[After a mild start, it ended up being a long, cold, very wintry winter. But all winters end, metaphorically as well as seasonally, and in this week’s series I’ll be AmericanStudying a few cultural and historical such American thaws—leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on what Spring means to you in literature, culture, history, and more!]
On the two modernist poems that exemplify alternative, contrasting, yet ultimately complementary narratives of spring and hope.
When it comes to literary images of spring, the first work that (pardon me) springs to mind is William Carlos Williams’ poem “Spring and All” (1923). Created at least in part in response to Williams’ work as a doctor (hence the “contagious hospital” in the opening line), and more exactly his experiences dealing with at-risk young patients whose very existence and future were in doubt (and possibly, as I’ve argued in recent years for obvious reasons, in specific response to his experiences during the 1918-20 influenza pandemic), the poem transcends any specific contexts to become both a realistic and yet an idealistic depiction of spring itself: of what it means for new life to make its struggling, haphazard, threatened, perennial, inspiring journey to the surface of a world that had been cold and lifeless (in terms of blooming things, anyway) only days before. Making the best use of an unpunctuated last line since Emily Dickinson, Williams’ closing line captures perfectly the precise moment of “awaken[ing],” as both an uncertain transition to whatever comes next yet also a miraculous achievement in its own right.
Williams at times consciously positioned himself and his poetry in contrast to high modernist contemporaries such as T.S. Eliot, and it’s difficult to imagine a more direct contrast to “Spring and All” than the opening lines of Eliot’s “The Waste Land (1922). “April is the cruelest month,” Eliot’s poem begins, and in case the reader thinks he’s upset about Tax Day or something, the speaker goes on to make clear that it is precisely spring’s rebirths to which he refers: “Breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain. / Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / A little life with dried tubers.” Where Williams’ poem focuses on the season’s partial and uncertain but still powerful moves toward a future, Eliot’s thus looks back at a past, one that would be better left buried yet that is instead brought back with every new blossom. And where Williams creates images of awakening new life, of spring as birth, Eliot portrays the season as a painful re-awakening, back into identities already (it seems) too much in the world.
Those contrasts are genuine, and again reflect more overarching distinctions between these two poets as well. Yet I think in at least one significant way the two poems (particularly when we take all of Eliot’s into consideration, not just his opening line) complement rather than contrast each other. After all, one clear way to describe the modernist literary project is as an attempt to represent life in the aftermath of disaster, destruction, death, doubt, all those characteristics so amplified within a post-WWI (and, as we’ve now started to realize, post-pandemic) world. To that end, we can see both poems’ speakers as struggling with that question, and trying to imagine whether and how new life and possibilities can or should emerge into such an inhospitable world (whether represented through a contagious hospital or a barren wasteland). The poems do differ greatly in tone, but it’s possible to argue that the very act of writing is in both cases a hopeful one, a pushing through the wintry ground into some evolving new form. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” Eliot writes in his poem’s final lines—and what is spring (he said at the tail end of a New England winter) but a fragmentary yet inspiring annual rebirth of a ruined world?
Next thaw tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other thaws you’d highlight?