An Analysis of William Carlos Williams’ Poem “Pastoral”

Pastoral is a short lyric poem, a paradoxical snapshot of life on a local American street. It is a typical William Carlos Williams creation, a narrow field of short lines, the equivalent of a sketch or a quick painting, skilfully composed.

  • Yet, astute observation of specific things – sparrows, old man, dog dung, religious minister, pulpit – combines with imaginative feeling to produce a poem that is more complex than it appears at first sight. Things certainly do inspire ideas.

First published in the radical magazine Others in 1915 the poem was included in Williams’s book Al Que Quiere in 1917, one of three poems with the title Pastoral.

The poem is acknowledged as a key work, among others, because it reflects the poet’s rejection of the pre-modern poems full of rhyme and traditional metrics. Willams himself had started off as a rhyming poet but soon felt that this was a restriction on his imagination, so gave it up for free verse.

  • Together with other modernists he pioneered a new poetics and left behind formal structures. He began to focus on his local environment for inspiration and was soon writing his spontaneous poems, often written down on ‘any piece of paper I can grab’ and typed up.

This ‘direct treatment of the thing’ was experimental and involved loose but subtly measured structures of short lines and casual language – a truly fresh challenge for the reader at the turn of the twentieth century.

The definition of a pastoral poem has evolved over the centuries. Originally the ancient Greeks used a term we now know as bucolic, relating to herdsmen. Then the Roman poet Virgil wrote his Eclogues, which became known as pastoral poems, relating to shepherds and a romanticised idea of country life.

Eventually, Elizabethan English poetry became the home of pastoral verse, where idealised countryside or a rural lifestyle and landscape were the focus for, typically, a hopeful romantic relationship.

Basically, the pastoral poem concentrates on ordinary folk and their role in nature as seen from an outsider’s (idealised) point of view.

  • Williams’s Pastoral retains its quirky charisma, capturing a street scene that might have lasted a minute and tacking on the speaker’s memory of the way a minister approaches the pulpit.

His poem juxtaposes the behaviour of sparrows against that of the human, then the human against a second human. Tensions are created. The sparrows are simply instinctive, whilst the first human’s actions are questionable.

And there is further room for debate because the old man, collecting dog dirt, seems more majestic than the minister, walking to his Sunday pulpit. There has to be a message in there somewhere?

Pastoral is a free verse poem of 25 short lines in a single narrow stanza. There is no set rhyme scheme or metrical arrangement so the poem is basically four sentences chopped up.

  • There is minimal punctuation which means that enjambment is common – only four lines are not enjambed – therefore the reader is challenged to read each short line with as much ‘flow’ as possible.

Naturally the frequent line breaks mean that there has to be some pause at the end of each line but after several read throughs this becomes less of a clunky exercise.

Williams crafts his poem so that the stresses at the end of each line vary; they fall, they rise. There are also extremely short lines of two or three syllables – Quarreling…..These things….. Or evil – and longer ones of six and ten syllables – Hop ingenuously….That of the Episcopal minister – which bring interest and challenge for the reader.

The indentation between the thirteenth and fourteenth lines is a break in the speaker’s ‘thoughts’. After close observation of the sparrows on the pavement and a comparison with human behaviour, the second part of the poem seems to be a rethink. Humans might be wiser than the quarrelsome sparrows…but hang on, what about that old man and the minister?

Pastoral begins with a simple observation of the most common urban bird, the sparrow, a ubiquitous domestic bird that has a sharp call and tends to be noisy and sometimes aggressive.

This is nature almost tamed, suitable material for a pastoral poem. Williams must have witnessed this scene numerous times on his way to work as a doctor and he juxtaposes the instinctive behaviour of the birds with the more reasoned behaviour of humans generally.

We are wiser….according to the speaker who attempts to introduce a moral aspect to the poem by suggesting that humans don’t readily express or know how to express themselves. Unlike the sparrows who just get on with their relatively uncomplicated, physical lives.

There is a sense of tension set up by these short lines, with their cadences and changes of emphasis. Small birds quarrelling, humans reasoning, somewhat confused or unable to morally define the actions of the sparrows?

The second part of the poem is a slightly tongue in cheek exposé of mainstream American religion, an old man picking up dog poop being seen as more majestic than a minister about to give a sermon.

Whether or not this is Williams having a go at the church is up to the reader, suffice to say that the speaker’s astonishment is enough to be going with.

Beyond words are the last two words in the poem and this must surely relate to the title Past-oral, as some commentators have noted, typical of William Carlos Williams who loved to pun and play with words.

So, solidly rooted in Williams’s local Rutherford environment, this poem, whilst not outstanding for its music or phonetic texture, grows in stature the more it is read. Why? It is an instant in time; shallow yet deep.