On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I"
James E. Breslin
"Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" is a rather long meditative poem, divided into three books and a coda. The poet is addressing his wife, whom he has abused through his sexual and artistic pursuits. He is approaching her one last time, reviewing their life together and asking her forgiveness. Here Williams is no longer dispersing himself into a set of objects; the "I," slowly purged from his verse in the teens, now returns in the figure of a wise old man who, while aware of loss and suffering, offers advice, hope and consolation. Old age has always held its right to its opinions and Williams is now not reluctant to state his explicitly.
. . .
[I]n "Asphodel" Williams often explains the significances of his images. After describing "the statue / of Colleoni's horse / with the thickset little man // on top / in armor / presenting a naked sword" and "the horse rampant / roused by the mare in / the Venus and Adonis," Williams comments that "these are pictures / of crude force." "Of love, abiding love // it will be telling," he says of the asphodel. As we shall see, the images in this poem are rich, fluid, complex; his comments by no means exhaust their significance. But the effect of this discursive quality is to ease the reader's movement through the verse. "It is not // a flute note either, it is the relation / of a flute note / to a drum," Williams writes in "The Orchestra." Relations here emerge as more important than discrete objects, and these relations are often articulated at the surface of the poetry. Creative activity now takes place at a "higher" level of consciousness; Williams does not take us to the edge of unconscious chaos but to a place in the mind where form and continuity become more predominant.
Williams's poetry of the 1950's thus has a more accessible surface--a fact that accounts for its greater critical popularity. Other manifestations of this loosening up are his unequivocal acceptance of romantic feeling and his dependence on personal, biographical material. In "Asphodel," emotions, like ideas, are often stated: "with fear in my heart," "I regret," "I adore," "I am tortured // and cannot rest." Moreover, these feelings are much tenderer than any Williams had previously been willing to admit to his verse.
In the poem, Williams now turns to address his wife directly and remorsefully. Old, nearing death, he approaches her "perhaps for the last time." The time is winter, but this is more an internal state than a season in Rutherford--defined by the strong sense of loss, fading, and mutability with which the poem begins. "Today // I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers / that we both loved," Williams says. He recalls first the "poor // colorless" asphodel, a flower that grows in the meadows of New Jersey, but also (he had read in Homer) along the fields in the underworld. In fact, Williams speaks at the start as if from among the dead, identifying with their groping recollection as they gaze at the asphodel: "What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped?"--"There is something / something urgent" which he must say, but he does not want to rush it--"while I drink in / the joy of your approach, / perhaps for the last time"--and fading powers of memory make it hard to begin. There is an urgency about the very act of speech: "I dare not stop. / Listen while I talk on // against time."
. . .
He gropes for memory, for speech, for his wife's love--the three will become identified in the course of the poem--for these have the power to save him from time's push toward oblivion; they can bring him back from the realm of the dead.
At the end of Book III of "Asphodel" Williams does gain the forgiveness he seeks: "You have forgiven me / making me new again." And the asphodel becomes the appropriate symbol for this renewal of love in the poet's old age: though colorless and odorless, "little prized among the living" it is a sturdy perennial: "I have invoked the flower / in that // frail as it is / after winter's harshness / it comes again."
From William Carlos Williams: An American Artist. Copyright © 1970 by James E. Breslin.
"Asphodel". . .speaks from a plane beyond differentiation, from the site of memory where "all appears/ as if seen/ wavering through water," perspectiveless like the time of beginning itself. It is a "cry/ of recognition" which penetrates the veil of history to connect his "Approaching death" with his origins. Interestingly, it has been the poem most praised by critics because of Williams' late breakthrough, presumably like Stevens', to a new lyricism. And this signifies not simply an advance beyond Paterson but a reversal, perhaps, ironically, a return to the tradition. But the tradition to which "Asphodel" appeals is that of the "rituals of the hunt/ on the walls/ of prehistoric// caves in the Pyrenees." As was suggested earlier, the caves offer man a present entry into time and place, of the primordial origins of art itself. At the impending moment of his own death, the poet sings of origins: the "cave" which is both beginning and end, and the "hunt" or quest to which man is compelled in his desire.
"Asphodel". . .comes very near to suggesting a poetics no longer resigned to failure or to the hermeneutical circle. It comes very near to insisting that the "secret word" has been possessed, the son reconciled with the father, and thus a language fully achieved--that the "place/ dedicated in the imagination/ to memory// of the dead" has come to be more real than the world. . . .It is not a poem of quest or effort, but a dream of virtue recovered and held "against time."
From The Inverted Bell: Modernism and the Counterpoetics of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press.
In one of the last poetry readings he was able to give, at Wellesley in 1956, Williams read "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower." Lowell movingly recalls the hush that fell over the enormous audience when the now-famous poet, "one whole side partly paralysed, his voice just audible," read this "triumph of simple confession". . . .
Like "Paterson, Five," "Asphodel" marks a return to tradition, in this case the pastoral love poem in which the penitent husband makes amends to his long-suffering wife. No more snatches of documentary prose, no Cubist or Surrealist superpositions or dislocations. The poem is stately and consistent, an autobiographical lyric in the Romantic tradition.
"Asphodel, that Greeny Flower" can be regarded as a garland for the fifties. But the Williams who speaks to the poets of our own generation is, I think, less the loving, apologetic husband of "Asphodel" or the aspiring American bard of Paterson than he is a Voyager to Pagany, to the Paris of the twenties; he is the poet as passionate defender of the faith that "to engage roses / becomes a geometry."
From The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Copyright © 1981 by Marjorie Perloff.
J. Hillis Miller
Finally there is "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," the extraordinary love poem of Williams' old age. This poem has the quiet mastery of supreme attainment. Like Paterson Five and "The Desert Music," "Asphodel" gathers the world together and the lines rise continuously from a center which is everywhere. Since the lines ascend one by one from the same unfathomable ground, each is the equivalent of the others, the same and yet different. Flowers are facts, poems flowers, And "all works of the imagination,/interchangeable." Each object could be substituted for any of the others, for all say the same thing, do that one thing which all poetic speech does - perpetuate the dance. In the extreme reach of his imagination the poet enters a space where:
any more suffices to differentiate
of place and condition
Interchangeability enters in yet another way, for in "Asphodel" beauty is expressed not in a single image, of dance or music, but in a group of images all standing side by side in the poem to say the same thing, each saying it perfectly but in a unique way. The space of the poem is the poet's memory. Everything which has ever happened to him is brought back in its substantiality, "a whole flood/of sister memories." It is also, and pre-eminently, the space of love, for "Asphodel" is a poem "of love, abiding love," the poet's final affirmation of his love for his wife and of the way the relation between them creates and sustains the world. The poem is also the space of language, of a murmuring speech which the poet prolongs defiantly and yet precariously, with infinite gentleness, against time and death:
with fear in my heart
I drag it out
and keep on talking
for I dare not stop.
Listen while I talk on
The space of the poet's sustaining speech is the realm of the imagination, "the place made/in our lives/for the poem." This place is also the sea, or rather the waves on the surface of the sea. The sea is the profound depth from which all things have come to dance like waves as the lines dance in the poem. The "sea/which no one tends/is also a garden," earth giving birth to flowers as the sea to waves. Sea, garden, poem, love, and memory are equivalents, and "the glint of waves," "the free interchange/of light over their surface," is the play of words in the poem, the blossoming of flowers in a garden.
These images lead to others. The poem is speech in defiance of death. Here, at the very end of Williams' career, death appears in his world for almost the first time. It is another name for the unfathomable ground. The poem flowers from it and yet contains it.
As Asphodel is the flower of hell but still triumphs over the darkness, so the space of the poem is not hell but is the flower which rises above death, for "love and the imagination/are of a piece,/swift as the light/to avoid destruction." This leads to a final group of images, once more interchangeable with the others. Asphodel, the flower of hell, is the atomic bomb, since "the bomb/also/is a flower." The exploding bomb is equated with a distant thunderstorm over the sea which the poet watches with his wife. The poem prolongs indefinitely the moment just before death. It is speech in the shadow of death and dwells in the light of a perpetual present, between the lightning and the thunderclap, between the sight of the exploding bomb and the coming of annihilating heat. In "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" light, the sea, memory, speech, the garden, and love are the same, and the poem maintains forever in living poise the moment between birth and death. As long as that moment lasts the flame of beauty is held in the open:
for all time shall outspeed
the thunder crack.
This radiant promise is the climax of Williams' writing, and the climax too of the development so far of twentieth-century poetry.
From Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Copyright © 1965 by the President and Fellows of Harvard University.
In Williams' very last poems, the conflict of engendering the work of art subsides somewhat. As we have seen previously (Chapter One), the more radical poetic practice of early Williams tied to memory as the place where this imaginative conflict occurs, yields in the later poems to a vision of personal memory. Perhaps not surprisingly, this later development allows Williams to write some of his most moving love poems, among them "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (PB, 153-182). Thus we come to an examination of Williams' later style in full awareness of its permutations. The compassionate understanding present throughout his work here takes the form of a love poem written to his wife Flossie.
I want to examine the end of the poem where the poet/speaker describes the memory of his wedding:
For our wedding, too,
the light was wakened
and shone. The light!
the light stood before us
I thought the world
At the altar
so intent was I
before my vows,
so moved by your presence
a girl so pale
and ready to faint
that I pitied
and wanted to protect you.
As I think of it now,
after a lifetime,
it is as if
a sweet-scented flower
and for me did open.
has no odor
save to the imagination
but it too
celebrates the light.
It is late
but an odor
as from our wedding
has revived for me
and begun again to penetrate
into all crevices
of my world.
Although I almost feel it as an impertinence to offer a commentary to this poem, I think we might notice the quality of gentle precision in the diction here. In ''as if / a sweet-scented flower / were poised / and for me did open," the somewhat archaic verb form at the end seems to render the gentle touch of someone who is being very careful. The world of which the poet speaks at the end of the poem is a world known well by any student of Williams' work. His is a freedom born of compassion, earned in the conflict of the imagination, and exemplified in the grace of an unmatched expressive style.
from Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.
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