‘Spring and All [By the road to the contagious hospital]’ by William Carlos Williams is a seven stanza poem that is separated into sets of lines that vary in length. The poet, as was his custom, did not structure this piece through a rhyme scheme or pattern of the meter. Instead, the free-verse poem is driven by its simple but vibrant images.
It was Williams’ goal to provide an image of a real-world that is easy for the reader to imagine. It does not take hours of analysis to understand what the poet was wanting to accomplish here.
Additionally important to the poem is the historical context in which it was written. Williams’ wrote this work towards the end of World War I. This meant that the world was just emerging from years of fighting and a promise of a new, more peaceful future was around the corner. This is the background upon which Williams is working.
Summary of Spring and All…
The poem begins with the speaker introducing a road on which one can travel to a “contagious hospital.” Along the road, one is able to see all manner of dying plant life. Much of it is unrecognizable as what it used to be. Bushes have become twigs. There are also muddy fields and pools of standing water in the distance.
Towards the end of the poem, the tone takes a turn and the speaker describes a change. Soon spring will come and the landscape will be transformed. The plant life will leave the desolate past and enter into a more promising future, just like the world at the end of World War I.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Spring and All…
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by describing a path or road. It is immediately clear, via the title and first line, that the road leads to “the contagious hospital.”
It is perhaps important to note at this point that Williams’ made his living as a doctor. He would’ve had more than a passing familiarity with hospitals. This makes his choice of a “contagious hospital” all the more poignant. It would have been a place in which patients suffering from infectious diseases were housed and treated, as well as they could be at the time. This type of hospital is not somewhere one would want to end up, either as a doctor or a patient.
The path on which the speaker is walking is located underneath a sky which is “surg[ing]” with “blue / mottled clouds.” These clouds do not float peacefully through the sky but instead, enter into the scene powerfully. They are suddenly there as if pushed. They are being “drive” by a cold “northeast” wind. From just these few lines it is clear that Williams is hoping to create a scene that is not peaceful or seriously foreboding. It appears to be a cold, somewhat inhospitable day to be walking along the road.
Beyond the road, there are different sights to be seen. One immediately comes into contact with a stretch of “muddy field.” Then further on there are weeds, some of which stand and some of which have “fallen” to the ground. This adds to the solemn nature of the moment and the uncomfortable environment which has so far been created.
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
The next stanza is only a two-line couplet and describes how in addition to the murky fields there are “patches of standing water.” It has rained and the ground has not been able to absorb the extra water. It has nowhere to run off to. The following line mentions the fact that there are trees in the distance as well, only a few though. They are tall and “scatter[ed]” in amongst the standing water.
All along the road the reddish
The third stanza contains five lines and does not lift the mood of the poem. By this point, a reader, quite rightly, understands the scene to be made up of dying plants and muddy fields. The following verses only add more detail.
There are a number of bushes alongside the road. These are purple and “forked.” They, unlike the weeds in the distance, are “standing.” This does not mean they have any strength to them though. They are in fact described as being the “twiggy / stuff of bushes.” The plants are barely recognizable as the bushes they used to be.
The only remnant of what they used to exist in the “dead, brown leaves” which have fallen, and now sit, under the twigs. These plants, at the moment, are not bushes, they are “leafless vines.”
When one considers the time period at which this piece was written it is clear that the landscape Williams is describing could be that of Europe. It is tarnished, dying, and without much form.
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—
The fourth stanza of the poem is once again a two-line couplet. If the reader does not yet fully understand the lifeless nature of the scene, these lines will confirm it. The speaker says outright that the land is “Lifeless in appearance.” There does not seem to be any trace (at the moment) of what it was or could be again.
The second line of the stanza marks a turn in the tone of the poem. It is moving from solemn to tentatively hopeful. The speaker describes “spring” as steadily approaching. It is not racing forward as the clouds were, but slowly making its way to the road and its surroundings.
They enter the new world naked,
the cold, familiar wind—
The fifth stanza continues to describe the changes which are coming. A reader will immediately notice that the speaker has changed the way he refers to the surroundings. The plants are now called “They” and are spoken of as entering into a “new world.” This is a place that has long since been lost and is only now starting to grow back. Just as the world began to recover from the devastation of WWI, so does the path to the hospital.
The plants are entering into their new world “naked.” They do not know what to expect except that everything will be different. At first, the change is negligible as if they haven’t gone anywhere at all. The same “cold…wind” blows.
Now the grass, tomorrow
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
The sixth stanza begins to speak on what the world could be “tomorrow.” Things will not remain the way they are forever but slowly the “grass” will change and then the “stiff curl of wild carrot leaf.” All plants, and all life, will be touched by the coming spring.
The “objects” of the world will be “defined” one at a time until their clear “outline[s]
are visible. The poet is now exerting pressure on the narrative. One will be expecting great change to occur in the final lines. This will not be the case though.
But now the stark dignity of
grip down and begin to awaken
Nothing happens fast in this world. For now, the “stark dignity” of the plants remains. There is no sudden change or transformation which takes them over immediately. It will come, and it will be profound, but it is not instantaneous.
Eventually, the plants will be “rooted” and strong enough to “grip down” in the soil and “begin to awaken” to a world not ruled by violence.