This poem is all about silence. Look at those skinny lines, and all that white space they leave on the right side of the page. Listen to the way the poem takes a sentence like the first one and breaks it apart so that even a section of the sentence like "often before but not" (which normally would never have any pauses around it) gets bookended by little silences. All those line breaks insert brief pauses before we get to the next line. Plus, there are the natural pauses at commas and periods.
All that silence gets pretty loud, doesn't it? What's so clever about Williams's use of that white space is that silence is – wait for it – the absence of words. We know, we know. But before you roll your eyes and say duh! give us a minute to explain.
"The Widow's Lament in Springtime" is all about absence and loss. A-ha! Williams knew what he was doing. In a poem about absence (of the widow's husband), his use of silence, which is another kind of absence, reinforces his speaker's feelings of loss.
When the speaker does break the silence, all that empty space is still felt, and deeply. She sounds almost preoccupied, as her thoughts meander through her grief. We hear words that end one sentence at the start of the next, as she uses them to move from one thought to another: "closes round me this year. / Thirty-five years / I lived […]" and "with masses of flowers. / Masses of flowers / load […]" (6-8 and 10-12).
We also hear a subtle stressing of her emotional state when she adds on words that aren't technically necessary for getting her meaning across. For instance, instead of saying "Sorrow is my yard" she doubly emphasizes her connection with the sorrow by saying "is my own yard." Likewise, instead of just saying "they were my joy," she adds an extra emphasis on the fact that things have changed by saying: "they were my joy / formerly." This widow is focused on one thing and one thing only: the death of her husband. That focus is reflected in the very way the poem sounds.
We've got a widow. And she's lamenting. Oh, and it's springtime. Consider the scene set.
Let's start with those first three words: "The Widow's Lament." By saying "The Widow" the title already gives us a sense of isolation. It sounds like she's the only widow in the world! After all, if there were many, she would just be "A Widow." The word "The" is single, and imparts a sort of loneliness to her character. Plus, calling someone a widow has a way of defining them entirely by their lost husband. When we think of them as "widow," they are defined by that loss.
And that's precisely the point, isn't it. In giving us this title, the poem has prepared us for the way that our speaker's loss of her husband has come to overwhelm other aspects of her life (like her connection to the natural world, and to her son). The word "Lament" adds extra force to the sense of loss and sadness that was already introduced in the idea of a widow.
Finally, in mentioning spring, the poem has prepared us, without us really knowing it yet, for the contrast between the renewal, brightness, and life of spring and the sadness and irrevocability of death. The widow's lament would be sad in the winter of course. But because it's spring, it's all the sadder, because the outer world won't mimic her inner state.
We'd call this poem an interior poem. And not just in the sense that it takes place inside our speaker's mind, in the realm of her emotions. But also because our speaker, from the way she describes her yard, seems separated from the outside, the exterior. Or to put it simply: we think she's in her house.
She's there by her kitchen window in the suburbs of a small city, maybe, looking through her half-reflected face at the spring grass and the plum tree. The poor woman just stands there, stuck between two worlds she no longer feels a part of: the beauty and life of the yard, and the domestic life that has lost its anchor, her husband.
Despite the fact that our poet is very much a man, our speaker is very much a woman, and a widow at that. Although we don't know much about her specifically, we can totally picture the scene: a lonely woman stands at her window. She's looking out at the grass, the trees covered in flowers, but not feeling like she's a part of that growth and brightness.
She's simply too busy grieving for her dead husband. In fact, for the most part, it seems that our speaker is a widow and nothing more. The loss of her husband has consumed her life, and all the little pleasures it once held for her. She is defined by his death, and his death dictates how she sees the world around her.
We also notice that, despite her great sadness, she has a sense of control. She's not screaming and crying. She's not down on her knees praying for her husband to return. Her grief isn't loud or messy. No, it's a cold weight that "closes round" her. She speaks plainly, uses as few words as possible, and doesn't ask for much from us readers. She doesn't make any effort to sound deep. We don't pity her. But we do worry for her. After all, that last image doesn't sound too promising.
There are some deep connections here, but the poem, beginning with the title, is not too shy about making them clear.
You probably noticed (and we already pointed out) that this poem has some pretty short lines. And while certainly not every Williams poem has short lines, it's something that he has come to be known for. By using such short lines, most every image (heck, just about every word) gets its moment to step out into the spotlight and hold our attention.
Go ahead. We dare you to spot a rhyme. How about meter – is there any of that?
Nope. There's none of that fancy stuff here. "The Widow's Lament in Springtime" is free verse at its freest. We can easily imagine these lines rolling straight off the tongue of our sad neighborhood widow. Its rhythms are decidedly colloquial – they mimic the way a person would speak instead of following a fixed meter.
Still, there is one formal aspect that's worth a look: those short little lines. They give the poem a chopped, stunted look, don't you think? Our speaker breaks off mid-sentence on just about every line. When a poet breaks a line mid-sentence, we call this enjambment, and in this poem that quality mimics the speaker's devastated inner world. It's almost as if she can never carry a thought through to its end. We readers have to hover for a brief moment before jumping to the next line to find out just what she's saying. And, just like our speaker, these enjambments bring a lot of attention to the empty space around them and to what's not being said. (Feel free to read more about these lines in the "Sound Check" and "Calling Card" sections.)
Let's face it: this isn't the happiest poem in the world. It opens with sorrow, moves on to grief, and ends with a longing for death. Hooray! Or… not. But hey, what else would you expect from a poem written in the voice of a widow?
White flowers, red flowers, yellow flowers. Flowers our speaker doesn't like anymore, flowers she does seem to like (albeit in a creepy, suicidal way). Why so many flowers? Of course it has something to do with the fact that it's springtime outside. Inside, however, it's grief-time, and those flowers are not helping matters.
Our speaker is no longer on good terms with desire, at least in the romantic sense of love and sex and spring flowers. In fact, in her disconnect from the world, she seems to really only have one desire – ending her isolation.
This poor widow is all alone in the house, so there's no sex here, awesome readers.