Analysis of Poem Spring and All by William Carlos Williams

Spring And All perfectly illustrates what William Carlos Williams thought about the structure of poetry. He said:

‘..the form of poetry is related to the movements of the imagination revealed in words..’

This seemingly simple statement became a kind of rallying call against the conventions of the time – meter and rhyme – historically the foundations for creating acceptable poetry. This was back in 1923 when Spring And All was published as a complete book of experimental prose and poetry.

Williams wanted a new poetry to take shape founded on everyday speech, formed by the imagination rather than any metrical imperative. His ideas counteracted those of poets such as T.S. Eliot and W.H Auden, who were conventionally technical.

In frank terms, Williams brought poetry down to street level, specifically the American streets of his native Rochester, New Jersey, where he practiced as a doctor. He had a radical, modern approach to verse and was critical of classical and romantic poetry.

  • He wanted to free the language from what he thought was an artificial prison – the imposed metrical line, the classical block stanza – and lay words down on paper that came direct from observation, thought and the imagination.
  • He attempted to capture the moment, breaking lines in unusual ways to create poems that were fields of action.

His poems formed in an organic manner; the relationship between subject and object no longer tied to the metrical foot but allied with the breath, with a painter’s vision and a loose spontaneity.

Williams wrote:

The iamb is not the normal measure of American speech. The foot has to be expanded or constructed in terms of actual speech. The key to modern poetry is measure, which must reflect the flux of modern life. You should find a variable measure for the fixed.

Spring And All reflects this new fluid approach to the form of language, with its odd syntactical units and immediate feel. As the wintry landscape is observed a gradual personification of spring takes place in contrast – the classic spring poem emerges as something new, vibrant yet fragile.

But what of this variable foot? Williams wrote:

‘It’s characteristic, when it differs from the fixed foot with which we are familiar, is that it ignores that counting of the number of syllables in the line…for the measure more of the ear, a more sensory counting.’

Some critics are not totally convinced by Williams’s theory, claiming that all poetry has some metrical foundation, whether intended or not. Whether it is fixed or variable is neither here nor there – it’s the emotional effect the words have on the reader, the way words incline to music or not that is important.

There’s no doubting the influence of Williams on young poets who followed in his footsteps, poets such as Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and Gary Snyder.


By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water

the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

with dead, brown leaves under them

leafless vines—

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches—

They enter the new world naked,

cold, uncertain of all

save that they enter. All about them

the cold, familiar wind—

Now the grass, tomorrow

the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined—

It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of

entrance—Still, the profound change

has come upon them: rooted they

grip down and begin to awaken

Spring And All is a free verse poem of 8 stanzas; there is no rhyme or set metrical pattern. Be aware that some websites claim this poem to have 7 stanzas but our version is taken directly from the original digital archive of the book Spring And All, Contact Publishing Co., 1923.

Williams was not overly concerned with classical meter or grammatical syntax. He preferred the spontaneous jotting down of lines, creating pauses and rhythmic shifts with astute use of placement and line breaks.

Stanza 1

From the start there is the idea that the speaker is roaming his eye across a local landscape, scanning it for meaning, describing what is there in front of him in the immediate moment.

That first line sets the scene. There is a contagious hospital nearby which is rather a serious image for contagion is linked to disease and death. The second line gives the reader more information. We already have the preposition By...and now also under...so this is an important fixing of space within present time.

  • Note the line breaks – hospital is followed by under which is semantically straightforward – but what about blue and mottled cloud?
  • Is it blue mottled cloud about to surge?
  • Or is mottled cloud separating from the blue surge?

Traditionally enjambment – when one line runs into the next without punctuation, so giving momentum for the reader – is used to carry energy on from line to line but in this stanza the use of the tiny word the slows this process down, as does astute placing of nouns and verbs.

  • For the reader coming to this poem for the first time there is a challenge as to how to read some of the lines. Getting the pace right is difficult, knowing when to pause long or short is also to be considered.

There is a cold wind. This is the end of winter, lingering on, and the hopeful start of spring, yet to be announced. Note the caesura, the end of a sentence and a dash, as though this is a temporary situation.

Further description is given and the idea of a bleak, unforgiving landscape becomes stronger. This seems like the aftermath of a battle – nature going through winter and suffering ill effects (contagious, surge, cold, waste, fallen).

Stanza 2

A short couplet with strong assonance (patches, standing, scattering) and alliteration (tall trees) in the two lines that are independent of one another. Without punctuation these two lines appear stranded, unconnected to anything, reflective of their content.

They reinforce the notion of a desolate and barren scene in which nothing lives or moves.

Stanza 3

The sketchy observation continues. We’re back on the road as the speaker surveys the landscape, contrasting trees and bushes. Again the line breaks are what cause the reader to pause, to hesitate – this is a curious kind of enjambment, with each line, except the last, trying to flow on into the next.

The first four lines of this stanza can be read with a minimum of fuss but that end line needs consideration, the pause between them and leafless ..

Stanza 4

This is where the change occurs, from winter to approaching spring, from the barren prospect to one of hope and growth.

Again there is the lack of punctuation which reflects the here and now of the commentary. It’s as if the speaker is looking out a car window, driving slowly through or parked up, telling of what he sees to a passenger in the rear.

The first signs of spring are on their way; things are potentially interwoven yet disparate.

Stanza 5

They enter the new world – they – the fresh plants about to commence their true growth. This is the transition, when the dead broken organic debris of winter remains, yet the vital new growth of spring breaks through.

Stanza 6

The speaker focuses on the grass, that word Now reinforcing the present whilst the future – tomorrow – will bring a specific plant to the fore…wildcarrot… a common plant of the roadside.

So here we have a speaker who is looking forward to the appearance of a familiar, what some might call…weed.

Stanza 7

The objects…these are plants, all coming with the spring, individuals growing at their intended time.

It’s as if the speaker has a camera, a time-lapse camera, and is watching as spring unfolds and the light intensifies.

Stanza 8

A final quatrain brings the poem to a loose end. The entrance is the change – there’s no emotional reaction from the speaker as the effect of growth is outlined, as the plants root into the earth, about to take part in the great scenario of spring.

The wake-up call summons them into new life. Note there is no end stop – it’s as if the poem goes on, in the mind of the reader as the images that have built up over eight stanzas come to life.

So ends a poem of simple language and not so simple line breaks. The language is grounded in the American idiom yet the lines are loose chains of consciousness barely together. They’re spontaneous, roughly put together.