blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "The Young Housewife"

Peter Baker

The details of this poem are so unassuming that they may easily be missed. The young woman is not in a negligee, she is "in negligee." One also must do a sort of double-take to figure out how the speaker could know this if she is behind the walls of a house. Though the standard line on Williams is that he freezes moments of perception (language used to render perceptive instants), this poem, while apparently simple, utilizes a three-part temporal framework. The first stanza describes a moment when the speaker passes "solitary." Is he on his way back in the second stanza which begins "Then again . . ." or is this possibly a fantasy on his part? In relation to the only, self-consciously stated, image: what are we to make of the implicit connection between the woman as a leaf and the leaves crushed by the car's wheels? Is the woman something crushed or discarded? All of these questions, as well as the implicit motion of the speaker who is driving by in a car, tend to place the interlocking phrases and descriptions in a kind of metaphorical suspension. Underlying this suspension of what is, after all, a small drama, has to be the speaker's unstated desire for the woman. Once again, the poet's desire structures the details, progress, and interrelation of elements in the poem.

from Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Barry Ahearn

The encounter between the passing doctor and the young housewife is scrupulously polite and legitimate. Yet the poem hints at potential sexual contact. We should remember that in the days when doctors made house calls it would have been no cause for public comment for Williams to drive freely about Rutherford.

. . .

The poem focuses attention on various tangible barriers and containers, as if the poet were mulling over the structures that physically restrain the young housewife. The "wooden walls," for example, "of her husband's house" are the major physical barriers that hide her from the view of patrolling males, though it seems that this doctor's view has the advantage of x-ray vision, for he discerns her moving "in negligee" behind those walls. When she finally emerges, further physical limitations appear. The "curb" seems to be one barrier that marks the boundary between herself and delivery men. Another constraint is prominent by virtue of its absence: she is "uncorseted." Furthermore, the adjective beginning line 8, "stray," suggests her possible predilection for escaping orderly confines, whether in terms of hair arrangement or in terms of more serious transgressions. The poet, too, exists in a physical container--his car.

More pressing than these tangible barriers, however, are the intangible taboos that keep the young housewife and a potential lover from casual consummations. The marriage vow and the doctor's professional code of ethics are the two strongest inhibitors. Yet it is a fact that they are sometimes violated, and the poem recognizes this. Williams surely knew the joke involving the cuckolding of the husband by the ice-man that ends with the punch line, "No dear, but he's coming now." Perhaps there is some slight emphasis on the notion of sexual coming when the young housewife "comes to the curb / to call the ice-man."

We should also note the way in which two line breaks in the poem reinforce the poem's concern with boundaries and the possibility of crossing them. The first line break of the second stanza ends with "curb," as if to emphasize the physical nature of the line between public and private property, between the rights of deliverymen and the provenance of a marriage. The transition from line 7 to line 8 ("shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair...") relies for its effect on the reader's assumption that what the young housewife would be "tucking in" would be some loose folds of a garment--her robe perhaps. Yet the next line reveals an element of vanity on her part. She wants to look attractive. The line break catches the tension between the housewife's wish--however unconscious or automatic--to appear desirable and the community's prescription that only her husband's desires should be accommodated.

That the doctor entertains thoughts about some sort of convergence with the young housewife appears in the parallels between the two of them. In the first stanza the state of the young housewife being left alone in "her husband's house" makes the poet aware of his similar position: "I pass solitary in my car." The housewife's self-consciousness about her appearance in the second stanza is echoed in the doctor's self-consciousness about his art: "I compare her...." There is outward turning in this poem--the woman leaves the house and encounters other males, the doctor frequently leaves his home to call on women who need his professional services--but there is also inward turning; the woman toward her appearance, the poet toward his art. (Note the parallelism of roles: she emerges as a housewife but also meets people at the curb as an object of desire; he passes by as a doctor, but also acts as a poet.) Finally, the meeting, of housewife and doctor is defused of sexual anxiety by the doctor's slightly pompous and ridiculous final act: "I bow and pass smiling." The courtly bow he exhibits at the close can only be executed with difficulty from the seat of a moving car.

If there is a balancing act in this poem between the mores of the present century and the behavior of the last one, there is also a balancing act in the poem between two tropes: carpe diem and memento mori. The former appears most vividly in the second stanza, with the desirable young housewife compared to "a fallen leaf." "Fallen," of course, is a term that evokes a number of sexual references--especially to ladies of easy virtue. And the suggestion that the housewife is a leaf carries with it the traditional references to the fleeting life of vegetation as an analogy for human life. But the appearance of "dried leaves" crushed by the"noiseless wheels" of the doctor's car equally as well suggest the noiseless wings of devouring Time and the ephemeral nature of the merely physical. The faint presence of the two contradictory traditions mingling in the poem reflects the contrary impulse (desire vs. fear of scandal) that move the poet.

By Barry Ahearn. From William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry. Copyright © 1994 Cambridge University Press.

Marjorie Perloff

The typography is in many ways the poem's substance. Take a poem like "The Young Housewife," a short lyric often praised for what James Breslin has called its "tough colloquial flatness," its "matter of fact" verse, but which, more precisely, uses that flatness for playful purposes:

. . .

Here the three stanzas are parody stanzas, the first, a neat-looking quatrain that has neither rhyme nor meter but slyly designates the young housewife by the same rhythmic group we find in "At ten A.M.":

At ten A. M.                      the young housewife

The second line, with its odd construction "in negligee" on the model of "in furs" or "in silks," is cut after the word "behind," a word that thus gets construed as a noun (her "in negligee behind") rather than as a preposition. The same sexual innuendo occurs in line 7:

shy, uncorseted tucking in

where the separation of the verb from its object ("stray ends of hair") makes us expect a reference to what one usually tucks into a corset. The next line produces even greater surprise:

stray ends of hair, and I compare her

To what, we wonder?

to a fallen leaf.

An absurd comparison, since surely the young housewife--she is constantly doing things, moving about, calling the ice-man or fish-man, tucking in stray ends of hair--is the very opposite of a fallen leaf. Or is she? Never mind the parody period after "leaf": the tercet now brings it all out into the open:

The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

In his erotic fantasy, the poet wants to make this attractive housewife a "fallen leaf" to the "noiseless wheels of his car," to "rush with crackling sound over / her dried leaves." But it is, after all, only a daydream; normal life must continue and so "I bow and pass smiling." The tercet has lines of 7, 8, and 9 syllables (3, 4, and 5 stresses) respectively; the diagonal created by its line endings thus presents an image of one-step-at-a-time accretion, as if to say that, fantasize all we like, we must get on with it. Typography, in a case like this, is destiny.

By Marjorie Perloff. From The dance of the intellect: Studies in the poetry of the Pound tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Cambridge University Press.

Marjorie Perloff

Generically, to begin with, "The Young Housewife" is best read as a parodic courtly love poem: the "solitary" physician at the wheel of his car recalls the knight on his charger, approaching the fortified castle where his lady is kept in captivity by the tyrannical lord of the manor. Given this context, the analogy between busy young housewife, coming to the curb "to call the ice-man, fish-man," and "fallen leaf" seems patently absurd. If anything, the young housewife seems to resemble a flower in early bloom or a budding tree; there is nothing the least bit "fallen" about her. The odd construction "in negligee," for instance (the normal syntax would be "in her negligee"), implies that being "in negligee" is the young housewife's inherent state, an implication borne out by the curious line break after "behind" so that we visualize the woman's "in negligee behind." The same thing happens in lines 7-8, where the poet, passing "solitary in [his] car," first surmises that the young woman is "uncorseted" and then observes her "tucking in" what the line break anticipates will be her flesh, deliciously not yet tucked into her corset, but which turns out to be, in the next line, "stray ends of hair."

With the image of those enticing "stray ends of hair," the poet's erotic fantasy reaches its peak. Far from presenting a "prosaic" subject with "tough, colloquial flatness," the poem presents its speaker as secret voyeur, longing to penetrate those "wooden walls of her husband's house" and wishing the lady of the house would call, not the ice-man or fish-man (with the obvious double entendre those "calls" entail) but himself to her side. Only by making a mock-Whitmanian grand gesture--"and I compare her/to a fallen leaf"--can the poet play out his fantasy. For look what happens:

The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

To say that these lines embody a rape fantasy would be accurate although it would also be to ignore the delicacy and humor of their tone. The poet-doctor knows that normalcy must prevail, that it is 10 A.M. on an ordinary weekday and probably time for him to make hospital rounds. The desire to "rush with a crackling sound over/dried leaves" is fleeting and subliminal, a momentary wish to "have" what belongs to another man. But because, within the suburban context of the poem, such things are possible only in fantasy, nothing happens: the driver "bow[s] and pass[es] smiling."

What especially interests me in "The Young Housewife" is the shift in the position of the fallen or dried leaf. Whereas the lover of The Tempers walks with his sweetheart over the "leaftread" in the brown forest, now, in the lyric that follows Williams' marriage, there is a split between man and woman, the woman becoming, so to speak, the object of man's "tread." We have already seen that in "Love Song," the "stain of love" "eats into the leaves" and then "drips from leaf to leaf." No longer, then, are the lovers viewed as a pair, silhouetted against a recognizable natural world. Rather, the natural world splits and fragments, challenging the poet-lover to find what are, so to speak, new fields to conquer. Or at least to fantasize about.

From "The Fallen Leaf and the Stain of Love: The Displacement of Desire in Williams's Early Love Poetry." In The Rhetoric of Love in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. Cristina Giorcelli and Maria Anita Stefanelli. Copyright © 1993 by Edizioni Associate (Rome).

Cary Nelson

Along with Hughes and Frost, Williams is one of the three betterknown modern American male poets whose work includes a wide range of portraits of individual women. The difference, however, is that Williams's interest is consistently both social and erotic. Like Ransom, women are indispensable to Williams's work; without their presence in his poetry, his oeuvre would be substantially impoverished. Unlike Ransom, however, his perspective on women is rich and varied and generally affirmative; moreover, Williams often treats men and women in much the same way, something Ransom is disinclined to do. That does not exempt Williams from charges of sexism. No doubt many contemporary readers would be troubled by the characterization of women at various points in his work and find many of his "affirmations" reifying. Indeed no one who has grown up in a sexist culture will be entirely free of sexism, but Williams's work often partly triumphs over these limitations and it is, if anything, strengthened by comparison with other men and women writing at the same time.

Williams regularly wrote poems about men's and women's interactions and love poems to women throughout his long career; their approach can be sacralizing, irreverent, erotic, mythologizing, or realistic. His brief imagistic portraits of individual women remain among the best-known poems he wrote. These portraits are often sexually charged, but then almost everything Williams describes is. Like Amy Lowell's flower imagery, for example, or Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings, Williams's flowers are charged with sexuality. Indeed, even his most spare descriptions of natural objects, as in the 1927 "Young Sycamore," are highly sensual. It is possible that the human body (and, more specifically, a woman's body) is the implicit object underlying many of the individual things he celebrates. Notably, however, his physical descriptions of men, as in the 1919 "The Young Laundryman," are also quite sensual and equally focussed on telling details:

. . .his muscles ripple
under the thin blue shirt; and his naked feet, in
Their straw sandals, lift at the heels, shift and
Find new postures continually.

Williams certainly fragments men's and women's bodies to describe them, but he most often does so in order to assemble either telling portraits of whole persons or representative characterizations of people's social positioning. If there is a hint of objectification in the process of representation in Williams's work, then, it seems relatively harmless; that is a cultural and political judgement on my part, but I am willing to make it. Representation wholly without objectification may in fact be impossible. When it predominates and when there is nothing else, that is another matter. But treating any trace of it in earlier periods as a fatal heresy is irrational. Recent fervor about objectification may be a contemporary neurosis we would be better off not imposing on our predecessors. At the very least, there is the chance that such charges are hopelessly anachronistic. On the other hand, as I suggested earlier, the arguments disseminated simultaneously with modernism by the first wave of modern feminism give more than sufficient warrant to read Pound's and Ransom's sexism severely and consider it misogynist even within its historical context. Williams, again, presents a more complex and nuanced case.

Part of what sustains poems like Williams's 1916 "The Young Housewife," in which the woman observed "moves about in negligee behind / the wooden walls of her husband's house," beyond its spare, precise description, is Williams's willingness to acknowledge and mock his presence as an observer. As with "Woman Walking" (pp. 66-67), the poet is never simply an invisible figure who wields the power to name and describe but rather a speaker whose voice effects a relationship in verse. And that relationship typically includes a genuine if sometimes whimsical reflection on the ontological issues at stake in the poet's role:

The poem masquerades at once as a piece of literal reportage and a fantasy surveillance, a celebration and critique of voyeurism. We may credit the speaker with some sensitivity to women's social status when the house is described as the husband's property, but we may also wonder (as one of my students suggested) if we can hear "negligent" and "negligible" judgmentally echoing within the negligee she wears, a garment as well that suggests more corporeal property rights. Whether the speaker would protect her, take advantage of her, or merely observe her in her shy vulnerability we cannot say. We cannot even be certain whose innocence wanes most notably in the poem's autumnal season, the speaker's, the young housewife's, or even the reader's, for we too are implicated in the poem's final recognition. Is it guilty self-recognition, mutual recognition, an exchange of glances, shame, regret, or delight in transience that sounds in the crackling leaves of the last stanza? One critic suggests that "the young housewife is metaphorically crushed in the last stanza," since, in the previous stanza's Shakespearean conclusion, she is herself compared to a fallen leaf. But it is as easily the moment and the fantasy relationship that give way as the car passes. Moreover, the only real pressure exerted is the poem's descriptive act of possession. Indeed, no fixed reading of Williams's short poems will survive sustained reflection, for--despite their straightforward narrativity--they remain so ambiguous and unresolved that one interpretation continually displaces or reverses another. Thus a particular poem may from one moment to the next seem distinctly sexist and generously understanding.

As many of Williams's critics have noted, there is also a strong mythologizing element in the image of women in his longer poems, from "The Wanderer" to Paterson. The woman who is his guide in "The Wanderer" is both young and old, virgin and whore. The latter identity, moreover, is partly celebratory; she is a "reveller in all ages-/ Knower of all fires out of the bodies Of all men." For Williams, anticipating an argument that I do not accept but that some feminists would later make explicitly, women have stronger links to the transformative natural processes that all of us must undergo if we are to rise above the pettiness and violence of so much of human history. Though they are closer to nature, at least as some cultural feminists would claim, women are of course in no way unconscious figures. Rather they have special knowledge that men must seek to share and that Williams would bring into his poetry. Williams is also aware that not every mythic vision of women is beneficial. In In the American Grain, in a journey that Pound completed in the opposite direction (minus the monarchist component, which Pound left to another American expatriate), Walter Raleigh fantasizes himself on a voyage on the body of his queen when he plunges "his lust into the body of a new world."' It is a fantasy that ends in disaster.

What Williams shows us, finally, is one route to a substantially affirmative and generous heterosexuality in poetry. Williams clearly believed that sexual relations could reorient people toward restorative natural processes and away from the destructive tendencies in modern culture. This differentiates him from Eliot, for example, for whom failed sexual relations in The Waste Land and other poems exemplified the modern condition; indeed, for Eliot nature itself no longer offered any hope. In a culture whose inherited and active linguisticality is permeated with gendered binarisms, Williams sorts out these meanings and reconfigures and resemanticizes them. There were certain binary metaphors of gender he found productive and life-enhancing, others he considered destructive and demonic. That all these gendered binarisms were fantasmatic-artifices of cultural process with no necessary grounding in the facts of nature-Williams may never have realized. But if we wish to judge him we had best realize that all of us live partly by way of myth and ideology. What one does not find in Williams, however, is a thoroughgoing critique of patriarchal culture and all the gendered binarisms by which it sustains and reproduces itself.

from Cary Nelson, "The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry," in Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, and Rereading, ed. Kevin Dettmar and Stephen Watt. Copyright © University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Linda A. Kinnahan

Williams's poetry at this time also shows him working against the conventional paradigm of the male creator, a paradigm encouraged by Ezra Pound and the poetic tradition alike. Often Williams undercuts the masculine claim to mastery and control he presents in "Romance Moderne," and in reading his works alongside Loy's vehement satires of masculine authority, the often discussed sexuality of his poetry opens into a larger issue of gendered power informing his most radical cultural visions. Williams consciously downplays what Loy had called the "indisputable male voice" of the artist, and moreover, Loy's example provides Williams with a way of recognizing his own participation in a culture that privileges male authority. This recognition characterizes a number of his poems about women that focus upon female vulnerability to forms of masculine power while signaling his own culpability within these culturally encoded dynamics. Through such self-revelation, Williams exposes himself to judgment rather than acting as judge, deliberately rendering his poetic voice vulnerable and sabotaging his (male) poetic authority. Both "The Ogre" and "Housewife" demonstrate the destabilization of poetic authority on Williams's part, unsettling traditional authority by questioning the broader implications of the power of dominance.

. . . [E]mphasizing itself as a constructed fiction, "The Young Housewife" (Others 1915) demonstrates a self-conscious manipulation of metaphor through an overt display of the poet's figurative mastery over his subject: . . . The poet is mobile, while the woman is associated with the house. He associates himself with a mechanical form of power—the car and its "noiseless wheels" that crush the leaves—which separates him from the world he observes. The woman is also separated while within the walls of her "husband's house" (recalling the recurrent male boundaries that limit the women of Loy's poems); however, she ventures with full vulnerability onto the streets, where she becomes the unwitting object of another form of masculine mastery—the poet's gaze and the poet's representative possession of her—as the poet's metaphor-making again places her within defined boundaries. As a result, the poem ends on a chilling note, and deliberately so, I would argue. The poet's metaphor-making is foregrounded as he states, "and I compare her / to a fallen leaf," an emphasis partially attained through the careful enjambment of these lines. What becomes important in these last five lines is not that the woman is like a fallen leaf but that the poet's claim to mastery is shown as a form of destruction. While recognizing in himself the pull to mastery, Williams enacts a critique of a poetics, and ultimately of a cultural ethos, that chooses mastery over contact. The act of representation, of metaphor-making, is recognized within the poem as an act of violence within gendered frameworks of power.

from Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge UP.

Rachel Blau Duplessis

The cluster female-feminine-woman has different meanings to the poets: a woman poet is more likely to find, in the feminine, various problems. Williams’ 1950 statement about "The Young Housewife" indicates some of his long-term investments in the foundational cluster central to poetry: that beautiful women often inspire the poetry that it is men’s task to create. H. D. early modified this issue: some beauty is still important, but it is the dramatic, violent beauty that emerges when femininity as a site is ripped apart. This creation of an "anti-feminine" position is generally not sought by the male poets; judging from Williams, they want a pro-female (possibly pro-feminine) but anti-effeminate position.

Williams suggests that, for male writers, poetry is a reparation to women for their beauty, which is culturally appropriated by men for their poetry via the mechanism of "the gaze" (Mulvey 1989). This polemical concept of gaze, itself the product of the hyperbrave binarist stage of gynocritical thought, may have serious uses for the analysis of lyric poetry in helping to identify elements of the diegetic relations depicted. Mulvey proposes two key moves, both of which have their analogue in many poems in Western culture, voyeuristic investigation/demystification of the female figure, and overvaluation of the figure turned into a fetish. Williams in general demystifies women, a tough-minded, realist strategy, but the possessive and appropriative aspects of "poesy" intermingle with demystification in a poem such as "The Young Housewife" (1916) (Williams 1986, 57).

In this poem, by virtue of his responsibility of compensation, a male speaker is paradoxically both freer and more constrained than the depicted woman. He has the power to resist, yet remark on, the sexual undertext when she, "uncorseted" and "in negligee," "comes to the curb / to call the ice-man, fish-man . . . ." In a sense, she hails these chapmen into their position of (semi-sexualized) service to her, but the speaker-observer then "calls" her into her new calling as housewife. For of the wispy young female, the Williams-speaker states — with great power in his deliberateness and connoisseurship -- "I compare her / to a fallen leaf." The "fallen leaf / fallen woman" image, read via a social philology, indicates social debate. The "fallen leaf" metaphor of use and loss is a poetic post carpe diem allusion, a link of woman to nature, fatalistic in implication. But it also draws upon the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tendentious comparisons of marriage to "parasitism and prostitution" (in Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Olive Schreiner for instance, and echoed in Mina Loy ‘s "Feminist Manifesto"). This "leaf" metaphor also follows from "the wooden walls of her husband’s house," sympathetic lines suggesting her mild imprisonment and the husband’s clumsy stolidity.

Williams proposes the fate of that one leaf in an implacable image of destruction (corresponding to Mulvey’s findings that one punishes the demystified object), as

The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dead leaves as I bow and pass smiling

The speaker, destroying her for her evocation of sexual desire in him, has the control of two subject places, both the destructive "wheels of my car" and his rueful dismissive nod from within it. The poignancy of traditional gender cluster undergirding poetry has been reaffirmed in this work about the relation of female beauty to male power.

From Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Ó 2001 Cambridge University Press.

Return to William Carlos Williams