William Carlos Williams was a very progressive American writer in the way that he did not adhere to set rules of poetry. Punctuation, capitalization, and rhyme were just some of the many ideas that he played with in his writing. “[He] thought it pretentious to begin every line with a capital letter,” (470).
Williams courageously broke the chains of the many rules implied by poetry for so long and sought to create his own work that felt true to himself. The Young Housewife contains a myriad of different examples of Williams breaking from standard poetic form—rather he tells a narrative.
In this particular poem, Williams paints an image of a particular moment in time without much context. This poem can certainly be interpreted in different ways but by focusing on specific details in this poem; Williams sheds light on the parts of the picture that he wants to shine clearer than others.
This poem is organized into three stanzas: the first is four lines, the second is five lines, and the third is three lines. Although there are so few lines in this poem, a lot can be inferred from the different literary devices in which they are conveyed.
In the first line, the speaker informs the audience that the poem takes place in the morning—10 A.M. to be exact. This alerts the audience that it is light outside and the day is in the process of beginning.
In the same line, the speaker introduces us to the housewife that is mentioned in the title and the only adjective used to describe her is that she is young. The audience has no other information about this woman apart from the fact that she is newly married. She could be jaw-droppingly beautiful or a plain Jane.
The sentence continues on to the next line of the poem and begins to describe what the young housewife is doing. We are able to physically picture the housewife better since she is described as wearing a negligee. This article of clothing provides an interesting context for the housewife, herself.
Negligees are often sheer and since this is the only piece of clothing the housewife is wearing, it is presumable that the speaker might be able to see some of the housewife’s naked body.
This certainly sexualizes the housewife and could be the reason why the speaker is focused on this woman so intently. Instead of appealing to the physical appearance of the housewife, the speaker could also be looking into her character—he presents the idea of her being transparent or invisible. The word choice of “negligee” adds to the idea of invisibility because, in French, negligée literally means “neglected”.
Williams could have chosen to use the word “lingerie” instead, however, this additional description of the housewife complements the working theme of the poem. The next line of this poem changes the setting because instead of picturing this woman may be through a window or an open door, the speaker explains that she is, “behind / the wooden walls of her husband’s house,” (2-3).
The audience now knows that the speaker cannot visibly see the woman, but that he/she is picturing her in their head. This line conveys that the speaker is aware of the housewife’s routine in the morning and could possibly have a history with her. Another interesting artistic choice that Williams makes in the line mentioned above is referring to the house as “her husband’s”.
There is a tone of possessiveness and almost a paternalistic-like quality that arises from this sentence due to the fact that the housewife’s only descriptor is “young”.
In contrast with the three-line sentence before, the last line in the first stanza is a sentence all by itself. Williams may have done this to place extra emphasis on this line which reads, “I pass solitary in my car.” The content of this sentence parallels the isolation that the speaker experiences because it is at the bottom of the stanza and is independent of the lines before it. This line is where the speaker is interjected into the narrative and is introduced as a character in this poem.
In the second stanza, the attention is turned back to the housewife when, “Then again she comes to the curb / to call the ice-man, fish-man…” (5-6). The audience is able to picture the housewife coming out of her home in her most likely see-through negligee and calling to these random men. Since the speaker never adds what the woman calls out to these men for, he allows them to infer what she wants through the details provided in the poem.
To describe someone as an “ice-man” or a “fish-man” is very peculiar. Williams possibly chose these descriptors to convey a routine-like schedule that the housewife does in the morning to call out to these men.
The question at hand, though, is what is she saying? Could she be calling out to them for the specific service they provide, is she merely saying hello, or could she be calling out to them for the attention that she does not receive from her husband? Williams is certainly putting emphasis on the fact that both of these people are men and since this could be a routine that the housewife does often, she must have or is building some sort of relationship with them whether it is friendly or romantic. It is also interesting that in the next lines she, “…stands / shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray strands of hair,” (6-8).
The speaker seems to be describing the housewife in a very vulnerable state. The messy hair and lack of clothes can be attributed to the fact that it is still morning, but since she calls out to these men while she is in this revealing state, it suggests that she may want some male attention or a simple “hello”.
When the woman tucks in the strands of her hair, it is easy to imagine this action as a coping method or a nervous twitch as a result of an action that the housewife knows is morally wrong. This seems like a subconscious reaction to the men that she encounters.
Similar to the first stanza, the speaker of the poem inserts himself in the last part of this stanza although he doesn’t separate himself in a completely different sentence. Although the speaker doesn’t explicitly judge the housewife, he/she, “…compare[s] her / to a fallen leaf.” (8-9). Williams could have used this metaphor to convey how the housewife seems to be out of place and rejected.
When a leaf falls from a tree, it is no longer together with all of the other leaves, it hits the ground—an unfamiliar substance, and dies because it no longer has the complex system of the tree to give it life. This leaf has gone from being carried above the rest of the world, to having no support and at the lowest point on earth. This could potentially parallel the lonely situation of the young housewife and the reason why she calls out to these various men.
The last stanza of the poem is vastly different from the previous two because it focuses solely on the speaker of the poem and his actions rather than on the housewife. The speaker explains that, “The noiseless wheels of [his] car / rush with a crackling sound over /dried leaves as [he] bow[s] and pass[es] smiling,” (10-12).
The intriguing part of this stanza is that the wheels of the speaker’s car are only “noiseless” until it passes over the leaves in the road. The repetition of leaves in this poem is very important because first, the speaker compared the housewife to a leaf, and then out of nowhere, the audience pictures the speaker running over leaves. Williams could have included this to foreshadow the future of the housewife and explain the true intentions of the speaker in this poem.
It is mysterious that after all of the description of the housewife, Williams ends this poem with the speaker smiling as she passes her. Even though the title of the poem is The Young Housewife, it is uncertain now whether or not the focal point of the poem is her or the speaker.
As a result, Williams uses repetition, manipulates diction, and controls the sentence structure to convey what he wants you to focus upon at any given moment. The audience could infer a multitude of different outcomes from this poem and that is what makes Williams such a talented poet. He does not directly reveal the plot behind the story he started to uncover, however, he describes many related details that lead the mind on a certain train of thought.
I like your comments. Most eminently the referral to the French verb negliger, and also note its female past participle negligée (= unappreciated, uncared, unnoticed) as in “elle a été negligée”.
Do you happen to know when WCW wrote this poem?