‘Willow Poem’ by William Carlos Williams is a fourteen-line poem that does not follow a specific or consistent rhyme scheme. This does not mean that the poet did not utilize a variety of techniques to craft and order his lines. There are a few instances, particularly at the end of lines in the second half of the poem, that repeats the sound, “-er.” Although they do not fall in any specific way, they do create a sense of unity throughout. In total, there are seven lines that end in this sound.
A reader might also take note of how this technique creates a circular sound in the rhyme of lines, 6-8. This is particularly interesting as the lines refer to the “swirling waters of [a] river.”
In addition to these sporadic uses of rhyme and rhythm, the poet has made great use of personification. Although not used as directly as it could be, the empathy a reader feels for the tree and its leaves come from the fact that the poet has made the plight and subsequent resistance of the tree feel human.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how there is a willow tree sitting on the bank of the river. He says that the tree is always there, and is always a willow. It has lasted through springs, summers, and falls. It has now made it all the way to another winter.
Due to the way the tree lives, and its perseverance and resistance to being “bitten by the sun,” it has taken no notice of the fact that winter has finally come. Eventually, the cold catches up with the leaves and they begin to pale and fall off the tree into the river below. The waters catch the leaves and sweep them off along with the tide. The tree was able to live out its entire life cycle without concern, worry, or despair for the coming days. Now it has finally, although with loathing, shed its leaves and started on its way to a new life in spring.
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Analysis of Willow Poem
It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
In the first lines of this piece the speaker begins by describing the change, or as it is, the lack of change associated with a particular willow tree. Within the progress of a year, the willow has moved through spring, summer, fall, and into winter. No matter what the season was, or is, the tree is a willow, as it will always be. No matter what state it is in, it survives as a “willow tree by the river.” The situating of the tree directly beside and over the river provides it with a source of life. This lends credence to the idea that it will exist no matter what circumstances befall it. The tree has a source of life right beside it.
Although the seasons have changed the willow has taken no notice. It has not been impacted, or “bitten” by the sun. Up until this point, the leaves have not changed color in the least. They are not duller or brighter. They’ve not turned “orange or crimson.” Additionally, none of the willow’s leaves have fallen off of the tree. It looks identically to how it did in the middle of summer.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loath to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river—
In the next set of lines the speaker describes how as the seasons continue to change and the willow faces winter, it is finally forced to contend with its altered circumstances. Winter will not be the same for the willow as spring and summer were. It is not going to completely avoid the transformations which come with the brutality of winter.
These changes are played out in lines 6 and 7 in which the leaves are only managing to “clinging” to the branches of the willow. They are becoming weaker and their green is “grow[ing] paler.” The leaves are no longer as strong as they used to be and begin to fall into the “swirling waters of the river” below. The constantly moving and spinning water of the river serves as a final destination for the leaves. They are ending their lives under what seem to be chaotic and dangerous circumstances.
Before they drop from the tree they do all they can, within their means as leaves, to survive for a little longer. They are “loathe” to leave the safety of the branches. But eventually, they have to. They drop into the water and are suddenly “so cool, so drunk,” with the cold spinning motion of the water.
They have joined in with a larger part of the natural world. No longer are they confined to the willow tree. They swirl around with the water, rocks, and all other organisms which are making their way from life to death.
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.
In the final lines of this piece, the speaker concludes the poem by describing the very end of the life cycle of the leaves and willow tree. They were, up until the end, completely “oblivious to winter.” This ignorance is not spoken of as a fault of nature but rather as a virtue of its enduring spirit. One might take a theme of resilience in the face of hardship from this piece.
The narrator concludes by speaking on the final leaf which falls from the willow tree, into the water “and on the ground.” The fall of the last remaining leaf is a pivotal moment in this piece as the tone becomes one of relief and sorrow. It is the end of an era, but it also marks the start of a new one.
The new year cannot begin afresh without the shedding of the past. There can be no remaining remnant of the previous year. It is also important to see this as a moment of pastoral, or peacefully natural, beauty.
From the details provided by the poet’s speaker up until this point, the reader should have a good mental picture of the entire scene. This allows one to cast themselves into the moment and appreciate what the landscape would look and feel like in person.