Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Have we not the deed? - youthful William Carlos Williams rides to fight, and describes leaves

William Carlos Williams, The Tempers, 1913.  WCW’s second book, I think, after the 1909 Poems.  I read The Tempers in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1986, and it only includes three poems from 1909, so I guess someone thought the rest were not worth collecting.  Two of those included are sonnets!  I hadn’t read anything so regular from Williams before:

from The Uses of Poetry

I’ve fond anticipation of a day
O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay… 

There comes a point where jittery young poets say, “enough of this” especially when they are friends with Ezra Pound and H.D. and that crowd.  The Tempers is where Williams begins to make it new, whatever “it” and “new” might mean.

from To Wish Myself Courage

But when the spring of it is worn like the old moon
And the eaten leaves are lace upon the cold earth –
Then I will rise up in my great desire –
Long at the birth – and sing me the youth-song!

The poet says he will sing this “long song” only “[w]hen the stress of youth is put away from me,” but it sounds to me that he is singing the youth-song in The Tempers, an exuberant little book.  Love and life. 

from Con Brio

Miserly, is the best description of that poor fool
Who holds Lancelot to have been a morose fellow,
Dolefully brooding over the events which had naturally to follow
The high time of his deed with Guinevere.

How can we have less?  Have we not the deed?
Lancelot thought little, spent his gold and rode to fight
Mounted, if God was willing, on a good steed.

Williams does not sound quite like himself to me.  It is not that I know WCW so well, oh no, but that what I do know has such a strong voice.  Maybe it is just odd to see Williams messing around with Lancelot, even to invert the example.  Later he will be confident enough not to feel the need to take a jab at the pre-Raphaelite poets or the 1890s poets or whoever he has in mind.

from First Praise

Lady of dusk-wood fastnesses,
        Thou art my Lady.
I have known the crisp, splintering leaf-tread with thee on before,
White, slender through green saplings;
I have lain by thee on the brown forest floor
        Beside thee, my Lady.

Please note that I have included two separate, excellent descriptions of fallen leaves.  Other especially vivid bits:  the coroner’s “merry little children” who “laugh because they prosper,” for “[k]ind heaven fills their little paunches” ( in “Hic Jacet”), or the “crimson salamander” in the flames of “The Ordeal,” or the swirling leaves – yes, more leaves – that “follow me / Talking of the great rain.”

I was pleased to see that Williams included four translations of early modern Spanish Romanceros.

Poplars of the meadow,
Fountains of Madrid,
Now I am absent from you,
All are slandering me.

That sort of thing.  Of course, this is Pound’s influence – Pound in fact gave Williams the books with the Spanish poems – so maybe I will save the topic for tomorrow.


  1. Until I read the whole thing I thought The Uses of Poetry was a satire on a young man who used poetry as a ploy for seduction. If it is a burlesque it is much too clumsy. On the other hand, if Williams actually meant it...

  2. i've thought that williams had a sort of contrapuntal sense of humor that acted like waves, turning into irony and /or high spirited maniacalness; makes for a giddy ride, often...

  3. Good, Roger, it is not just me. "This can't be meant seriously." Bad poem, and it's the one picked to be representative, I guess.

    "Maniacalness" - good adjective. That quality is less present in this early book. It is developing.

  4. In that "Have we not the deed?" I hear an echo of another Arthurian poem-- Tennyson's "For the deed's sake have I done the deed" from Idylls of the King

  5. Just borrowed a line from "Con Brio" for a story title, thanks for introducing me to it! It is a rather lovely poem, though I don't like most Williams.

  6. That poem is a long ways from most Williams. Glad you found something useful.