William Carlos Williams

‘Perfection’ by William Carlos Williams is a poem about finding exquisite appreciation for a decay as a natural part of life in the image of a rotting apple.

William Carlos Williams

Nationality: American

William Carlos Williams was an American poet and physician.

His work is commonly associated with modernist movements like Imagism.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: We must appreciate and find beauty in life's decay as much as life itself

Themes: Aging, Beauty, Death

Speaker: A person observing the apple

Emotions Evoked: Confusion, Excitement, Frustration

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

William Carlos Williams' poem is a beautiful expression of adoration for a rotting piece of fruit. It is one that attempts to dislodge our human adverseness towards and to find perfection even in death.

‘Perfection’ is an imagist poem that demonstrates phenomenally well one of the movement’s defining tenets: a hyper-focus on the mundane. Many of the most famous William Carlos Williams are themselves intense reflections on a variety of seemingly everyday sights, objects, and occurrences. Using precise but simple diction, they have the ability to render the ordinary into something extraordinary. In this short but impactful poem by Williams, the speaker observes a rotting apple and is moved to absolute awe by its perfection.


‘Perfection’ by William Carlos Williams is a poem about seeing life’s flawless beauty in the decay of a rotting apple.

On the surface, ‘Perfection’ is a rather straightforward poem about one person’s affinity for a nicely rotten apple. Much of the poem is comprised of the speaker’s seemingly paradoxical praise for the decaying piece of fruit. They describe in vivid detail the way the apple has “hardly a contour marred” by the intense ripening and has instead developed this immaculate brown color that covers its “unspoiled surface.”

The speaker then reveals that they were the ones to place the apple outside, exposed to the elements in the first place, with the goal of letting it ripen. They even lament that no one has touched the piece of fruit for over a month. “No one. No one!” they shout, as if frustrated that no one else appreciates the exquisiteness of a perfectly rotten apple.

Structure and Form

‘Perfection’ is written in free verse without any definite rhyme scheme or meter. The poem does display the use of what Williams called the variable foot, which was his attempt to create a far more organic form of meter that mimicked the everyday speech patterns of the English language. The poet also uses caesura, enjambment, and end-stopped lines to contort the poem’s cadence into these fragmented images and expressions.

Literary Devices

As an imagist poem, ‘Perfection’ relies mainly on visual imagery to meticulously construct a scene that is as vivid to the reader as it is for the speaker describing it. And nearly all of the imagery is focused entirely on the apple itself: “beautifully and completely / rotten / hardly a contour marred–“(2-4); “shrivelled at the top” (6); “deep and suffusing brown / mantles that / unspoiled surface!” (10-12).

The poem can also be read symbolically, with great significance placed on the rotting “lovely apple!” (1) as being representative of organic decay and death. The fact that no one reveres or takes the apple — “No one / has moved you” (12-13) — also supports this interpretation. As the rotten apple only reminds people of their own fading mortality, which they also fear and detest visual reminders of (e.g. aging).

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

                 O lovely apple!
beautifully and completely
hardly a contour marred–

In the first stanza of ‘Perfection, the speaker conjures up the image of a single rotten apple. Immediately, we are presented with a number of paradoxical observations. The speaker’s diction in describing the piece of fruit — “O lovely apple!” (1) and as “beautifully and completely / rotten” (2-3) — reveals they don’t think any less of it now that it is undergoing a natural decomposition.

They even claim that the rot hasn’t yet “marred” (4) the apple’s shape, which seems contradictory. Yet the poetic still-life they’re painting with their imagery implies that the fruit is not yet physically falling apart and still retains its rotund shape.

Stanza Two

perhaps a little
in every detail! O lovely

The second stanza of ‘Perfection’ continues to describe the apple, with the speaker confessing that not all of it is without blemish. They point out that it is “a little / shrivelled at the top” (6) from the rot but other than that, it is “perfect / in every detail!” (7-8). Once again, the speaker juxtaposes rather close images of the apple’s ripening body with their ecstatic appreciation of it. The perfection that they refer to is tied to their perception of decay and death itself. Where others just see a rotting apple, the speaker clearly sees some inherent aesthetic grandeur.

Stanza Three

apple! what a
unspoiled surface! No one

The third stanza provides one final look at the apple, which the speaker (continuing from the last stanza) refers to for a second time as “lovely” (8). This time they focus on the color of the apple’s skin: a “deep and suffusing brown” (10) that anyone who has been far too close to an aging piece of fruit would be familiar with. Interestingly, the speaker ignores or fails to catch a whiff of the apple’s rotting smell. Instead, they focus solely on its visual appearance.

Their choice of diction is also curious as they refer to the fruit’s surface as a “mantle” (which evokes the word’s geological definition as a layer between the Earth’s crust and core) and describe it as being “unspoiled” (12).

Williams once again uses paradox to challenge the reader’s perceptions of the rotting fruit. Urging us to see that, in terms of organ decomposition, the apple is perfect and unsullied. It could also be a reference to the line in the first stanza that affirms the fruit’s shape has not yet been tarnished by the ripening interior.

Stanza Four

 has moved you
to ripen.

The fourth stanza of ‘Perfection’ shifts the speaker’s focus momentarily away from the apple they have been revering for the last three stanzas. Here it is revealed that they were the ones who initiated the apple’s decomposition: “I placed you on the porch / rail a month ago / to ripen.” (14-16). But their reason for doing so is somewhat ambiguous — perhaps it was just to appreciate the changes that the fruit would undergo.

Yet the speaker’s fixation on no one stopping to also admire or even take the piece of fruit hints at their desire to not be the only one who perceives such perfection in something often overlooked and discarded.

Stanza Five

                 No one. No one!

The final stanza of ‘Perfection’ is just one short line that underscores the speaker’s obsession over the lack of fellow overripe fruit enthusiasts. “No one. No one!” they assert and then shout, giving voice to their frustration. As if to mirror the apple’s own decay, the outburst ends what was previously a lushly venerating poem with a sour sentiment. In doing so, Williams underscores the fickleness of aesthetic appreciation even in something as simple as a piece of fruit, as well as the reflexive revulsion people tend to harbor in regard to the organic processes of death in all its forms.


What is the theme of ‘Perfection?

The beauty of imagist poems like this one is the way one can appreciate them on both a literal and figurative level rather equally. However you choose to read Williams’ poem, it remains a sublime ode to the perfectly natural decay of organic life and a bemoaning of people’s tendency to be disgusted by it.

Why did William Carlos Williams write ‘Perfection?

There is a good chance Williams wrote the poem from personal experience after having observed the ripening of an apple firsthand. Maybe he actually placed some fruit outside his house, hoping someone might also appreciate it or even reach out to take it. Either way

What is the tone of the poem?

The poem’s tone is one of reverence and awe. Every bit of Williams’ imagery is devoted to spotlighting with great detail the splendor that the speaker views the apple with. Diction such as “lovely,” “perfect,” and “unspoiled” all support such an interpretation of the poem’s tone.

How is paradox significant to the poem?

Throughout the poem, Williams juxtaposes a variety of words and images to create paradoxical descriptions of the apple. This is a reflection of the speaker’s seemingly ironic adoration of a rotting apple — lauding praise upon something usually thrown into the trash. Phrases like “beautifully and completely / rotten” and “unspoiled surface” are paradoxical expressions of the speaker’s appreciation for a decaying piece of fruit.

Similar Poems

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William Carlos Williams

This poem by William Carlos Williams is indicative of the poet's modernist and imagist style. For one, it celebrates the mundane (and, to some, profane) image of a rotting apple. The poet's goal is to instill the same vivid passion and joy they experience observing the piece of fruit onto the reader. All the praise and claims of beauty that they laud upon it, in turn, challenge the reader's own perceptions of these ideals.
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20th Century

Williams was a 20th-century poet important to both the imagist and larger modernist movements. His poems highlighted and revealed the awe of everyday sights and objects that we often take for granted. Giving them not only an aesthetic appeal but also a poetic one. This poem is no different, capturing the inherent but hard-to-see beauty of life ripening toward natural decay.
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Williams was an important modernist poet who used his writing to bring exceptional focus and reverence to the mundane. His poems are defined by their imagist quality and hyperfocus, which brings to life even the most static of scenes. Poems like this one reveal exactly how timeless is short but impactful lines of verse can be.
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Aging is a core theme of the poem, and Williams illustrates it vividly with his descriptions of the rotting apple. The speaker's attitude and perception of the apple is an appreciation of the natural course of life that causes all things to grow and eventually die. The poem does not fear this aging, though, and only chooses to revel in it.
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Williams also takes a redefined look at what beauty is and what it looks like, especially when it comes to organic life. The poem appears to take a stance antithetical to the Romantic poets, who often saw beauty in verdant flowers and plants. But this poem also sees it in the ripening of that fauna.
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Death is an implied theme in the poem, as the apple rotting is a potent symbol and reminder of our own mortality. On the surface, though, the speaker's reverence is still a powerful rebuke of anyone who would find themselves disgusted by the piece of fruit. Williams articulates with this poem that there is beauty even in such vivid decay.
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Confusion is an emotion both found in the poem and possibly experienced by the reader. First, there is the speaker's confusion, who struggles to understand why no one has stopped to gawk similarly at the rotting apple. Second, the reader might at first think that the speaker's descriptions of the apple are ironic or sarcastic. But they are not, and the speaker truly sees something worth celebrating in this apple.
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The poem also expresses great excitement in the form of the speaker's exaltations of the apple. Williams' punctuation and diction evidence this even further. The excitement expressed is meant to ignite something in the reader as well, to inspire them to see similar beauty in seemingly unworthy images like a rotting apple.
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The speaker also expresses frustration in the poem with other people not viewing the apple as they do. They even reveal that the apple has been sitting outside for over a month, further emphasizing how adverse other people find it. The poem even ends on a frantic note as the speaker shouts that "No one!" has stopped to observe it.
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In a way, the poem unfolds as a moment of epiphany for the speaker as they obsess over the beauty of the apple. The poem might also be designed to do the same for the reader, to get them to realize that even a rotting apple is something to be appreciated. Williams' vibrant diction and imagery accomplish this phenomenally well.
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Inner Beauty

The speaker of the poem obsesses over the apple because they see its ripening as beautiful. They don't think the apple is beautiful on the inside and not on the outside, they truly see the rotting skin as aesthetically pleasing. This is meant to challenge the reader's own perceptions of beauty and to see even unappealing reminders of decay as awe-inspiring.
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A transformation is what causes the speakers to begin to revere the apple. This change takes place over the course of a month and has much to do with aging as it does with appreciating the ripening of organic life. The speaker sees only beauty in this transformation, they don't find it disgusting or offending to the senses.
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Waiting also plays a part in the poem, as the speaker describes waiting for a month for the apple to ripen to this point. It implies a certain patience and wonder to allow the piece of fruit, which is meant for eating, to just decay outside. But the speaker also seems to be waiting for someone else to appreciate the spectacle, which never happens.
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Free Verse

Williams was known for his experimental use of free verse. This poem, like many of his others, lacks a rhyme scheme and meter, which is driven by the poet's desire to focus all the emotion felt through the images provided. The poem is defined by its succinct images, which flow from line to line through enjambment.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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