Study Guide

The Last Words of My English Grandmother Themes

By William Carlos Williams

  • Old Age

    When a poem is called "The Last Words of My English Grandmother," the chances are pretty high that old age is going to be a major theme. This poem definitely doesn't pull any punches when it comes to this theme. It paints a realistic picture of the physical and mental effects of aging, which the elderly have to deal with. It's a slice of life that, if we're not coping with it in some way already, we will know one day. Good times?

    Questions About Old Age

    1. What are some of the harsh realities of old age that the speaker shows in the poem?
    2. Does the speaker show any of the benefits of getting older? If yes, what? If no, what could he have added?
    3. In general, what would you say the speaker's attitude is toward aging? How can you tell?

    Chew on This

    The speaker is totally disrespectful of his grandma by showing her in such compromising positions. (For shame, dude.)

    The speaker paints a clear picture of the realities of aging, which ultimately respects the difficulties that his grandmother and all elderly people face. (Props, Granny.)

  • Death

    You gotta hand it to this poem. "The Last Words of My English Grandmother" delivers on what the title promises. It shows the final few hours and the last moments of the speaker's grandmother—oh, and her last words, of course. In the poem, we see all the stages that a lot of people feel when death approaches, from total denial to ultimate acceptance. The speaker describes his grandmother's final moments with an unsentimental clarity, which gives readers the room to make their own decisions about his take on mortality.

    Questions About Death

    1. How does the grandmother's relationship with death change over the course of the poem?
    2. What do you think the speaker's attitude is towards death? How can you tell?
    3. In what ways does the poem allude to the death of the grandmother?

    Chew on This

    Eh—in general, the poem doesn't seem to have an opinion on death; it just presents a clear picture of the realities that sometimes lead up to it.

    The last words of the grandmother show that death can be a peaceful release from the world. ("So long, suckers," we can imagine Granny saying.)

  • Madness

    Madness might be kind of an extreme word for the sort of mental illness shown in "The Last Words of My English Grandmother." The poem is an honest portrait of the effects that dementia can have on the elderly. Throughout, we see the confusion, paranoia, and moments of stunning clarity that people afflicted with this common illness have to deal with. Along with that, we get a sense of fear, and of humor, but most of all we get a sense of our speaker's challenges in supporting his ill grandmother. Poor guy—though, to be fair, it doesn't sound like a bed of roses for Granny, either.

    Questions About Madness

    1. In what moments in the poem do you think the grandmother's mind is clear? Where does her mind seem to be more affected?
    2. What hints does the poem give of what the grandmother's personality was like before the dementia set in?
    3. Overall, what are the effects of the grandmother's dementia? How does it cause her to behave?

    Chew on This

    The poem manages to show the humorous situations that sometimes happen when people's minds begin to slip, but without mocking the grandmother in any way—no hating here.

    The poem shows how sometimes people who are suffering from dementia can have moments of clarity that reveal insights they might never have reached when they were still totally in control of their minds—wild.

  • Power

    "Powerlessness" might be a better way to describe how this theme pops up in "The Last Words of My English Grandmother." The poem gives a touching portrait of how our personal power is taken away from us as we age. Our bodies and minds start to fail us, and little by little we lose more and more control. It might seem grim, but the poem's not a total downer. The grandmother of the title faces this loss of power like a champ (or a boss, or—you know—like a baws), and in the end goes out on her own terms.

    Questions About Power

    1. At which point in the poem do you think the grandmother is the least powerful? The most? How can you tell?
    2. In what ways does the speaker have power in the poem? In ways does he have none?
    3. Do you think the grandmother reclaims her personal power in the moment of death, or does she totally relinquish it? What parts of the poem give you your ideas?

    Chew on This

    Throughout the poem, the speaker is totally helpless in the face of his grandmother's impending death (the poor schlub).

    The poem shows how, even though we're powerless to prevent our eventual deaths, we can in some ways choose the way we go out. (In this case: with style.)