The Dance by William Carlos Williams

‘The Dance’ was originally published in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems in 1962. The collection clearly displays the early influence on Williams by poets such as Ezra Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). Williams was one of the leading members of the Imagist movement that valued clear and precise images over flowery language, rhyme schemes, and metrical patterns. 

This particular poem was written in response to a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder known as “The Kermess” or “Peasant Dance”. Within the painting the artists depicted lively and warm peasants dancing in a carnival-like atmosphere. 

 

Summary of The Dance 

’The Dance’ by William Carlos Williams is an upbeat ekphrastic poem that delves into the mood and setting of “The Kermess”. 

The poem takes a look at the emotive qualities of the dancers in Brueghel’s painting. Williams describes their off-balance movements and the shape and size of their bodies. They dance chaotically, influenced by the amount of alcohol that they’ve “impound[ed]”.

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of The Dance 

‘The Dance’ by William Carlos Williams is a twelve-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. While Williams was part of the Imagist movement, which was opposed to the use of meter in poetry, there is a rhythm to be found in this particular piece. Williams chose to vary the meter, but a great deal of it is written in amphibrachic trimeter. 

This means that the majority of the lines are divided into three sets of three beats. The middle of these three beats is stressed while the first and third are unstressed. The first two words of the poem provide a great example: “In Brueghel’s” is clearly stressed in the middle (BRUE) and unstressed at the beginning and end ( In and “ghel’s). Other parts of the poem shift into what is known as dactylic meter where the first of the three beats are stressed and the following two are not. 

 

Literary Devices in The Dance 

Williams makes use of several literary devices in The Dance. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and repetition. The latter is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. In this case, there is a good example in the first few lines when William repeats the word “round”. It appears again later on in the poem to describe the shape of the peasant’s bodies. The poem itself also has a “round” quality as it begins and ends with the same phrase. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “blare” and “bagpipes” in lines three and four as well as “bellies” and “balance” in line seven. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines two, three, and four as well as that between lines seven and eight. This technique is one of the most important in ‘The Dance’ as it helps to establish a feeling of the “rollicking measure” that the dancers are experiencing. 

 

Analysis of The Dance 

Lines 1-4

In Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
(…)
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles

In the first lines of ‘The Dance,’ the speaker makes it very clear that he’s interested in the Pieter Brueghel painting, “The Kermess”. In this painting, as discussed in the introduction, a viewer can see peasants making merry, dancing, drinking, and enjoying one another’s company. The phrase “go round” is used twice in the second line, and then “around” appears immediately after in the third line. The repetition mimics the movement of the peasants as a dance, a technique that’s used throughout the poem. The meter and rhythm of the lines match the swirling movement that the speaker is describing. A reader should also take note of the use of enjambment in between the second line and the third, helping fuel the forward momentum of the poem. 

The speaker also describes, through image-rich words, the sounds that fill the room. While the can’t physically hear the sounds, he’s able to look at the painting and interpret what it was like to be in the same space. Then, by relaying it skillfully to the reader, more people are able to live the same experience. Williams uses alliteration when describing the “blare” of the “bagpipes” and the “bugle”. 

 

Lines 5-8

tipping their bellies (round as the thick—
(…)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling

The joyous dancers are going “around” and playing their music. They’re also “tipping their bellies”. This is an allusion to their weight and hearty, fulfilling lifestyle. The poet even adds in parentheses a simile that compares their “bellies” to the “thick— / sided glasses” that they’re drinking out of. He uses the word “impound” rather than drink in order to emphasize the large amounts of alcohol that they’re indulging in. Williams repeats the word “round” in these lines again, using it in a different but related context. 

Their dancing is not entirely skillful, the next lines suggest. Their size and their drunkenness are working together to make the dance more chaotic than it would’ve been otherwise. The use of enjambment in these lines helps the reader to experience something of the “off balance” dance that the peasants are engaging in. 

 

Lines 9-12 

about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
(…)

In the final four lines of ‘The Dance,’ the speaker adds that the peasants are at the “Fair Grounds”. This expansion of the setting is going to mean something different to every reader. But, it is easy to imagine the colors, people, and objects that might surround these dancing people. There is an interesting use of the word “shanks” in the second line. This refers to the part of the lower part of the leg but is usually used to refer to cuts of meat. 

When placed along with reference to “their butts” and the weight that their bodies carry, it is clear that the poet used the word “shank” in order to emphasize their thick body parts. Internal rhyme is used in the second to last line with “prance” and “dance”. There is also an interesting juxtaposition between the words “rollicking” and “measure”. There is a beat to the music but the dancer’s movements and the way they play the music bring in the element of chaos and off-kilter celebration that marks this image and poem out. 

Williams ends the poem by bringing it back around to the same line, “In Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess” that began the poem. 

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