William Carlos Williams

Pastoral by William Carlos Williams

Pastoralwas first published in Others in 1915 and then included two years later in Williams’s book Al Que Quiere. It was one of three poems in the collection with the same title. The word “pastoral” is a common literary term used to denote a piece of writing about rural life. It was originally used to refer to the lives of shepherds or herdsmen. In this case, Williams uses it to describe an American street. He also uses his characteristic style, short lines, and clear, precise details, relating back to the imagist movement that he was an integral part of. 

Pastoral by William Carlos Williams


Summary of Pastoral 

Pastoral’ by William Carlos Williams is a short, curious poem in which the poet describes everyday scenes on an American street.

In the first lines of the poem, the speaker focuses on sparrows arguing with one another on the street. He emphasizes the simplicity of their lives in comparison to human beings who have trouble making moral decisions. He also spends time talking about an old man picking up dog poop who he sees as more important and majestic than a minister walking to the alter. The latter is seems to condemn as he elevates the former. 


Themes in Pastoral 

Williams engages with themes of everyday life or the mundane, as well as religion and nature in ‘Pastoral.’ In the short lines of the poem, the speaker focuses on a neutral element, the birds, an old man picking up dog poop, and an Episcopalian minister walking to the alter. These are common features of our world, ones that no one would be surprised to see at any one time in an American city. As he describes them, the poet also passes the segment on the church, emphasizes the enviable simplicity of sparrows’ lives, and elevates the old man above the church official. The poet shows off his skill with language in these lines, exemplifying his desire to write about anything at any time. 


Structure and Form

Pastoral’ by William Carlos Williams is a twenty-five stanza poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. Upon first glance, it’s quite obvious that the lines are all very short, creating a visually narrow stanza. Williams wrote this piece, as he wrote most of his poetry, in free verse. This means that the lines do not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. There are numerous line breaks and a great deal of enjambment in this poem, as well. Close readers will notice that the stresses at the ends of the lines go up and down, sometimes stressed and sometimes unstressed. 

Additionally, the break between the thirteenth and fourteenth lines should be noted. The fourteenth line is indented in, noting a breaking the speaker’s thoughts. 


Literary Devices

Williams makes use of several literary devices in ‘Pastoral.’ These include but are not limited to imagery, enjambment, juxtaposition. The first of these is a very important poetic device, one that can often make or break a poem. Without interesting and memorable imagery, a poem will often fall flat, leaving readers unaffected by the content. In this case, Williams uses numerous powerful examples of imagery that should make a reader want to finish the poem, and them come back and read it again. For example, lines two through four read: “Hop ingenuously / About the pavement / Quarreling.” 


Analysis of Pastoral

Lines 1-13

The little sparrows

Hop ingenuously

About the pavement


With sharp voices

Over those things

That interest them.

But we who are wiser

Shut ourselves in

On either hand

And no one knows

Whether we think good

Or evil.

In the first lines of ‘Pastoral,’ Williams depicts one of the most common birds seen in any American city or town, a sparrow. It hopes along the pavement “Quarreling” with the other birds. The use of the word “Quarreling” suggests that the birds are arguing, something that humanizes them, making them more relatable and easier to imagine. 

The birds’ behaviour is juxtaposed with that of human beings in the next lines. He describes humans as “wiser.” They are less capable of expressing themselves while the birds do so without a second thought. This may be due to the fact that sparrows have simple lives, especially compared to human beings. They act instinctually and do whatever feels right at the moment. Humans, on the other hand, over think and analyze things constantly. Is one thing good, or is it evil? How are the birds acting, a human being passerby might ask, what are they thinking?


Lines 14-25

                  Then again,

The old man who goes about

Gathering dog lime

Walks in the gutter

Without looking up

And his tread

Is more majestic than

That of the Episcopal minister

Approaching the pulpit

Of a Sunday.

These things

Astonish me beyond words.

In the next lines, the speaker changes tactics slightly. There’s an old man picking up “dog lime,” a clever and unusual way to describe dog poop. He’s “more majestic” than a minister, the following lines add. This is a clear statement of disregard toward mainstream religion. The speaker is condemning its status without saying so outright. The poem concludes with the speaker saying that these things “astonish” him. This connects back t Williams’s habit of writing about things that seem valueless or mundane, but when he describes them, take on new importance. 

When he elevates the old man above the minister of the Episcopalian church, he’s asking the reader to also take note of these simple moments in the lives of normal people. The world is more complicated and simpler than most people understand, Williams suggests. The last two words of the poem are “beyond words,” a clever way of ending a poem that is by necessity, made out of words. He alludes to the fact that there are no words to describe the feels associated with these moments. 


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Pastoral’ should also consider reading some of Williams’s other best-known poems. For example: 

  • Winter Trees’ – personifies trees and describes what it looks like to watch them lose their leaves and go to sleep. The poet observes these occurrences and compares them to people getting dressed and undressed. 
  • ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ – an ekphrasis, or a poem about a work of art, in which the poet describes a painting of the same name by Pieter Brueghel. 
  • The Red Wheelbarrow’  focuses on something that seems insignificant but isn’t. It is one of Williams’ best-known poems and one that epitomizes the imagist movement. It depicts, in very simple language, a red wheelbarrow outside in the rain.
  • Danse Russe’ – is a lighthearted poem in which the poet depicts his speaker dancing naked in front of a mirror. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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