This often analyzed poem has been praised and critiqued by students, critics, and lovers of poetry worldwide. It speaks to the poet’s contemporary moment. Specifically, ‘The Yachts’ depicts the suffering that many Americans endured during the Great Depression and the way that the wealthy and well-to-do triumphed over the system.
In the first part of this poem, the poet describes yachts sailing on a semi-protected piece of water. Although the ocean is “ungoverned,” these yachts are somewhat safe. They are sailed by “antlike” men and are described with beautiful, lyrical language.
Readers should mark the turn partway through the poem that brings to light Williams’ main interest. He reveals that the waters in which the yachts are sailing are filled with bodies. These bodies are desperately grasping at the sides of the yachts, hoping for salvation in a turbulent and unfair capitalist system. The yachts come to symbolize the winners or the rich, and the bodies in the water symbolize the poor who have been discarded.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with the themes of economic inequality, suffering, and wealth. The yachts become a clear symbol for the winners in an unfair capitalist system that discarded the poor during the Great Depression in the United States. They sail over and through entire oceans of bodies, unconcerned for the suffering of their fellow humans.
Structure and Form
‘The Yachts’ by William Carlos Williams is an eleven-stanza poem that is divided into tercets or sets of three lines. These lines are written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, readers should note the few examples of assonance that are used. For example, “encloses,” “blows,” and “chooses” in the first stanza and then “knows” (which perfectly rhymes with “blows”) in the second stanza.
Also important to understand is the way that William Carlis Williams created contrast in the structure of individual lines and longer and shorter sentences. Although the poem visually appears the same, he makes a striking transition between the long and flowing lines of the first few stanzas and the short, choppy, and intense sentences that make up the last three stanzas.
Throughout this poem, the poet uses several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “biggest” and “best” in line four.
- Symbolism: the yachts represent youth and freedom. Then, they become darker symbols of the rich winners of the capitalist system as people appear in the water.
- Allusion: against the backdrop of the great depression. Throughout, the poet alludes to the economic struggle that middle and lower-class people faced during this time and how, despite the economic environment, the wealthy still flourished.
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “Mothlike in mists.”
Stanzas One and Two
contend in a sea which the land partly encloses
Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute
This unique and memorable Williams poem begins by including the title as part of the first line. The first line, with the title, reads:
The yachts contend in a sea which the land partly encloses
The boats are sailing in water that is not as dangerous as it could be. Because it is not the open ocean, and it is enclosed partially by the land, they’re shielded from “too-heavy blows.” The yachts, which come to symbolize youth and wealth, are protected by the environment to an extent.
The next lines make it clear that although the yachts are currently protected, they are not safe. The ocean is a dangerous place. It is “ungoverned,” or uncontrolled, and is capable of destroying the “biggest hulls,” or the largest ships. The “best man,” or the most skilled sailor/navigator of the sea, knows how difficult it is to remain safe “against its beatings.” The sea is willing, without a second thought, to “sink…them pitilessly.”
The poet uses a simile in the last line of the second stanza. He describes the yachts as “mothlike in mists” and “scintillant.” The latter refers to the moments of light or beauty as the yachts traverse the ungoverned waters.
Stanzas Three and Four
brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails
caught the wind again, side by side, head for the mark.
The third and fourth stanzas step away from the chaotic imagery of the ocean and spend a few lines describing the movements of the crew. The poet compares the crew members to ants. They groom the sails, make turns, lean over, “catch the wind,” and “head for the mark.”
The ship’s crew moves smoothly. But, Williams does not hesitate to indicate how small they are in comparison to the ship as a whole in the ocean itself.
Stanzas Five and Six
In a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by
naturally to be desired. Now the sea which holds them
Williams makes it clear that this specific yacht, and those like it, are not alone on the water. They are surrounded by other travelers. Other men and women are sailing “lesser and greater craft.” Some follow the yachts, and others do not. Here, the poet begins his transition into a clear allegory regarding capitalism and the economic situation within the United States when this poem was written.
The yacht battles to survive on the sea and does far better than many who, as described in the last three lines, are dead, floating in the water, and being passed over by the symbolic wealthy yacht owners.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
is moody, lapping their glossy sides, as if feeling
well made, they slip through, though they take in canvas.
The movements of the ships in stanzas seven and eight convey a competitive spirit on the ocean. Here, the poet is speaking about capitalism and how, within this economic system, it is every man for himself. The waves or outside influences like the Great Depression, economic inequality, and The yachts are “too / well made.” They are under the command of men and women who widely escape the consequences of unfair economic policies and the suffering that the Great Depression caused. They have to work for it, “take in canvas,” but they survive.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows.
lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold. Broken,
In the last three stanzas, the poet focuses on incredibly dark and disturbing imagery that serves as a powerful contrast against the peaceful, youthful and seemingly beautiful sailing scenes in the first lines. It is suddenly revealed that the ocean was filled with bodies.
These bodies are “grasping,” trying to hold onto the ships that sail among them. It is a “sea of faces about them and agony.” The impoverished, or those who the economic system of capitalism discarded, are dead or dying in the water.
The sea is an “entanglement of watery bodies / lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold.” This suggests that the impact of the Great Depression and failing economic policies were too much. In an age-old battle, the wealthy and well-off (who come to be symbolized by the yachts) triumph over the poor.
beaten, desolate, reaching from the dead to be taken up
in waves still as the skillful yachts pass over.
The yachts pass over the bodies in the sea, seemingly unfeeling and unconcerned with those who have succumbed to the water. The desperation of the drowning men and women is reflected through the poet’s use of short, choppy sentences in these final stanzas. These can be contrasted with the long, flowing, and lyrical lines that began the poem.
The rich winners of this battle are more than willing to discard and use the poor as they see fit and then sail over them on the way to a safe future. There is no sentimentality in the speaker’s tone or means of description.
The message is that in a capitalist system, specifically as it operated during the American Great Depression, the wealthy are always going to triumph over the poor. He demonstrates the power that the well-to-do and well-connected have through sailing imagery. Specifically, the image of yachts navigating over and through a sea of desperate and dying bodies symbolizes the poor.
The themes are economic inequality and suffering. The poet depicts the suffering that the poor and needy endured during the Great Depression through a symbolic contest between wealthy yacht owners and a sea of dying bodies.
Williams wrote this poem in order to critique the United States’ economic system during his contemporary moment. He comments on the unwillingness of the wealthy to help those in need, the men and women dying in the water.
One of William Carlos Williams’ most famous poems is ‘The Dance.’ It is an ekphrastic written about a specific Brueghel painting. Another well-known poem is ‘The Red Wheelbarrow.’
William Carlos Williams is known as a poet, novelist, and playwright and as a leading member of the Imagist poetry movement in America. He often wrote about the United States and the lives of everyday people and highlighted the beauty of simple, seemingly unimportant objects.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading other William Carlos Williams poems. For example:
- ‘The Dance’ – was initially published in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems in 1962 and takes a look at the emotive qualities of the dancers in Brueghel’s painting of the same name.
- ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ – depicts, in very simple language, a red wheelbarrow outside in the rain.
- ‘Pastoral’ – a short, curious poem in which the poet describes everyday scenes on an American street.