EXPLANATION OF: "THE WIDOW'S LAMENT IN SPRINGTIME"
William Carlos Williams was known for his attempt to strip all abstraction away from poetry. He spoke of the need to "clamp your mind down on objects," and insisted that there should be "no ideas but in things." What he meant by that can be seen in his poetry; rather than stepping back and explaining what a particular emotion meant, or even why it fit the images that he presented, Williams sought to boil his work down to pure images. He tried to give his readers descriptions of physical objects that evoked the desired emotions through perfectly chosen images delivered in common language. In "The Widow's Lament in Springtime," Williams does this, but he combines this overall goal for his poetry with one that directly contradicts it. He is writing a dramatic monologue. In a dramatic monologue, a speaker in a particular situation delivers an extended speech that responds to the specifics of that situation, but which also explains the history of the speaker, and sums up the essential character and motivation of the speaker. Usually, this means that the speaker explains him or herself in the course of the monologue, but with Williams, it means that the speaker struggles to explain emotions, and is forced to turn to images to explain them, because they are so intense and overwhelming.
In "The Widow's Lament in Springtime," Williams writes from the perspective of an older woman, specifically his widowed mother. There are only five sentences in the poem, which follows the flow of difficult emotions in free verse, rather than being broken into stanzas. The poem begins with the widow claiming that "Sorrow is my own yard," and goes on to talk about the fundamental difference between how the grass "flames" now versus how it flamed before. The grass sprouts—life burns—differently now. Why? The next sentence doesn't include the word "why," but it tells us the reason, " Thirtyfive years / I lived with my husband." Breaking the sentence there makes the term "thirtyfive" the first half of the sentence and gives it great weight. Since the traditional span of a human life is (according to the Bible), three score and ten years, or seventy years, the widow lived with her husband half of life. That half of life is gone.
But life goes on. The rest of the poem shows us the mix of pain and pleasure that comes from being a survivor in the springtime. The widow turns her attention outward, as if to distract herself, looking at the (innocent) white of the plum tree, the gentle white of the cherry blossoms, but her mood breaks in, and she tells us directly that though the bushes are "yellow and some red" (are flaming with life too), the grief in her heart is stronger. Today she noticed them, but "turned away forgetting." Not only has the loss of her husband changed the meaning of the entire natural world for her, he also died before the cherries and plums were ripe. He died before the cycles of life had come to completion, and died as everything else is returning to life. He is out of step with nature, and now, so is the widow. Williams himself enters the poem in the fourth sentence, as his mother speaks of her son returning to the house with an account of the "trees of white flowers." It is possible that this unnamed tree is symbolic—that it stands for a tree of knowledge from Eden, or some other tree of life—but it isn't clear. What is clear is that the widow's son has brought back news of life returning to the trees, hoping to cheer his mother up. She is moved to go see the tree, but not for the reasons he wishes. She wants to "fall into those flowers / and sink into the marsh near them." This is completely understated; she has stopped telling the reader directly what she feels. But if she sinks into the marsh, she would die, there in the flowering springtime. This is a fine example of how Williams makes his images express emotions for him, and, by refusing to explain them, draws the reader into the images too.