesn't take care of its patients? Is it the grandmother's own house? Wherever it is, there seem to be other people around, because the grandmother says, "They're starving me" (10). Wherever this dirty sickroom is it seems to be a place of neglect.

    Eventually, the speaker convinces his grandmother to go to the hospital, and the next setting we hear about is an ambulance. The speaker doesn't give us any imagery at all to help us get a sense of what it's like in the ambulance. Did he figure we'd seen enough insides of ambulances on TV? Was he just slacking off? Nah, he probably didn't describe it because it's just not where he wants our focus to be. The grandmother's attention is on the row of elm trees that the ambulance is passing. The speaker doesn't bother describing the ambulance because he wants us to see what his grandmother is seeing. She watches the outside world flash by through the windows of the ambulance, and at the tail end of the poem she rejects it all. She's tired of this world, its sick rooms, its ambulances, and its trees. Come to think of it, she turns away from the whole setting.

  • Speaker

    It's widely known that William Carlos Williams actually did have a grandmother from England. So, the chances are very high that the subject matter of this poem is plucked straight from his own life. Of course, it's never really a good idea to think of the poet as the speaker when you're analyzing, though. Poets tend to get all poetic and embellish whatever they're writing about, so we'll just analyze the speaker based on what the text give us.

    On the surface, the poem actually doesn't tell us much at all about the speaker. He narrates the story, but his focus is on his grandmother, not telling us about himself. The speaker actually gives a detailed description of her. By the end of the poem, we know she's "wrinkled and nearly blind" (5), and that though she has dementia, she still has moments of clarity that reveal a sharp wit. Also, we know she's English, because that's like... you know... in the title.

    Even though we don't get a direct description of the speaker, we can learn things about him based on what he chooses to share. He kicks the poem off by saying, "There were some dirty plates/ and a glass of milk/ beside her on a small table/ near the rank, disheveled bed—" (1-4). It doesn't exactly paint a pretty picture, right? So we figure this speaker isn't one to shy away from the grim details.

    The speaker also makes a point of moments where his grandmother gets all sassy. Since he's bothering to tell us this story, we're going to assume that he admires this about his grandmother. The whole poem builds up to her quippy final words, so we think the speaker is a man who admires sharp wit and people who go against the grain. His implied admiration, though, somehow makes his grandmother's impending death all-the-more bittersweet. Sad times.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    This is written in purposefully-conversational, easy to understand language. You don't have to be an expert to make this hike.

  • Calling Card

    Imagistic, American

    William Carlos Williams kicked off his poetic career as part of the Imagist movement, a school of poetry headed up by his buddy Ezra Pound. This movement's main goal was to paint precise images without using a bunch of fancy shmancy words that just get in the way of what a poem is trying to describe. The Imagists wanted to keep it simple, but keep it real. You can totally see the influence of this movement in the opening stanza of "The Last Words of My English Grandmother." Check it out:

    There were some dirty plates
    and a glass of milk
    beside her on a small table
    near the rank, disheveled bed—
    (1-4)

    Williams uses nothing but simple words here. There are no high falutin' poetics. He's just giving us precise details that come together to make a vivid picture in our minds of the gross state of the grandmother's sickroom. Though the Imagist movement was over by the time he wrote this poem, you can see its influence in it and a bunch of his other poems as well.

    Later in his career, Williams got all psyched about creating a uniquely American style of poetry, one that represented the lives and language of everyday people in the U. S. of A. Even though this poem is about an English grandmother, you can see the influence of this style here for sure. The third stanza is a great example:

    Gimme something to eat—
    They're starving me—
    I'm all right—I won't go
    to the hospital. No, no, no
    (9-12)

    See how casual and conversational it feels? Williams even goes so far as to include the slang word, "Gimme" (3.6). This granny might be English, but she seems kinda American to us. The language and rhythms of the poem totally reflect everyday speech, just like Williams wanted them to.

    For more examples of his style, check out "The Red Wheelbarrow" or "This is Just to Say."

  • Form and Meter

    The Thing about Quatrains...

    Yeah, this verse is about as free as it gets, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have any form at all. For one, throughout it uses the popular format of quatrains (four-lined stanzas). All kinds of poets seem to be fans of quatrains, so Williams isn't being too wild and crazy there. Choosing this standard format has the cool effect of taking the commonplace language and placing it in a poetic context. You know, by arranging these words like a poem, all of a sudden we can see the poetry in everyday language. Take the last stanza for example:

    What are all those
    fuzzy looking things out there?
    Trees? Well, I'm tired
    of them and rolled her head away.
    (37-40)

    You could just easily write these same lines out as a couple regular prose-like sentences, but by arranging them in a quatrain the poet ask us look at them as poetry, not prose. It's like he's using this format to show us that there's deep beauty and meaning in the way we speak. This is especially true with this final stanza, where the plain language of the grandmother's words carries much meaning because they're the last words she'll ever speak.

    Meter Chop Salad

    Though there's anything even vaguely resembling a regular meter in this poem, that doesn't mean that there aren't very specific rhythms. The third stanza is a good example of the kind of tricks Williams is pulling.

    Gimme something to eat—
    They're starving me—
    I'm all right—I won't go
    to the hospital. No, no, no
    (9-12)

    See how choppy the rhythm is? Read it out loud, and you can hear it. The dashes at the end of the first two lines put a bit of a longer pause before the next line comes. Then he throws a dash in the middle of the third line and a period in the fourth. Both of these are examples of caesura, which is just a fancy word for when a poet puts a pause in the middle of a line. After all this choppy pausiness, Williams then chooses to end the stanza with the repetition of "No, no, no" which speeds the rhythm up again.

    Don't think that all this pausing and speeding up is just Williams being a slacker about his meter. Instead, it's him doing a sweet job of communicating the natural rhythms of a woman who's confused and panicked. If you want to get across the feeling of someone who's feeling erratic, why not use an erratic rhythm, right? Williams pull this trick for the entire poem, making the whole thing feel like a frantic, headlong rush to the grandmother's last words.

  • Sickness

    Williams's unadorned style doesn't allow for a whole lot of fancy wordplay or complex symbols. This poem does hit us up with some intense imagery, however. Sure, Williams's style may seem simple on the surface, but he uses that casual-feeling language to hurl a cluster of words at us that conjure images of sickness.

    • Lines 1-4: In the first stanza, the poem paints a vivid picture of the grandmother's sick room by using words that hit up several of our senses. We can see the "dirty plates" and can almost taste this suspicious "glass of milk." We can smell how "rank" this bed must be and can feel the texture of the "disheveled" sheets that probably haven't been changed in a while. Overall, this sense imagery comes together to create a grim picture of the grandmother's room. All our senses are telling us that this is a place of sickness and neglect. 
    • Lines 5-6: We get more sense imagery in the second stanza when the speaker tells us, "Wrinkled and nearly blind/ she lay and snored." From this, we can see very clearly how age has shriveled the old lady. The sound of snoring doesn't automatically equal sickness, but it definitely gives us the feeling that this lady is out for the count. 
    • Lines 12-15: It's not as evocative as the earlier imagery in the poem, but repetition of the word "hospital" across these two stanzas definitely has an effect. The word is repeated twice, which emphasizes the image of those big sterile buildings that scare so many people like the grandmother so badly. 
    • Lines 21-23: In this stanza, we get the words "ambulance men" and "stretcher." If anything conjures the image of sickness, these words do. Worse, it gives us the uneasy feeling that something bad is going down, and it's going down now. These visual images signal a state of emergency.
  • Trees

    Trees are used as symbols all the time for nature and a bunch of other stuff. In this poem, they only sprout up once, but when they do they really make an impact. Like any good symbol, these trees represent more than just trees. We know you're dying to hear our take on it, so read below to find out.

    • Lines 37-40: In the final stanza, we learn that the "fuzzy things" that the grandmother is seeing are "trees." Instead of being all like, "Oh, wow, I'm so lucky to see the beauty of nature right before I die," the grandmother's last words are, "Trees? Well, I'm tired/ of them." Okay, yeah, the grandmother might have a particular dislike for our leafy friends, but chances are the trees are representing more than just trees here. The trees seem to represent the whole world and life itself. They're the last things the grandmother sees, and when she rejects them, she's rejecting everything she's ever known.
  • Steaminess Rating

    G

    Nope, no sex in this poem what-so-ever. Keep it movin', Shmoopers.