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This article is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

William Carlos Williams and Women (I) Herbert Leibowitz

In The Education of Henry Adams, with a flourish of dandified chivalry, Henry Adams declared his debt to the women who licked an uncouth Brahmin cub into civilised shape. His frequent tributes to the superiority of women were a blend of debater's trick, uxorious habit, and sly flirtation. But they were also based on emotional belief: women in the Adams family, from his great-grandmother Abigail on, were not porcelain dolls placed on a shelf as part of the décor. They took a serious interest in politics and education, and they were astute judges of character. His wife Clover was a passionate, gifted photographer. Yet Adams could not entirely abandon his conviction that women needed to be protected from the contagion of American politics. Madeleine Lee, the beautiful idealistic heroine of Democracy who comes to Washington to observe the machinery of American government, is almost maimed by its sharp teeth. Corruption is rife; ethics, sullied. Predatory senators and lobbyists cut deals in backrooms, while spewing forth grandiose rhetoric about American values. Yet despite some retrograde views of women and his teasing manner in The Education, Adams posed a serious question: why was the sphere of action for American women so limited? Why were their energies mainly channelled in cultural consumerism, and how did American men abet this narrowing? (To prove his theories, alas, Adams restricted his evidence to upper class females, like his wife and his Platonic paramour, Elizabeth Cameron; not a peep about Jane Addams, Alice Hamilton, Elizabeth Blackwell, Mother Jones, or any of the fearless women who refused to accept this gilded life and, against long odds, took up arms against the forces of social inequity - not to mention the legions of working-class women who struggled against poverty and bigotry to keep their families intact.)

Adams' investigations led him from the Senate floor to the bedroom. Drawing on his acute skills as an historian, he exhumed sex from its burial place in the national psyche and proceeded to analyse it with shrewd gusto. `In America,' he asserted, `neither Venus nor Virgin ever had value as force - at most as sentiment. No American had ever been truly afraid of either' (p.38). Certainly the men who ran the machinery of money-making after the Civil War cared little for Venus or Virgin; their imaginations were captivated by the sirens of the marketplace, by the `materialistic scramble', upon which they lavished their talents and drive. `The typical American man,' Adams remarked a little enviously, `had his hand on a lever and his eye on a curve in his road[,]... and he could not admit emotions or anxieties or subconscious distractions, any more than he could admit whiskey or drugs, without breaking his neck. He could not run his machine and a woman too; he must leave her, even though his wife, to find her own way.' Generally, men consigned religion to their women. Culture, too: when they escorted their wives and daughters to a performance of Tristan or Tannhauser, it was the women who mostly thrilled to the sensual music. These bankers and industrialists married, of course, and sometimes took mistresses, but for them, with few exceptions, sex was distraction or anodyne, like European Old Masters a trophy of economic success, the spoils of buccaneering power.

From a census of American literature, Adams counted only one writer for whom sex was a force and vibrant presence: Walt Whitman. Adams himself, as Thomas Beer pointed out with malicious glee in The Mauve Decade, was a Puritan aristocrat who became an effete votary of the Virgin Mary, thereby indirectly promoting the goals of the `Titaness', Beer's term for the prudish sentinels who guarded society against such licentious scoundrels as Whitman.

Adams, who acknowledged Venus' force in the abstract, not in his life, realised that this fear of sex threatened to sanitise American art and literature. Anthony Comstock's loud crusades against vice, nude paintings, Native American fertility dances, and `salacious' novels attracted many zealous followers - priests, temperance advocates, club ladies, politicians - who browbeat public officials, harassed newspaper editors, called for censorship of `immoral' books, and propagandized from the pulpit. Like other cultural skirmishes about values throughout American history, this one was fought in the courts of both law and public opinion, with mixed results. A throwback to the most bigoted strain of Puritanism, Comstockery claimed the high ground of defending the soul from defilement and society from wanton impulsivity. Despite this campaign, brothels drew throngs of men, and readers snapped up copies of tabloids detailing sex scandals such as the murder of Stanford White by Harry Thaw, the jealous husband of Evelyn Nisbet, or Victoria Woodhull's sensational charges that the famed Brooklyn minister Henry Ward Beecher committed adultery with several female congregants.

In 1900, eight years after Whitman's death and nearly half a century since he had proclaimed boldly, in `Song of Myself,' the end of `ducking and deprecating' about sex, the `poet of the Body' was virtually ignored by his countrymen. `Hankering, gross, mystical, nude,' Whitman had strutted in `Song of Myself', but the public, abashed or bored or puzzled, looked away. As self-styled conduit of `forbidden voices', Whitman enjoyed tweaking middle-class opinion and breaking rules; `mad for contact', he provocatively hugged and caressed men, women, himself, anybody he could get his hands on - at least in imagination. Above all, in frank, carnal language Whitman attributed to sex an almost supernatural force: `Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs,/Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven.'

At the age of seventeen, in the throes of a normal suburban adolescence, William Carlos Williams knew little about Whitman or sex or women, all of which would profoundly affect him and his poetry. As Adams had, Williams often asserted that women had shaped his destiny. In letters, poems, stories, essays, and memoirs, Williams left a voluminous record of that influence and his fumbling attempts to understand it. Even as he acknowledged and admired women's complex natures, he clung to the conventional male view of women as either virgins or whores, as late as Book V of Paterson (1958, five years before his death). In `Portrait of a Woman in Bed' (1917), trying on a female persona, he draws an admiring portrait of the slatternly Polish peasant, Mrs Robitza, a querulous, defiant cook willing to cast her children off to fend for themselves or to let society take care of them. Williams' purpose in the poem, he remarked to John Thirlwall, was `to throw her in the face of the town. The whores are better than my townspeople.' Beneath this cliché of the idealised whore versus the hypocritical citizens lurks a fondness for misfits and rousers of scandal. Though Williams doesn't whitewash the unfeeling mother, he identifies with her as a provoking nuisance who speaks her mind bluntly and tells the town `overseer of the poor' seeking to evict her, `I won't work/ and I've got no cash./ What are you going to do/ about it?' In an act of homage, Williams salutes Robitza for her naturalness, a state that eludes him. Though the poem is neither lyrical nor subtle - it is rough speech from the mouth of one Polish mother - Mrs Robitza lives memorably on the page, a first sketch for the Baroness Elsa Von Freytag Loringhoven, another flouter of propriety who amused and shocked him.

Depending on his mood and situation, Williams attaches the words `clean' and `filth' to women's sexuality - and to his own desires. He longed to surrender himself to passionate intimacy or libertinism, yet feared either would result in the erasure of his identity. As a way out of this dilemma, he acted no differently from most writers: he sublimated his libido and emotional confusions in poetry. But escape them he could not; they shadowed his poems and his feisty efforts to define a poetics he could embrace faithfully. Just as Williams sometimes dreamed of overthrowing the inherited order of poetic tradition, so he wished to rebel against his cautious self. That was not an easy undertaking since his parents had instilled in him a strong respect for virtue. When the word `perfect' sounds in his poems and prose, it's usually a muezzin's summons to ideal or self-suppressing behavior. By contrast, the word `imperfect' serves as a potion to lull the censor asleep so that Williams can then enjoy or explore, if only in fantasy, forbidden pleasures: revels with the glamorous Mina Loy or other Venuses of casual morality beckoning from New York.

These idylls of freedom, however, even when merely yearned for, could exact a heavy toll in guilt. Williams turned prickly, defensive, blaming his lax conscience for succumbing to temptation, imagining extreme punishments for himself. For a time, he would put the brakes on any indiscretions that might jeopardize his medical practice and his marriage. Then an opposite reaction set in: feeling like a `Hemmed-in Male', he started plotting to break out of prison again. One might expect this pattern to be confined to his youth. In fact, it lasted his entire life. The doctor in Williams' late play A Dream of Love, for example, comes to New York for a tryst and suffers a fatal heart attack in his mistress' room, then after his death returns to his wife in order to apologize for and to rationalize his conduct: `I did what had to be done,' he bluntly remarks; then explains to Myra, the incredulous Floss character, that he philandered `to renew our love, burn the nest and emerge transcendent, aflame - for you!' [Many Loves, p. 207], and finally declares - the stage directions read `passionately, with great conviction' - `all my life I've been saying hello, my darling, and goodbye to you - the anodic opening and the cathodic schluss, the best moments of a lifetime - all yours! The most intense in the current of our lives.' [ibid. p.213]

From a study of the clues to those currents and the inconstant feelings about women that Williams scatters everywhere, it's clear that he often taints the evidence and obscures its implications from himself (and his readers) or is genuinely unsure how to master his fractious desires. In the Autobiography, he portrays himself as a Penrod romping mischievously through an average boy's wholesome childhood, which means not noticing girls or being shy around them. The next moment, with a conspiratorial wink he spins harmless fictions about his sexual prowess, as when he boasts of his `madcap erotic adventures' with the girls in his seventh-grade class, or he adopts the grim tone of a Sisyphus forever rolling the stone of virginity up a hill. If none of these accounts is trustworthy - self-disclosure was not Williams' strong suit - they show that he never satisfactorily settled his inner debate as to what was or was not permissible behaviour with women.

Nevertheless, in the tangled skeins of metaphors, the jittery rhythms of poems, and the wayward confessions of letters, we can appraise Williams as he explains (or blurts out) his views and justifies his behavior toward his female patients or those with whom he had long-term, peculiar, stymied, or casual relations: his wife Floss, his friend Viola Baxter Jordan, and the Baroness Elsa Von Freytag Loringhoven, most prominently.

Williams' attitudes toward women, in life and in art, evolved circuitously but in traceable patterns. To the young Williams, the two most powerful women were his mother Elena and his Grandmother Welcome, both strong-willed survivors of cultural uprootings and romantic unhappiness. An adventuress and painter stranded in a suburban backwater, Elena was something of a misfit who schooled herself to adapt to diminished expectations. Outwardly, she might conform to the small town ethos - going to church and keeping house, for example - but she pursued a clandestine life, too. Williams reports in his Autobiography that one night, while conducting a seance, she got so lost in a trance that she did not recognise her own children. This terrifying experience of abandonment suggests the child's fear of how unreliable her care, like Robitza's, might be, and it might have strengthened his hesitation to leave his marriage when a romantic prospect tempted him. Williams inherited enough of his father's rationality not to let Elena's traits cripple him; his behaviour with women, though, suggests that he was, given enough amorous provocation, ready to blaze up at any time, like Mt Pelée or his mother, and cause emotional havoc.

At 22, however, Williams was a likable, conventional young man. He had jumped directly from high school to medical school, a fairly common practice in the early twentieth century. Apart from bouts of homesickness, he had no difficulty handling the transition. By his own account, he `work[ed] his head off', though he was no grind. Williams' l905-6 chatty letters to his `little' brother Edgar, who was studying architecture at MIT, chronicle a typical college student's activities: `pluggin' away' at his studies like a `blooming truckhorse', cheering at the Penn-Harvard football game, fencing, dancing, attending Mask & Wig plays, and of course rating the girls (H.D. `certainly is a fine girl even if she isn't a quintessence of grace,' he confides to Ed). Williams' epistolary style at this stage favours gee-whiz, rah-rah locutions (`By gosh') and fraternal chaffing; like the James Stewart character in a Frank Capra movie, he's given to `nebulous but high-minded' exhortations. Imbued with a hyperactive will and a moralistic streak, `ambitious Bill,' as he signs one letter, urges Ed to honour the manly ideal of striving for perfection, disparages reason as useless, while commending patience, grit, faith, and truth for their rewards: `We must therefore do things that will last forever.' `Truth and love never fail. They will always bring forth their fruit in due season.' `How ridiculous it is for us to sit down on Sunday with folded hands and loaf yes loaf and loose [sic] one day in which we might be working at some beautiful secret of nature. Our work is the man himself in a tangible form so that our senses can grasp him.' Like Poor Richard, Williams cranks out platitudes about pursuing the grail of success. (This habit persisted in `Tract' and other poems in which he harangues Rutherford's citizens for their failings. `I wanted to tell people, to tell 'em off plenty,' Williams noted in his Autobiography. `There would be a bitter pleasure in that, bitter because I instinctively knew no one would much listen.' [p.49] What saves him from the charge of fatuity and bullying is that Williams usually puts himself in the docket alongside those he chastised.)

When the yoke of his medical school tasks chafed him and the `blues' overtook him, he sought diversion, like most men, in romantic fantasies. In a letter of 14 January 1906, he tells Ed of meeting a French girl, the first `into whose eyes I have looked & forgotten everything around me' (SL,9). (Since he uses the same phrasing about H.D., perhaps the Gallic belle is a dream version of his friend.) From these `Dissipated' moments Porphyro in Philadelphia composes bland poems, like `The Eve of St Agnes' imitation he encloses for Ed's approval:

Last night I sat within a
blazing hall
and drank of bliss from out
a maiden's eyes
          The jewelled guests passed by
as forms that rise
The charm in dreams the
sleepy night for all
          Sped nameless on no face can
I recall
          Those eyes those eyes my
love lies in their deep dephths [sic] beyond
recalling cries
as lost as rings adorn as
well that fall cold unawed
I go, such pulseless healthy love

With one glance the poet succumbs to the maiden's charms, but the state of bliss doesn't last; as in Keats's poem, cold numbs the flushed senses, isolating the speaker in a state of edgy revery. The lover cannot awaken the sleeping beauty and learn his fate from her eyes because her lids are closed. What the French woman would have made of this lovesick swain had she woken up and read his poem we can only guess, because she disappears like a phantom.

It's easy to poke fun at Williams' apprentice work about love and women since he's so oblivious to the jingling rhymes (`rise', `eyes', `lies', `cries'), the somnolent rhythms (only one comma interrupts the melodious wave), the tautological `deep depths', and the amusing oxymoron `pulseless healthy'. Poets in their youth begin, notoriously, in imitation, clearing their throat and searching for a singular voice. This quest can last a long time - witness Roethke and Berryman, who until well past their fortieth year could not get rid of the stylistic mannerisms they picked up from Yeats, Eliot, and Auden. It took Williams years of sweat and botched experiments to outgrow his adolescent poetic infatuations, his Keatsean `delirium'.

Williams' first two books, Poems (l909) and The Tempers (l9l3), bear the thumbprint of a poetic greenhorn: pastiche. Predominantly love lyrics sung by a miscast Feste, they are, predictably, confected out of other poets' work and worship Beauty with all the ardor of Keats and the Pre-Raphaelites or sing in a faux Shakespeare style: `Sing merrily, Truth: I tried to put/ Truth in a cage!/ Heigh-ho! Truth in a cage!' With its stilted voice, `First Praise', a lame pastoral, could easily be mistaken for a Tennyson poem (if the bumpy lines were smoothed out):

Lady of dusk-wood fastnesses,
        Thou art my lady.
I have known the crisp, splintering leaf-tread with thee on before,

White, slender through green saplings;
I have lain by thee on the brown forest floor
        Beside thee, my Lady.

Lady of rivers strewn with stones,
        Only thou art my Lady.
Where thousand the freshets are crowded like peasants to a fair;

Clear-skinned, wild from seclusion
They jostle white-armed down the tent-bordered thoroughfare
        Praising my Lady.

Williams' homage to Floss is standard romantic twaddle, as implausible as a medieval tournament in the Catskills, where `First Praise' is set. (America lacked even the flimsiest of peasant traditions, Williams would note in `The pure products of America go crazy'.) It is not wildness that Williams is striving for so much as command of syntax and stanzaic pattern. Hence the stiff lyric formality and an `I' that lacks a body. In his Autobiography, Williams charitably forgives the ambitious young poet for rushing into print with Poems, l909: `There is not one thing of the slightest value in the whole thin booklet - except the intent.' (10)

Everywhere in these early works, there's little visibly or audibly American in language or scenery, heroes or flora and fauna. What's conspicuously missing is Williams' own experience, as if he mistrusted it or muzzled it. Bookish sentiments rule. Williams writes watery, sincere verse like thousands of aspiring poets. In the sonnet `The Uses of Poetry', he and his lady drift in an enchanted boat `glid[ing]' by many a leafy bay,/ Hid deep in rushes, where at random play/ The glossy black winged May-flies...' These lines derive their images from Keats, not Rimbaud, whom he had not yet read; several years would pass before Williams scrapped these stage sets and replaced them with the swampy Hackensack meadows, whose gunmetal gray skies and foliage and bird calls he knew intimately. The finale of `The Uses of Poetry' follows Romantic writ: `We'll draw the light latch-string/ And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,/ On poesy's transforming giant wing,/ To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.' These lines would not be out of place in an 1809 poem.

There's nothing surprising in this poetic backwardness. Williams was ignorant of Whitman's `amativeness' and `language experiments' in Leaves of Grass, and except for what he learned in anatomy classes or from his desultory courtship of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), women were remote goddesses whose altars he was prepared to garland with flowery tributes. At the University of Pennsylvania, Pound was H.D.'s beau, squiring her to theatrical performances and passing on his poetic theories to her, as if grooming her to be his disciple. When Pound introduced Bill to H.D., Bill's first impressions were wholly favourable. Her recherché looks and verbal sallies enthralled him. To his brother Ed he confided that she was `one of the most sensible and generally likable, beautiful girls I have seen...' (SL, p. 11). He duly composed a sonnet to those remarkable eyes in which his `love was entombed'; he accompanied her on long rambles into the countryside around Upper Darby; he listened attentively to her slightly dotty ideas. Tall and androgynous of face, she was a headstrong, sometimes affected young woman often swept away by aesthetic ardours and ecstasies. Williams measured her as a potential girlfriend should Pound drop her.

But her erratic behaviour soon disturbed him. At a beach party at Point Pleasant, New Jersey, H.D. rushed heedlessly into the choppy surf and would have drowned had not her host, the strong-swimming Bob Lamberton, pulled her, unconscious, out of the water. Although she was as exotic as Isadora Duncan, her ethereal nature and her poetic predilections were, he came to see, unsuited to him. In any case, if Williams cherished any notion of courting H.D., Pound quickly scotched it. He didn't quite accuse Bill of trying to steal his girl, but he was tetchy and territorial. Bill backed off and over the years his friendship with H.D. flared into a strong mutual antipathy. Pound got engaged to her for a time, but a marriage between that pair would have been as much of a fiasco as one between her and Williams.

In the summer of 1906, Williams began an internship at the French Hospital, run by Catholic Sisters of Charity, on West 34th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. When he reaches this crossroads in his Autobiography, Williams presents himself as a sexual innocent:

Twenty-three or -four before I became fully aware of what had been a mystery theretofore called `love.' No wonder I thought to myself when I remembered Doc Martin's lecture on the subject, `Everyone in this class has committed masturbation including your present instructor - don't let's be overimpressed by its importance.' I hadn't known what he meant. [p. 77]

This cagey paragraph allows Williams to poke good-natured fun at his naive young self. But he was also in earnest. Four months after he had taken up his duties at the hospital, Williams wrote a tense letter to his brother trying to explain why he practised a kind of voluntary celibacy:

... To do what I mean to do and to be what I must be in order to satisfy my own self I must discipline my affections, and until a

fit opportunity affords, like no one in particular except you, Ed, and my nearest family. From nature, Ed, I have a weakness

wherever passion is concerned. No matter how well I reason and no matter how clearly I can see the terrible results of yielding to

desire, if certain conditions are present I might as well never

have arrived at a consecutive conclusion for good in all my life, for I cannot control myself. As a result, in order to preserve myself as I must, girls cannot be my friends.'
[Letters, p. l4]

Despite these caveats, Williams' libido was as healthy as any twenty-five year old man's; at the hospital, he was susceptible to the allure of the Irish maid `who inhabited a skin... tightly packed with goodies', and he mentions a caper in which he and a friend sneaked into the nurses' dormitory, `they in their nightgowns and we in pajamas,' but left before their raid was discovered. `[My] life was too fixed for much gaiety of that sort,' he remarks, as if his lofty career goals didn't allow time for randy pranks. In truth, he enjoyed flirting with the nurses, who were looking for husbands. Still, the fear of losing control that he confides to Ed is surprisingly intense, like an alcoholic alarmed that his feeble will cannot withstand the urge for another drink. Yet he downplays it by vowing to aspire to greatness (in the coda of the letter he invokes Napoleon as a model of steadfastness!).

The young Williams of 1907, seen through the roseate lens of his 1951 Autobiography, is a neophyte who, by his own account, `hardly knew women and felt tender to them all.' Even though both hospitals he interned at were situated in high-crime neighbourhoods, he was ill-prepared for, and appalled by, the wanton cruelty inflicted on female victims brought to the emergency room for treatment. Of a young whore beaten by a pimp or a john, he notes, `her breasts were especially lacerated and on one could be seen the deeply imbedded marks of teeth, as if some animal had attempted to tear the tissues away' (p. 8l). His attitude towards the poor and the abused was empathic; like Whitman he was a wound-dresser who acted according to principles of altruism. In the hospital, despite long hours and unrelenting pressure, his imagination thrived on the varied life that teemed inside the city of the hospital: huddled masses, illegitimate babies, a construction worker injured in an accident who, when undressed, was wearing women's undergarments. The hidden life always fascinated him, his own included.

Williams may have been sexually inexperienced, but he did not feel any disgust at the body's urges; sex, for him, held out the prospect of an appetising feast. Because of a pesky puritanical conscience, however, he frequently plays le médecin as satyr malgré lui. Poem IX of Spring and All (1923) reenacts this tenacious conflict. In this self-portrait, Williams takes a long, cryptic look back at a romantic episode at French Hospital in 1907. As the poet drops his guard, vivid memories of passion and its soured aftermath press in on him in jumpy rhythms and emotional non-sequiturs. There's barely a scintilla of pleasure in his recollections, as if after sixteen years he indicted himself for loutish behaviour.

Poem IX is organised around three questions. The first, `What about all this writing?' launches his playlet with mock apostrophes and a somersault: `O Kiki!'/ O Miss Margaret Jarvis/ the backhandspring.' Linking Kiki, the notorious model-whore-artist of Montparnasse and Man Ray's mistress, and Margaret Jarvis (Purvis), the nurse he romanced years earlier, shows Williams' emotional ambiguity about women's sexuality. He makes fun of himself as a naïf (the triple `clean's stress that he's no rake) come to the colourful mix of fantasy and self-invention that's New York, where there's something for every taste to consume: art, vanguard architecture, medicine, ads, amorous dalliances - and the danger of lurid death:

  I: clean
      clean: yes... New York

  Wrigley's, appendicitis, John Marin:
  skyscraper soup -

  Either that or a bullet!

Who speaks that last line's histrionic threat of murder or suicide remains tantalisingly unclear, because Williams rushes the dadaistic list and the antic punctuation - colons, ellipsis, dash, exclamation point - off the stage:

      anything might have happened
      You lay relaxed on my knees -
the starry night
      spread out warm and blind
      above the hospital -

The fairy tale setting seems cozy and cosmic, the lovers `relaxed' and their limitless dreams protected by Cupid. Like a drop of acid, the word `Pah!' banishes the mood of sexual satisfaction: `It is unclean/ which is not straight to the mark.' Then, in a short surrealistic passage, Williams lapses into passivity - instead of chewing up the scenery, it devours him. Appetite is dangerous; he pretends to be blameless, but the lovers' secret is betrayed by the gossipy furniture:

In my life the furniture eats me
the chairs, the floor
the walls
      which heard your sobs
      drank up my emotion -
      they which alone know everything

      and snitched on us in the morning -

Williams pulls back from his liaison with Margaret (in hospitals, it was common for doctors to have affairs with nurses, who were readily available; sometimes they would end in marriage). His deadpan tone and apparent indifference to Miss Margaret Jarvis' sobs, her cri de coeur, may derive from his difficulties in extricating himself from a relationship he wishes to end and she to continue.

The humble question `What to want?', which begins the second section, haunted Williams his entire life. Blake's answer, `Less than all cannot satisfy mankind', might have appealed to the romantic in Williams, but watching a patient die doubtless cured him of that illusion. If he had given musical markings to his poems, this movement would have been labelled a scherzo agitato:

Drunk we go forward surely
    Not I
    beds, beds, beds
    elevators, fruit, night-tables
breast to see, white and blue -
to hold in the hand, to nozzle
It is not onion soup
Your sobs soaked through the walls
breaking the hospital to pieces

    - windows, chairs
obscenely drunk, spinning -
white, blue, orange
- hot with our passion

    wild tears, desperate rejoinders
my legs, turning slowly
end over end in the air!

Williams was not a teetotaler - he enjoyed a highball before dinner and a glass of wine - but Dionysus would never have recruited him to join the ranks of bacchants, though like Pentheus Bill might at times have enjoyed spying on them. In this scene, though, he's tipsy, a condition the syntax mimics. Perhaps the couple were emboldened by drink to take their sexual passion further than they had anticipated (though the word `obscenely' is attached to `drunk' it also hovers over the passion of the lovers). Williams remembers himself, even as he made his rounds in the hospital wards, in a state of arousal. To the young intern, the line between holding a woman's breast during an examination (to nozzle may refer to a new mother whose breast spurts milk) and nuzzling a breast during lovemaking is blurred. Clearly the memory has turned Williams upside down. And in a horrific image out of Poe, Jarvis' sobs are like a murderous wound whose blood soaks through a wall and her shrieks so violent they could break the hospital (and Williams?) to pieces.

When Williams reruns this incident in his mind, the sluice gates of blame and self-justification are flung open by the third question - half bewildered, half exasperated - `But what would you have?':

        All I said was:
        there, you see, it is broken

stockings, shoes, hairpins
your bed, I wrapped myself round you -

I watched.

You sobbed, you beat your pillow
        you tore your hair
you dug your nails into your sides

I was your nightgown
                    I watched!

Clean is he alone
after whom stream
the broken pieces of the city -
flying apart at his approaches

but I merely
caress you curiously

fifteen years ago and you still
go about the city, they say
patching up school children

Defending himself against Margaret Jarvis' unspecified accusations, Williams adopts an almost clinical manner of speaking that is at odds with her hysterical state. His curt admission `I watched' would likely have infuriated her. To her storms of tears and self-abuse, his retort `I was your nightgown' could mean `I was intimate with you, not detached', or `I covered your nakedness when we were found out', which proves I acted tenderly toward you. The repetition of `I watched', shifted five lines later to the right as Williams tries to find a new perch for viewing the incident, reinforces his amazement that he'd acted so icily (the exclamation point favours this reading).

Yet the pompous, inverted construction that follows is Williams' attempt to exonerate himself, as is the remark `but I merely/ caress you curiously'. This emotional removal occurs frequently in Williams' poems; it allows him to escape with his self-esteem intact. Jarvis has also survived: by performing acts of mercy, fixing what's broken, she patches up herself as well as the school children - which soothes the poet's bruised conscience. But the poem's twitchy pulse and clipped transitions, as well as its quiet ending, raise questions about Williams' character. He seems ashamed yet not contrite. If Poem IX reads in part like a Portrait of the Artist as Confused Blackguard, that is probably because it affords a glimpse into his state of mind in 1923, the date of Spring and All's composition, when his relations with Floss were particularly tense and strained. If we substitute Floss' name for Jarvis', the memory of youthful callowness is shadowed by a sombre inner debate: how to resolve a crisis of his own making, in which his wife was so distraught at his infidelities that their marriage was threatened. (I will fill in the details later.)

The years 1908 and 1909 were filled with dashed hopes and turning points. Although Williams hugely enjoyed his work at Nursery and Child's Hospital, he resigned his residency in pediatrics because of a run-in with the administration over ethics. Despite the coaxing of senior doctors and his mentor Dr. Kerley's dangling of a lucrative job in his office, which would assure a well-oiled career as a `New York specialist', Williams refused to sign papers that falsified the hospital's monthly report to the state government on admissions, discharges, births, and deaths. (As a result, Albany withheld financial aid calculated by these data.) Williams' discovery that the Chairman of the Board of Trustees had been conducting a furtive affair with the hospital administrator, Miss Malzacher, and that the tainted money went to her, did not sway his decision. When none of the senior doctors backed him up, he quit and returned to his parents' home in Rutherford to mull over his future in medicine. There was never a question of waffling on this moral issue. Williams behaved admirably. He had been taught by his parents to be `a stickler for his principles'; `I had no choice in the matter,' he recalled modestly. [A, p. l02]

Bad luck dogged him, however, for he was equally unsuccessful in his courtship of Rutherford's most eligible beauty, Charlotte Herman. A cultivated pianist who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, this bewitching woman turned heads; suitors thronged her doorstep. In a photograph taken around 1908 when the Williams brothers were wooing her, Charlotte poses like a statuesque Lady in a George Romney painting, conscious of her beauty and the elegance of her dress; a flowered hat shades her brow and leaves her slightly abstracted eyes staring confidently and a touch disdainfully from underneath its penumbra; she looks ready to stroll the pathways of Rotten Row in Hyde Park and enjoy the spectacle of aristocratic beaus vying for her smile of approval. But Rutherford offered her no such social and marital opportunities.

Charlotte's artistic temperament intrigued Williams, perhaps reminding him of his mother's; she inhabited a more refined realm than the nurses he had chummed with. Nor was he frightened off by the awkward fact that his chief rival was his own brother. Smitten, he read his poems to Charlotte, played piano duets with her in soirées musicales, escorted her to concerts, and gave her a tour of the hospital, as if auditioning his artistic and practical sides. The courtship could have been lifted from Orson Welles's film The Magnificent Ambersons: the young couple sitting on a porch swing on a humid summer night, sipping lemonade and chatting idly. Unfortunately for Bill, Charlotte's mother frowned on the match, apparently viewing him as a dreamer whose prospects for supporting a wife in the affluent style to which she was accustomed were slim; his diffidence might also have raised doubts in Charlotte's mind. Whatever the cause, Charlotte spurned his proposal of marriage and, to make matters worse, accepted Ed's (she soon rejected Ed's suit, too).

We have little trustworthy information about this pivotal moment in Williams' life: scrappy inferences from letters, clues in The Build-up, the third novel of his Stecher trilogy, published in 1946, but no poem in which he laid bare and analysed his distress at being rejected by Charlotte. When Paul Mariani interviewed her and asked whether she had ever loved Bill, the 91-year old matron replied coyly, `perhaps'. What she remembered was a `self-absorbed' young man with a `very big ego'. In hindsight this judgement seems only partially accurate; it omits Bill's unformed character and an insecurity so deep he couldn't bear to ask the lady directly which brother she preferred. In matters of love, he suffered from a low opinion of himself or a crippling shyness. Williams' account of these events in The Build-up is insulated by the third-person point of view. He eventually gazed at `the sweep of his emotional reaction and the wreckage it would cause', but first, when Ed disclosed Charlotte's decision, Bill `flung his arms about his brother's neck and went mad', `sobbed and sobbed, uncontrollably. He ground his teeth, he fought back his unreasoning tears', then retreated to his room, as to a monastic cell, for three days of fasting, self-flagellation, and brooding. The novelist, who cannot fault his brother's behaviour, adopts a tone verging on portentous self-pity: `... something had come to an end. It was a deeper wound than he should thereafter in his life be able to sound. It was bottomless' [p. 259]. In these circumstances, some cooling was inevitable, and indeed a subtle decline in his closeness with Edgar took place, though not a rift. Only one year apart in age, the brothers had been inseparable partners in everything, from playing baseball to traveling daily to Horace Mann. Starting with adolescence, Ed outstripped Bill in size, grades, sports, and success with girls. Women found him manly and self-assured and his professors at Boston Tech (MIT) were impressed by his intellectual acuity. It was no surprise to anybody in the Williams family that after graduation he won the coveted and highly competitive Prix de Rome in architecture.

Even from the distance of three decades, Williams' jealousy of his brother can be detected. It is probably due not to their rivalry for Charlotte's hand, but to Ed's sanctimonious dismissal of Bill's poems. In his Afterword to The Doctor Stories, William Eric Williams explains the circumstances:

... Ed was a conservative, a student of classical architecture, with no patience for the radical and outré. His attitude toward his brother's work had always been one of smiling understanding and tolerance - give the boy plenty of rope and he'll hang himself sort of thing. But one morning a volume of dad's poems that he had been at pains to deliver to Ed's home appeared in our mailbox, apparently placed there by Edgar on his daily trip by the house en route to the 7:52 to New York on the Erie. There was an accompanying letter describing the book's contents as vulgar and immoral, incomprehensible balderdash, and something that he, Ed, would not tolerate in his home. [p. 141]

Even coming from a conservative artist, this is a bewildering, philistine judgment, a reversion to Comstockery, since neither Poems (1909) nor The Tempers (1913) violates propriety or employs a demotic language that could remotely be construed as vulgar. Bill's immersion in dadaism, which to Ed's puritanical taste might seem hermetic nonsense, was years in the future. Ed's verdict seems an act of personal animus designed to wound his brother to the quick, perhaps as payback for some unconscious grievance. Ed had taken on the hangman's job and the rope burns never completely faded from Bill's neck and psyche.

This article is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

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