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On "Queen-Anne's-Lace"


Peter Schmidt

Stieglitz' experiments with combining the still life and the landscape are also reflected in Williams' work. The four flower studies he published in Sour Grapes (1921), "Daisy," "Primrose," "Queen Anne's Lace," and "Great Mullen," are especially interesting for their sense of scale. "Daisy," for example, moves from a rapid overview of "Spring . . . gone down in purple," "weeds . . . high in the corn," a clotted furrow, and a branch heavy with new leaves, to a close-up of the poem's flower: "One turns the thing over / in his hand and looks / at it from the rear: brown edged / green and pointed scales / armor his yellow." Along with these visual devices Williams introduces metaphor, personification, dramatic debate, and apostrophe, and varies their tone from the restrained, dignified voice of "Queen Anne's Lace" to the grotesque shouting-match of "Great Mullen."

In "Queen Anne's Lace," literal and figurative description have been carefully joined, rather than simply juxtaposed as in "Daisy." And the poem's breadth of focus is breathtaking-it is a still life, a landscape, and a time-lapse photographic sequence. As if the poet were a botanist and we his best students, Williams shows us how the stem splits into a cluster of stems radiating upward, each supporting a white flowerette which, edging the others, composes the flower's lacy head. When Williams personifies the plant, his rhetoric carefully preserves its unique structure. The sun becomes an ardent male who creates a lover for himself touch by touch: "Each part / is a blossom under his touch / to which the fibres of her being / stem one by one." Williams then rapidly accelerates the pace of the poem, so that we see the field becoming populated in spring and the lovers increasing the momentum of their lovemaking. Then, suddenly, winter has come again, and the couple lies spent: ". . . stem one by one, each to its end, / until the whole field is a / white desire, empty, a single stem, / a cluster, flower by flower, / a pious wish to whiteness gone over— / or nothing." Pumping blood into Emerson's rather cerebral equation of natural and spiritual facts, Williams' "Queen Anne's Lace" shows them to be signs of sexual facts as well. Metaphor, personification, and myth-making accompany literal description, and the still life's landscape is emptied or filled within the leap of a line of verse.

from "Some Versions of Modernist Pastoral: Williams and the Precisionists." Contemporary Literature 21:3 (1980), 383-406.


Sharon Dolin

"Queen-Anne's-Lace," from the 1921 Sour Grapes collection, is an early example of Williams' use of the Cubist model as a way to confuse two frames of reference—to subvert the hierarchy of tenor over vehicle in the structure of metaphor via the poem's enjambments: . . .

The title, "Queen-Anne's-Lace," suggests that this is a poem whose subject (tenor, or Base) is a flower, though Williams, in commenting about this poem, has said "Flossie again" ( comment to Thirlwa1l, CPW 498), thus framing the entire poem as metaphoric expression. The first line foregrounds through litotes the metaphoric or simile-making function of the poem: "Her body is not so white as.'' This coincidence of ''as'' with the first line's jamb (my term for the first part of an enjambed pair of lines), along with the negation, undercuts any tendency to make one pole of the metaphor primary and the other secondary. For "[h]er body" already contains a metaphoric transformation (of the flower into the feminine body) that is in tension with the title, leading a reader to wonder what function the simile can serve, if not to call the body back into the form of the flower—thus switching perspectives.

These visual transformations are similar to those that occur in Cubist paintings; for example, in Juan Gris' famous Harlequin with Guitar (1919), the black right forearm of the figure transposes itself into the top of the guitar—and vice-versa—creating a two-way visual metaphor. On first appearance, the major difference between the Cubist model and the poem is that the painting doesn't prescribe an order for reading; some will see the guitar shape first, others the arm, which then metamorphoses into the other shape. The poem, on the other hand, clearly begins with its title as the name of a flower, which is itself already a metaphor for a regal woman's garment. Furthermore, without the title, the opening of the poem reads like a description of the beloved: A woman's body is not here compared, through litotes, a Shakespearean trope, to anemone petals (as in Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"). Instead, here a modern-day dark lady doesn't measure up to some standard of whiteness. And it's possible to see this use of negation foregrounded by the line's edge as analogous to Cubist negative space, which gains parity with so-called positive space. With the title, there is a reversal of metaphor: Queen-Anne's-Lace to woman to anemone petals to flower to woman to flower. The perspectives switch across the line boundaries: the title, in a sense, is line 0 of the poem, establishing our initial perspective. And the switch in perspective often coincides with the jamb or rejet, as: "Her body is not so white as / anemone petals . . . white as can be with a purple mole / . . . Each flower is a hand's span / of her whiteness. . . . Each part / is a blossom." The line breaks question the hierarchy of values (is it woman as flower or flower as woman?) in order to create a new "field" of "wild carrot taking / the field by force."

"His hand" creates the erotic potential, the "white desire" of the poem, which is the metaphor shuttling back and forth, between flower as woman and woman as flower. The hand is the metaphor for metaphor—creating all "or nothing":

. . . Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end, . . .

Where "his hand" touches, the flower becomes woman (wounds her into being), then woman becomes flower. "Each part / is a blossom under his touch / to which the fibres of her being" records the transformation from woman's body ("part") to flower ("blossom") to woman ("her being"). Then the next line, "stem one by one each to its end," marks the return to flower—with the rejet "stem" marking the specific point of intersection in cognition of the woman and flower: read as a verb, "stem" refers to the woman; read as a noun, "stem" is a flower part. These metaphorical transpositions are "a pious wish to whiteness gone over— / or nothing." For this kind of poem wants to have it both—or all—ways. Williams claims to have studied with care the natural flowers depicted in the four-fold group of poems in Sour Grapes, of which "Queen-Anne's-Lace" is one. "I thoughtt of them (the four poems about flowers in Sour Grapes) as still-lifes. I looked at the actual flowers as they grew" (quoted in Marling 167). But this poem bears equally the sign of the studied process of metaphor, and of an attention to paintings which broke up the picture plane so completely it became impossible to distinguish figure from ground, or to have one-way metaphors: the harlequin's hat is also the orange and brown striped background or vice-versa. And in a similar way, Queen-Anne's-Lace becomes wild carrot by violating the conventions of a uni-directional metaphor in favor of a perspective that works through linear dislocation.

 from "Enjambment as Modernist Metaphor in Williams' Poetry." Sagetrieb 9.3


Peter Baker

As in some of the poems of Whitman, a predominantly natural description enlists humanizing metaphorical elements. Is a woman's body actually "present" in the scene described?

I would say that the structure of the fantasm helps to resolve this question. The body of the beloved is invoked as a term of comparison. The field of Queen Anne's lace is thus charged with this association, though it takes on imaginal qualities that are partly natural, partly human—in short, an invention, a device for the speaker's purposes. The metaphor of the flower as "a hand's span / of her whiteness" likewise introduces the association of a hand with the lover caressing the woman's body, "Wherever / his hand has lain . . ." The shimmering quality of the field of flowers is gradually transformed into a woman's body tingling with sexual pleasure: "under his touch / to which the fibres of her being / stem one by one . . ." This metaphorical union is carried to its highest point: "until the whole field is a / white desire . . ." And then an emptying out occurs. Yes, the world can be imagined as the realm of the poet's desire—but what is really there has no more substance than a fleeting image. This is what I take Williams to be saying. This poem, then, is a sort of map or guide in the study of desire as a structuring force. We see here the relational qualities inherent in a poetic practice both engaged with the world and open to impulses stemming from the deepest regions of the psyche.

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


Barry Ahearn

"Queen-Anne's-Lace" also questions the subordination of floral imagery to female attributes. Poets have so often tended to link women with flowers that it has become a cultural commonplace, one so well established that the association has become automatic. But Williams forestalls that automatic cultural reflex. He begins with a negation rather than an affirmation: "Her body is not so white as. . ." He then begins removes the woman's body from the insubstantial and decorative floral confines and asks us to think in terms of a field. Later he drops that for a larger metaphor: the field plus the flowers in the field. It may be that Williams aims to revive an archaic comprehension of the earth as a goddess, an interpretation that poets had long since discarded.

We also find a suggestion of class struggle in the poem. "Queen-Anne's-Lace" comes fourth in a quartet of poems about flowers, but it is the only one to bear a woman's name. In fact, most common flowers are not named for women. (One obvious exception--The Blackeyed Susan--appears at the end of Spring and All.) Williams uses this plant with a regal name because the poem emphasizes the "whiteness" of the woman/flower. In Williams's younger days, pallor was still associated with the upper-classes and aristocratic leisure. But the poem gives short shrift to aristocratic reserve and high-mindedness. The regal becomes rooted in a "white desire," "a pious wish to whiteness gone over--" as if the true test of sovereignty is its origin in the soil and in fertility ritual.

Barry Ahearn. From William Carlos Williams and Alterity. Copyright 1994 by Cambridge University Press.


Peter Halter

In "Queen Anne's Lace," a paysage de femme poem which fuses the white of a woman's body with a field of white flowers, a basic tension is expressed through the different impact of the two shades and textures of white embodied in the anemone on the one hand and the wild carrot on the other.

. . .

The smooth, delicate, and pure white of the anemone petals seems passive, fragile, almost incorporeal and related to the virginal when compared to the wild carrot, which is not "so remote a thing" but active to the point of "taking / the field by force"--a paradox which recalls the androgynous nature of flowers. With the wild carrot there is "no question of whiteness, / white as can be"; the added purple mole at the center of each flower makes it approachable. It is turned into a flower-woman that is desired by the sun-poet and desirous of him, caressed and caressing: "Each part / is a blossom under his touch / to which the fibres of her being / stem one by one."

Here, where there is desire, love, warmth, and fertility, whiteness does not reign supreme; it is not the spotless purity of the dematerialized absolute. Although it still contains the "pious wish to whiteness," it is "a pious wish to whiteness gone over--." Gone over to where? Whiteness of Apollonian clarity

and restraint gone over to whiteness of Dionysian ecstasy, gone over to the climactic moment in which the field of erotic encounter is "empty" of everything but the "white desire" to collapse into the "nothing" at the very end of the poem, when the imaginative ecstatic union of the male sun-poet with the female field of flowers has reached its orgasmic height and the poet is thrown back on himself, on his own separate consciousness.

. . .

Such a pan-erotic empathetic identification of the poet with the sun in his encounter with the field of flowers is only possible in a poem whose aesthetics of energy transcends the fixed categories of the rationalist technological outlook and makes no fundamental difference between human and nonhuman realms. The poem becomes a field of action into which the poet's consciousness enters, in the double movement of appropriating it and being exposed to it with "the mind turned inside out." And the colors in this field of action are an essential part of the basic forces interacting with each other.

The specific process that gives direction to these interacting forces is often that of form being born out of the formless ground. In this context "Queen Anne's Lace" is of particular interest because it paradigmatically enacts this process on the level of colors: It begins and ends with color being born, so to speak, through the subtlest distinction of white. The white of the wild carrot is not "white as can be," which, as an endpoint on a scale, turns into its own negation into an absence of color which is an absence of life, the "nothingness that is before birth." Hence the sense of purity conveyed by total whiteness can only be a purity beyond fruition.

Approached from this angle, the "nothing" of the last line acquires a second meaning, which becomes clearer when we realize that syntactically it stands in opposition to the previous eight lines: "Each part / is a blossom under his touch ... until the whole field is ... a pious, wish to whiteness gone over - / or nothing." Life begins where the sterility and nonform of absolute whiteness "[goes] over" into something else - life begins where color begins, and a color can be perceived only in its relation to another color.

Thus the interaction of colors enacts in a paradigmatic way what happens also on all other levels (that is, the level on which the sounds and forms of the words making up the poem interact as well as the level of the interaction of the things denoted).

Peter Halter. From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1994 by Cambridge University Press.


Brian A. Bremen

Originally entitled "Queenannslace" when it was first published in Others for 1919, Williams's poem begins by distancing itself historically from an earthy, anti-extravagant love song like "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"--" Her body is not so white as / anemone petals nor so smooth--nor / so remote a thing"--only to turn away from simile altogether. Instead, Williams's "post-Darwinian botanist's language of flowers" avoids becoming a simple "grammar of signs" for his wife Flossie by obscuring distinctions between tenor and vehicle. More than simple analogies of each other, flower and wife occupy that "field" both simultaneously and separately--"until the whole field" is a projection of "white desire." The "Queen-Anne's-Lace" is neither simple conceit nor Darwinian allegory. "It is a field / of the wild carrot taking / the field by force"; the pedestrian "grass / does not raise above it." "It" is an epistemological field that generates analogous situations without reducing one--flower or wife--to the terms of the other. Williams's "diagnostic treatment" here acts within a "grammar of translations that maintains the particulars of both woman and flower in their analogous relationship to the poet.

Both flower and wife become "representative anecdotes" for each other in the "development" of their relationship to the poet's "hand" that measures and caresses the particulars of each as it re-presents the other. Additionally, in the same way that empathy can only be generated by an appeal to previous experience, neither "development" can be understood alone. Both are a part of that "space of projection with depth, of coincidence with development" that is the space of Williams's diagnostics. The particular signs of the flower are read analogously with the particulars of the woman, and in doing so Williams avoids the spatial reduction of one in terms of the other. Instead, Williams creates that "intersubjective space" that we explained in Chapter 2. And, in the unfolding of the development of this analogical relationship, Williams gives the coincidence of his particulars a temporality that rescues them from the detached condition of "schizophrenia" that we also saw in the previous chapter. As a projection of desire, however, Williams's poem shows the danger of having its "grammar of translation" become a "grammar of transference" in its recognition that "Wherever / his hand has lain there is / a tiny purple blemish." This kind of poem is what Thom Gunn, in his reading of "The Term," called "a completely new poem." Neither allegory, nor conceit, image or object, Williams's creates a "field" that is, in part, all of these things, as well as "a pious wish to whiteness gone over--/ or nothing." In Chapter 5, we will see how Williams uses this "diagnostic field" as a part of his "modern medicine," but first we need to understand Williams's method of "cure."

From William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. Copyright 1993 by Oxford UP.


Linda A. Kinnahan

. . . Despite the many representations of women and proclamations of a feminine essence present within Williams's oeuvre, he intuits a quality his verbal constructs cannot circumscribe. "Queen-Anne's-Lace" suggestively evokes a feminine desire ultimately unrepresentable through language and, hence, ultimately resistant to poetic control: . . . The poem begins with the female body and moves to the final one-word utterance of "nothing." In between the lines proceed by negation ("not, " "nor, " "no") to a final series of imagistic reversals and inversions: the "tiny purple blemish" becomes a "blossom," the field is full of white flowers yet "empty," the "single stem" is a "cluster." Singleness is plurality, fullness is emptiness, depletion is replenishment: These dualities merge within a field of "white desire," the desire of "her body," which is both "the wild carrot taking / the field by force" and "empty," "nothing." It is a desire marked and blemished by "his hand," but it "blossoms under his touch"; here, the difference in nuance between his hand (an image connoting force) and his touch (an image of contact) suggests alternative ways to approach this desire. Touch leads to blossom and to the paradoxical empty-fullness of the field. This is the paradox of the imaginative process for Williams and the "nothing" of a feminine creative capacity; this is feminine desire as a force overtaking the field while remaining empty to discourse—a void in language but what language continually yearns for.

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.


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