To Elsie By William Carlos Williams
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When you hear the phrase “the American people” do you think of a people who are despoiled, alienated, or lost? William Carlos Williams characterizes the American people in this way in his poem To Elsie, which provides commentary on the American peoples lost perspective. Through tone and imagery Williams tells of a self-alienating America that has lost perspective of its most treasured ideology, the American Dream, due to its violent and unstable tradition.
Williams tone is a key component to understanding the message that he wishes to convey to the reader. In the first stanzas of the poem Williams diction is often general and seemingly flaccid as he tries to articulate his understanding of “the pure products of America go[ing] crazy” (Williams 1-2). Using phrases such as “mountain folk from Kentucky” and “ribbed end of Jersey,” Williams puts forth the proposition that this craziness encompasses all Americans from every walk of life (3-5). This flaccid language describes the American people as “deaf-mutes, thieves” and “devil-may-care men” who have turned “to railroading” in their “Monday to Saturday” jobs to aspire to the American Dream (7, 10, 11, 15). After the eighth stanza, the poems loses its tone of flaccidness and gains a voice of anger and frustration as Williams tells a story of Elsie. She is a “pure product of America” born to a couple “succumbing without emotion” to the institution. The institution leaves each and every American with this “numbed terror” of which Americans know little about (24). This anger and disgust that permeate Williams current tone are apparent in the language that he uses. Elsie is born or “thrown up” into this America which Williams describes as being “hemmed around” “disease” and “murder” (31-33). This yet again speaks to this violent tradition that is America and the poor attempt of the state to protect its citizens from disease. Williams makes it clear in his language that this Elsie is not rare or an exception to the general rule by calling her “some Elsie” and her caretaker “some doctor” (40). Only at the end of the poem does Williams take a step back and think; then, the tone becomes melancholy. The last stanza is a statement of sad acceptance that there is “no one/to witness/and adjust, no one to drive the car” (70-72). He realizes that perhaps there is no reason to get frustrated and perhaps has come to see that what he thought was misguided Americans striving for the wrong things such as “jewelry” (47), are in fact actually living the American Way of Life. Williams finally realizes that the American Way of Life is in bitter truth not the “fields” (62) and “deer” (61) but “jewelry” (47) and “flopping breast” (45).
Williams use of imagery becomes an essential part of the experience of the poem as he uses it to guide the reader through his writing because it gives the poem certain images that are meant to convey hidden or ambiguous ideas. Williams imagery in the first parts of the poem is harsh and derogatory as he associates industrial jobs with “young slatterns, bathed/in filth” to emphasize the horrific tasks that Americans are willing to perform. The derogatory imagery of these lines is meant to convey Williams disgust with the American peoples complacency. He believes that this complacency is tolerated by Americans who are all “tricked” by the institution because the American “imaginationhave no/peasant traditions to give them/character” (16, 18-20). The marriage of the couple is described as having been “dash[ed with] Indian blood” which is a time where Williams through his imagery tells