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On "The Descent"


Carl Rapp

"The descent beckons / as the ascent beckoned.", says Williams at the beginning of his final phase, and he means by this a descent into memory, a descent into his own inner depths, wherein he finds compensation for the increasingly disturbing poverty of that which is revealed by the senses. Like Wordsworth at the Simplon Pass, Williams reaches a point at which the external world no longer seems to provide an adequate correlative for his desires and expectations. His only recourse is to turn inward, as Wordsworth does, in search of satisfactions which the outward world apparently denies. The reasons for this change of direction are, in Williams' case, fairly obvious: the heart attack in 1948, the death of his mother in 1949, and, most spectacularly, the series of crippling strokes in 1951 and 1952 that almost completely knocked him out, paralyzing his right arm and seriously impairing his speech and eyesight. At this most critical time in his life, when the light of sense was almost permanently extinguished, he was forced to acknowledge "what we cannot accomplish, what // is denied to love, / what we have lost in the anticipation." Up to this point, his lordship over the facts had never been seriously threatened; he had simply appropriated whatever he wanted, bending it to his will like a god. Now the whole world seemed to be threatened with dissolution. The facts were becoming recalcitrant, inimical. They were "the sorry facts," betokening "ruin for myself / and all that I hold / dear," and the question was, what to do about it, how to respond. It was a genuine crisis for Williams' idealism, but he met it characteristically and, as it turned out, successfully by using the facts as an impetus to his own thinking. The drama of consciousness--the oyster's fretting over the grain of sand--remained just as important as it had been, only now it began to appear as a topic worthy of contemplation in its own right. Indeed, Williams began to display it more directly in his poetry than ever before, as he came to realize that the process of constructing answers to the problems posed by death and dissolution was itself the answer he was seeking.

"The Descent" establishes a pattern often repeated in Williams' later poetry; Williams takes the facts as he finds them and interprets them in such a way as to give them a new, more beneficent character. The facts in themselves are neither disguised nor altered, but Williams makes it possible for us to see them in a new way and to give them new names. As a result, the problems they pose appear to have been dissolved, while Williams himself appears to have been elevated to a life of the spirit in which he is inwardly more secure than ever before. . . .

In "The Descent" Williams finds a similar way of looking at defeat and loss that enables him to see those negative experiences as positive ones with implications not yet "realized." For example, it occurs to him, as it also occurred to Wordsworth in an analogous predicament, that the compensation for being dispossessed of the world of the scenes is to be repossessed of it as it exists in the mind, stored in memory. . . .

When the "perishable signs" are destroyed, when the forms of things are shattered (including the forms of our own bodies), then "the permanent shines out for the first time clearly" and "we see at last that love is not anything mortal." In "The Descent," the truth of this prophetic observation is simultaneously revealed and reasserted. . . .

From William Carlos Williams And Romantic Idealism. Copyright 1984 by Brown University.


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