Refining the Crudeness of Symbolism: An Analysis of William Carlos Williams’ “The Rose”

Dear all, I encourage you to read the following poem by William Carlos Williams, “The Rose,” published in his book Spring and All in 1923. Then take a good look at the 1914 painting “Flowers” by the cubist painter, Juan Gris, which you will find directly after the poem. Having done that, you will be prepared to read my short analysis of the poem. Enjoy:

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The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air–The edge
cuts without cutting
meets–nothing–renews
itself in metal or porcelain–

whither? It ends–

But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry–

Sharper, neater, more cutting
figured in majolica–
the broken plate
glazed with a rose

Somewhere the sense
makes copper roses
steel roses–

The rose carried weight of love
but love is at an end–of roses

It is at the edge of the
petal that love waits

Crisp, worked to defeat
laboredness–fragile
plucked, moist, half-raised
cold, precise, touching

What

The place between the petal’s
edge and the

From the petal’s edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact–lifting
from it–neither hanging
nor pushing–

The fragility of the flower
unbruised
penetrates space

*William Carlos Williams, 1923*

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flowers-1914
*Flowers – Juan Gris, 1914*

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Refining the Crudeness of Symbolism:
An Analysis of William Carlos Williams’ “The Rose” 

            Of every poet who gives us an account of his or her poetics, an aesthetic manifesto, we are obligated to ask and critically examine whether or not their poetry functions successfully as a manifestation of their claims or aims. William Carlos Williams’ book of poetry and prose, Spring and All, is no exception. In fact, Williams’ book is so artfully composed and organized as a defense and model of his poetic project that the question is even more incumbent. It is perhaps exactly Williams’ craft in structuring the book that has led most Williams critics, including Jennifer Ashton and Dickran Tashjian, to assume for their own critical purposes a congruency between Williams’ prose-stated poetics and his poetry, making this question crucial for the field in general.[1] Due to the confines of this short essay, I will engage this question in relation to only one poem in Spring and All, namely “The rose is obsolete,” and will only hold it to a few of Williams’ claims. The poem, for reasons that will be explained in depth later, is particularly suited to an examination of Williams’ theory of contact and his rejection of “crude symbolism” (Collected Poems 188). In this essay, I will argue that Williams’ poem, “The rose is obsolete,” witnesses on the one hand his failure to “escape from crude symbolism” (189), but, on the other, the successful application of his theory of contact, and I will suggest that these two elements of his poetics are perhaps incompatible.

Williams’ theory of contact and his characterization of “crude symbolism” are intertwined and complex, and need to be clarified for an analysis of “The rose is obsolete” to be effective. Spring and All begins with the statement, “If anything of moment results—so much the better,” which is followed closely by Williams’ theory of contact in the second paragraph: “There is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world” (177). The notion of “moment” or “immediate contact” is closely tied to Williams’ ideas about the modern circumstances of art and the role of imagination. He proceeds to claim that art “up to the present” has been “designed to keep up this barrier,” implying that his aim is to take down this barrier. The key to doing this is the imagination which is the “single force” that can “refine…clarify, [and]…intensify that eternal moment” of contact (178). Williams refers to this barrier as the “beautiful” (178) or “divine illusion” (194) of representation and realism, of art merely “holding the mirror up to nature” (208). One of the aspects of art that “keep[s] up this barrier” is “crude symbolism,” which Williams defines as the “associat[ion of] emotions with natural phenomena, such as anger with lightning, flowers with love” (187). Of the value of his own poetry, Williams goes on to claim that it is “an escape from crude symbolism, the annihilation of strained associations, complicated ritualistic forms designed to separate the work from ‘reality’” (189). These two ideas, the rejection of “crude symbolism” in order to maintain an “immediate contact with the world,” appear to be two sides of the same coin, negative and positive descriptions of the same aim, and Williams says as much after he states the value of his poetry: “This is all negative…It is not intended to be so. Rather the opposite.” Despite the appearance of necessary compatibility between these two ideas, which I will argue is illusory, problems arise in their practical application in Williams’ poetry.

The opening line of the seventh poem in Spring and All, “The rose is obsolete” (195), hearkens back to Williams’ claim that symbolism, the association of “flowers with love” is “demoded” because “changes in the form of existence…have let words empty” (188). Williams more concretely makes the connection between the poem and the “escape” from and “annihilation” of symbolism in lines 21 and 22: “The rose carried weight of love / but love is at an end.” However, like most poems in Spring and All, “The rose is obsolete” is in dialogue with the prose directly preceding it. The occasion for the poem is Williams’ commentary on Juan Gris’ painting, Flowers, which, according to Williams, is an exemplar of the “modern trend…to separate things of the imagination from life” (194). A note in Thirlwall’s text, quoting Williams, confirms the direct influence of the painting and cubism, in general, on the poem: “I was experimenting in the mode of the French painters—the fragmentation of Picasso” (502). The editors of our text, Litz and MacGowan, however, warn the reader to be wary of the retrospective nature of Williams’ comments, and their advice is worth noting particularly in reference to this poem, for the influence of painting in the poem slowly fades away. After first rejecting the flower’s crude symbolism, its obsoleteness, Williams goes on to provide an ekphrastic rendering of Gris’ Flowers. He thematizes his description in terms of his theory of contact, emphasizing rose’s petals as points of contact:

The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air—The edge
cuts without cutting
meets—nothing—
(lines 1-7)

Further on, the “edge” (line 3), which each rose petal ends in, is described not only negatively, but also positively as a point of “start[ing]” (line 11) or beginning, a geometrical point of engagement between the reader and roses. The ekphrasis of Williams’ verbal rendition of Gris’ painting is surprisingly representational, and, since he just criticized “the illusion in art…the falseness of attempting to ‘copy’ nature,” saying that it is “equally silly when we try to ‘make’ pictures” (194), it is no surprise that Williams’ ostensible description of the Gris painting ends with a return to the real issue: the problem of “crude symbolism.”

Jennifer Ashton, in her book From Modernism to Postmodernism, assumes that Williams’ poetics and poetry are in agreement for the sake of making a distinction between Stein’s and Williams’ poetic use of “the rose,” but she makes a valuable observation on this point of the poem. She notes a turn or volta in both Williams’ return to the problem of the opening line and in his subsequent use of the qualifying conjunction “but” after each statement of the rose’s obsoleteness. Ashton argues that this turn is a turn away from the abstraction of both Pound’s own “steel rose” (Ashton 132) and the “modern trend” of cubism that “separate[s] things of the imagination from life” (Collected Poems 194). Williams’ use of the conjunction “but” is crucial. He begins the poem with the present tense statement, “The rose is obsolete” (line 1), but qualifies this statement with the apparently unrelated comment, “but each petal ends in / an edge” (lines 2-3). This initial qualification relocates the reader’s engagement with the rose from the abstract obsolete rose to the particular edges of “each petal.” The emphasis on the ekphrastic rendering of Gris’ painting somewhat dulls the immediacy of this relocation. Nevertheless, Williams’ later return to the initial problem of symbolism sharpens it. In a parallel construction, Williams clarifies his opening, present tense statement with a past tense statement: “The rose carried weight of love” (line 21). The following qualifying comment, parallel to the first and introduced by “but,” sharpens the opening lines’ relocation of the reader’s engagement or contact from the abstract to the particular: “but love is at an end—of roses” (line 22). The following two lines render this line unambiguous: “It is at the edge of the / petal that love waits” (lines 23-24). Love is still associated with the rose; there is no “escape from crude symbolism”, no “annihilation of…association” (189). There is only the relocation of symbolism from the abstract rose to the particular, “precise, touching” edge of each rose petal (line 28). Furthermore, the ambiguity of antecedent in the stanza following the re-association of the rose with love, via the edges of its petals, reinforces the poetic equation between the two terms:

Crisp, worked to deafeat
laboredness—fragile
plucked, moist, half-raised
cold, precise, touching
                        (lines 25-28)

This descriptive catalogue could equally refer to its immediate antecedent, which is love, or it could simply describe the rose petals’ edge. Finally, the erotic undertones of the language in the second half of the poem functions in a similar manner:  “petal…fragile…plucked…moist…touching…penetrates” (lines 24, 26, 27, 28, 35 respectively).

Ashton makes another pertinent and valuable observation about Williams’ replacement of the expected noun in line 31 with a blank space: “The place between the petal’s / edge and the” (lines 30-31). Ashton notes that in this replacement Williams “gives us not the conditions under which meaning occurs, but the conditions under which experience occurs” (Ashton 129). Ashton, however, misses the clarification Williams offers in the next line, where “the place,” the point of contact on “the petal’s / edge” is “where a line starts” (Collected Poems 195-196, lines 30-32). The ars poetica aspect of this “line” is unavoidable. When combined with Ashton’s observation about the conditions of experience, involving the reader in an act of engagement and contact with both the imagination and the edge of the rose petal, these lines suggest the incompatibility of Williams’ theory of contact with his desire to “escape” and “annihilate” symbolism (189).

Williams’ theory of breaking down the barriers between the reader and his or her “consciousness of immediate contact with the world” manifests itself in “The rose is obsolete,” in the poem’s shift in focus away from the abstract rose toward the edge of each rose petal. This shift effects not an escape from or annihilation of symbolism, but a mere relocation of it, in effect, reforging a space in which symbolism can be effective. Effective symbolism is, in fact, the context without which Williams’ poem would not exist. It is exactly Williams’ inability to escape or annihilate symbolism that allows him to replenish with significance words that “changes in the form of existence have let…empty” and to rediscover “meanings [that] have been lost through laziness” (188).


[1] This broad claim may be subject to error, and is substantiated on my part only by cursory survey of titles and introductions of articles on Spring and All that make use of Williams’ prose and poetry together as evidence of some greater claim.

Works Cited

Ashton, Jennifer. From Modernism To Postmodernism: American Poetry And Theory In The Twentieth Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2005. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

Williams, William Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. A. Walton. Litz and Christopher J. MacGowan. Vol. 1. New York: New Directions, 1991. Print.

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