Study Guide

The Widow's Lament in Springtime

The Widow's Lament in Springtime Summary

Our speaker, a widow, compares her sorrow to her yard, making note of how the new growth of spring seems different at this point in her life – colder and isolating. She mentions how long she lived with her husband, then quickly changes the subject to her description of the flowers on the plum tree, the cherry tree, and the bushes in her yard. The bright colors of the flowers, she tells us, are not as strong as the grief she feels. She no longer takes joy in them. Then she mentions that her son told her about a place out in the meadows, where there were trees with white flowers. She declares that she would like to go out there and sink into the marsh.

  • Lines 1-6

    Line 1

    Sorrow is my own yard

    • Our speaker drops a metaphor bomb on us poor readers. To her, sorrow is her yard. Her yard is sorrow. The two things are one and the same.
    • A yard is generally something that we cultivate and take care of; we mow it, we rake the leaves, we probably water it, and try to protect it from harm. It also surrounds us (at least when we're home).
    • All of which makes it a strange, and very sad, image to connect with sorrow, of all things. Who wants to be surrounded by sorrow? Who wants to step out the backdoor and into sorrow?
    • Of course the title warns us we won't be dealing with the most uplifting of poems, but the opening line is blunt nonetheless.
    • Notice how possessive she is of the sorrow. Not just "my," but "my own."
    • Given that we know this is a "Widow's Lament," we can guess that this is going to be a persona poem. This means that though the poem is written by William Carlos Williams, it is not written in his voice. Nope, he has taken on the voice of a woman – a widow – and the poem will contain her words.

    Lines 2-4

    where the new grass
    flames as it has flamed
    often before but not

    • In these lines, the widow gives us some imagery to describe her yard. She imagines the new grass as flames.
    • This could just be a fancy, poetic way of describing sprouting grass. After all, when new grass sprouts up, it does kind of look like a green flame has spread across the yard, like wildfire.
    • But the image also gives an ominous feel, as if her yard is on the attack.
    • "New grass" calls our attention back to the word "Springtime" in the title. Spring and new growth bring with them ideas of renewal, rebirth, and so on. We're still waiting to see how those ideas will fit in with the sadness in the title and in these opening lines. But we can say that her spring doesn't exactly seem full of joy and rebirth.
    • The seasonal nature of the grass is also emphasized by "as it has flamed / often before." It's a cycle, something that repeats every time the snow melts and the sun comes out.
    • Flames and fire are also pretty widely used as symbols for desire, particularly romantic desire, so we'll keep that info in our back pockets in case it comes in handy.

    Lines 5-6

    with the cold fire
    that closes round me this year.

    • This year, the growth of the grass doesn't hold any warmth or pleasure for our speaker. Some spring.
    • The coldness of the fire seems to tell us that something is definitely not right here. Fire should be hot, right?
    • So even though the grass is growing, just like every other spring, something has changed. Remember, she has lost her husband, so maybe the fact that he's not around to share this spring with her has changed the way she sees it. Even fire doesn't seem warm with him gone.
    • Our speaker seems to feel distant from the new growth, the renewal in the natural world, and yet she feels oppressed by this distance and coldness – it "closes round" her.
  • Lines 7-10

    Lines 7-8

    Thirty-five years
    I lived with my husband.

    • Now we've got some concrete information. Phew. Our speaker lived thirty-five years with the husband she has just lost.
    • Shmoopers, that is a long time. No wonder she's sad.
    • This line is the final confirmation that the speaker of this poem is indeed the "Widow" from the title. The loss of her husband is the reason she's so unhappy, the reason spring holds no warmth and joy.
    • Even the way our speaker delivers this little detail is heartbreaking. On the surface it's a simple statement of fact. But we know there is a lot of complicated emotion behind it. When you live with someone you love for thirty-five years, well, it's probably pretty hard to let them go, to say the very least.

    Lines 9-10

    The plum tree is white today
    with masses of flowers.

    • Our speaker now describes a plum tree in bloom with white flowers, adding to the pattern of natural imagery that we've seen so far in the poem.
    • The way she says "the" plum tree makes us think the tree is probably also in her yard.
    • A tree in bloom is generally an image of abundance, brightness, and liveliness, right? But because of our speaker's state of mind, with the loss of her husband and that coldness she now feels, the liveliness is not so much invigorating as it is sad.
    • And what about that word "masses"? There's a weight to it, right? As if the flowers on the tree are weighing the tree down. Or as if all this beauty is actually weighing her down. She's too sad to appreciate the warmth and life and color of spring.
  • Lines 11-19

    Lines 11-12

    Masses of flowers
    load the cherry branches

    • Now she describes the cherry tree, which is also in bloom.
    • There's that word "masses" again, and the repetition is important to note. The beauty of the flowers is being compared to a burden, and the sense of it weighing her down is made even more powerful with the word "load."
    • Who knew flowers could be so heavy?
    • Of course, we have to ask, is it really the flowers that are heavy? Or do they just seem heavy because something else, like, say, her grief, is heavy, too?
    • Whatever the case, there is clearly a connection between the way this widow sees the natural world around her (mainly in her yard), and the way she feels emotionally about the death of her husband.
    • Which makes sense, if you think about it. When we experience loss, it tends to change the way we see the world around us, right? Just as when we experience joy, everything around us seems just a little bit shinier.

    Lines 13-14

    and color some bushes
    yellow and some red

    • Flowers, flowers everywhere! There are blooms on the bushes in the yard as well, some yellow and some red. Gosh, these colors are even more vibrant than the bright white of the plum blossoms.
    • She seems to be making note of the power that flowers have to color or transform things – in this case the bushes in her yard.
    • It's spring, the time of transformation. What can this tell us about her inner state? We'll just have to keep reading to find out.

    Lines 15-16

    but the grief in my heart
    is stronger than they

    • After such beautiful flower imagery, these lines give us the Big But. As it turns out, the force of the grief she feels is greater than the brightness and renewal of the flowers.
    • You see, she notices the transformational nature of the flowers, but it doesn't quite work on her anymore. Her inner grief is just too powerful.
    • Now that her husband is dead, she both mourns his loss and the loss of spring, which no longer seems quite as beautiful as it once did.

    Line 17

    for though they were my joy

    • These flowers used to be her joy, and why shouldn't they have been? They sound downright gorgeous. This metaphor, which is given to us in the past tense, shows us just how much has changed.
    • Flowers, and by extension all the color and renewal of nature during spring, used to give her great pleasure. Maybe she was a gardener. Maybe she and her husband used to enjoy gazing at the flowers out their window.
    • In any case, none of this is true anymore. All the joy she used to find in those flowers is gone, which makes her current state all the sadder.
    • The flowers are still there – they haven't changed – but the widow can't find pleasure in them, and the loss of that pleasure parallels the loss of her husband. It seems her grief is all consuming.

    Lines 18-19

    formerly, today I notice them
    and turn away forgetting.

    • Now she's not moved by the flowers; she turns away from them and forgets them.
    • She really seems to be emphasizing how things have changed. Her experience was one way before, and now it's very different.
    • "Forgetting" is an interesting word choice, don't you think? We assume it means that the flowers are now so unimportant to her that she forgets them right away.
    • Or maybe she's referring to the fact that she has forgotten what they used to mean to her.
    • At any rate, it also reminds us of all the things she cannot forget: the memories of her husband; his absence; all the thoughts that weigh on her now, and that have spoiled her relationship with the natural world.
  • Lines 20-24

    Line 20

    Today my son told me

    • Big Moment Alert! Our speaker's son told her something (which we'll get to in a moment), but what's really pivotal here is the entrance of the son in the first place.
    • The appearance of the son here is a big shift. We've been so focused on our lonely speaker, and the loss of her husband, that it's almost shocking to learn she has a son around to talk to.
    • We don't know whether they talked on the phone, or are actually in the same place, but still that contact should be a reason for joy, right?
    • And yet, the tone stays pretty level. The entrance of the son doesn't make any noticeable impact on the slow, sad pace of the language. It feels like just another fact thrown into the (flower) pot.

    Lines 21-22

    that in the meadows,
    at the edge of the heavy woods

    • Her son is describing the location of something in the meadows at the edge of the woods (we haven't gotten to what yet).
    • And what about those woods? Well, for one thing, they're "heavy." That heaviness is everywhere in this poem.
    • Perhaps the woods are dense? Or maybe she's just projecting again. The woods are heavy because she's feeling the weight of her grief.
    • Our speaker is being a bit coy, though. She just won't tell us exactly what she means. Just like earlier in the poem, our speaker is keeping the focus on the natural world. She mentions her son (as, earlier, she mentioned her husband), but immediately zooms right in on an image of the natural world.
    • This means that when we read the poem, we have to decode her descriptions of the world around her, to see what they tell us about her inner world. And wouldn't you know it? That's what we've been doing all along.

    Lines 23-24

    in the distance, he saw
    trees of white flowers.

    • Near those heavy woods (which we now learn are far off in the distance), the speaker's son saw trees with white flowers, growing in the meadow.
    • Hmm. That sounds familiar, doesn't it? Could these be more plum trees, growing by the woods?
  • Lines 25-28

    Lines 25-26

    I feel that I would like
    to go there

    • Our speaker wants to go to the place her son described. Hey, we wouldn't mind a visit either. It sounds lovely, and it's not that strange to want to go somewhere that someone has described to you.
    • But it is perhaps a little strange that she wants to go here, given that her description of this place sounds rather similar to her description of her own yard (the heaviness, the trees with white flowers).
    • She's feeling pretty uninspired by her own place, yet is open to this other one?
    • It's also worth noting that this is one of the few places in the poem where the widow tells us how she feels. She doesn't say, "I would like." No, instead she says, "I feel that I would like." She seems a bit unsure of herself, doesn't she? She's somehow distant from her own desires.

    Line 27

    and fall into those flowers

    • On the most basic level, this line tells us that the widow would like to fall into the flowers out in this place her son told her about.
    • Doesn't she have flowers (white ones even!) on her plum tree right there in the yard? Why does she want to go all the way out to the meadow? Why do these flowers draw her more than the ones that are a few steps away?
    • And what is it about them that makes her want to fall into them?

    Line 28

    and sink into the marsh near them.

    • Apparently our widow doesn't just want to fall into those flowers. She also wants to sink into the nearby marsh.
    • Hey, maybe she just likes to paddle around in marshes. Maybe it makes her feel better.
    • But we can't deny that there's a definite suggestion of suicide here. Especially with that word "sink." Marshes, after all, are filled with water. So we have to ask: does she want to drown?
    • When we think about it, a suicidal desire, sadly, doesn't seem out of left field. It's a pretty heavy and all-encompassing sorrow that our speaker has been expressing throughout this piece. Her husband is dead. She's pretty much all alone in the world.
    • Still, if we wanted to put a positive spin on it, we might say that maybe sinking into the marsh is her way of reuniting with the world she has become detached from.
    • She used to find joy in the natural world. Now she doesn't. But by sinking into that marsh, maybe, just maybe, she would be reunited with the natural world she has lost.
    • Unfortunately, as with much of the poem, our widow-speaker doesn't come right out and tell us what she means.
    • Even at the point where she longs for death (possibly), she's still pretty reserved. This is not a woman who relishes share-time.
    • Whew. What an ending, right? Talk about haunting.