In William Carlos Williams’ Pastoral the speaker describes the evolution of his ideals as he ages.
He remembers his youthful, ambitious self and then describes his current, mature preference for the landscape of the poor. With “roof out of line with sides” he evokes something that has aged and, like an old man’s curving spine, is no longer aligned top above bottom (ln 8). The speaker begins deceptively evoking an urban setting as he “walk[s] back streets.” He then moves on to the disorder that surrounds the house, describing “the yards cluttered/with old chicken wire, ashes/furniture gone wrong;” (ln 9-11). Though the reader might at first take “back streets” to indicate an urban setting, he suggests a rural area with “chicken wire” and “outhouses” (ln 5, ln 10, ln 12). The forced switch of assumptions draws the reader to focus on the true setting of the poem, emphasizing the rural landscape and aligning it with the traditional pastoral for comparison and contrast. The language is simple, not fancy or “mak[ing] something” of the poem (ln 3). The language fits with the speaker’s ideal of an unembellished landscape. The poem substitutes the rural landscape for a traditional pastoral one; yet the speaker has a similar class relationship to the inhabitants of the rural landscape as the city aristocrats had to those of the pastoral. The speaker marvels at “the house/of the very poor” (ln 6-7). The speaker’s walking and viewing the houses shows a remove between him and the poor; he is of a different class and has the requisite position of comfort to view the poor as important and glamorous. Though the speaker parallels pastoral poetry’s class relations, Williams’ speaker stands alone in his time period in his preference for the rural poor, contrary to the fashionable appeal of the pastoral countryside. His setting is aged and decayed, unlike the youthful vigor and sexuality of the pastoral. The natural plenty of the traditional pastoral is decay in William’s pastoral. Each
item the speaker describes contributes to that image. Ashes are something that has been burnt (a rapid decay) to a dusty remains. “Furniture gone wrong,” can give us an image of many years of use until the furniture is so mangled that it is tossed in the yard, but not truly disposed of, adding to the rubble. Makeshift fences and outhouses are built from the remains of other objects used to pieces. All is weathered from many years outdoors. The speaker prefers the hue of years of use and a hard life to the brilliant greens of a rolling meadow. William’s pastoral is an attempt by the speaker to express his views of the importance of this type of existence, one without material comfort or luxury. He parallels the traditional pastoral poet’s ideal of existing with nature in rolling green meadows, with an ideal of the rural poor living with decay and aging by natural forces wearing away and eroding the surroundings, both lacking civilized security and ease. Though the speaker has a similar class relationship to the rural poor as the earlier pastoral poetic speaker to the shepherd, he stands alone in his preference for the landscape of rural poor and their decaying surroundings. His isolated stand differs from the popularity of the pastoral and his description does not have as much traditional romantic appeal. While the meadows were without material comfort, they were full of ripe natural beauty and desire. The rural landscape is beautiful to the speaker, but few, as the speaker mentions, would be swayed by his adoration for decay and aging with a lack of comfort. The speaker prefaces his view of the rural poor with a memory of his youthful ambition and allegiance to the ideals of the time. He remembers his belief that he “must make something of [himself]” (ln 3). The ambition is in line with the American ideal of individual ambition and each man lifting himself up and attaining a higher class. These
ideals are ingrained and “plain to [him]” (ln 2). It is not only an ambition or desire; it is more forceful, the speaker is compelled to fulfill the American dream of the self made man. He does not say, “When I was younger I hoped I could become rich and accomplished”. He says “it was plain to me/I must make something of myself” (ln 2-3 emphasis mine). Contrary to the pastoral, it is not in fashion to romanticize the rural poor, yet the now older speaker admires the conditions of the rural landscape. He idealizes objects that have aged through years of exposure to the elements and speaks lovingly of objects weathered to his favorite color. His favorite color is not a rich crimson or a color that broadcasts wealth and requires expensive dye. His favorite color is only attainable through years of exposure to the elements. It is “bluish green” (ln 16) and is most pleasing when “properly weathered” (ln 17). He prefers makeshift buildings and structures “smeared a bluish green” (ln 16). The speaker not only holds an aesthetic preference for “bluish green,” he likes it “smeared,” which connotes something unclean or grimy and inconsistently applied (ln 16). The color cannot be forced, it is only “if he is fortunate,” and passing time, a lack of upkeep and the elements do their job. This “pleases [him];” he enjoys the color of aging and mold on improvised fences and outhouses worn by age. It does not have any monetary value, in fact it is the result of a lack of money, yet he likes it better than any other color money could buy or dye. The speaker gains credibility through his distinct preferences for independence from societal luxuries and the beauty of the rural aged and decayed landscape. He is not an aristocrat dreaming of the pastoral landscape, but a man who, through his remove sees and prefers the rural landscape. He goes against the societal mainstream and doubts that
others will be swayed by his description. He ends with “No one/will believe this/of vast import to the nation” (ln 19-21). The first line emphasizes his isolation. It could have been a two line ending, “no one will believe this/of vast import to the nation,” but the separation emphasizes both the speaker’s belief that he is alone in his ideals and “this,” which refers to all he has said before. He truly does believe “this,” the decay, the aging, the improvised structures and broken furniture, and the “bluish green” of enduring years of decay to be very important. His ideals represent his preference for harsh life experiences over idle comfort. For the speaker, and, he believes, for the members of the nation, the ideal existence is that of rural poor—aging without comfort and letting go of the American dream in favor of appreciating all of life even mold and grime. This parallels the speaker’s personal evolution; as he has aged he has let go of the pressure he once felt and put upon himself to make himself something, in favor of wandering and appreciating the plain existence rural poor. The speaker’s explanation of his changing ideals is a bid for appreciating existence, living without forcing a goal.