from the Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century
Asphodel, That Greeny Flower
William Carlos Williams' long, late poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" is remarkable in several regards. It is the fullest example of his work in the variable foot and in the triadic (or three-foot, stepped-down) line, a breakthrough form he discovered in Paterson, 2 ("The descent beckons...") and utilized for many of his poems from the 1950s. It is also one of the most beautiful affirmations of the power of love in--and against--the nuclear age, and one of the few memorable love poems in English written not for a mistress but for a wife: his spouse of 40 years, Florence Herman Williams, or Flossie.
First published in Journey to Love (1955), "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" came into existence during a time of nearly overwhelming crisis in Williams' life. Originally he thought of it as the fifth book of Paterson, gave it the working title "The River of Heaven," and planned for it to include "Everything left over that wasn't done or said--at ease." He began the poem in March 1952, on a hotel menu in New York City, and worked on it for nearly two years. During those years his health, which had begun to break with his heart attack in 1948 and strokes in 1949 and 1951, continued to deteriorate. He suffered another major stroke in August 1952, and knew that he could expect further strokes--any one of them possibly fatal--at any time from then on. His mental condition was likewise precarious. A bout with depression was exacerbated both by the recent stroke and by the injustices surrounding Williams' appointment as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. The position was first offered, then withdrawn owing to allegations of Communist sympathizing, then offered again contingent upon further loyalty investigations, which were conducted but never evaluated, so that the year's term was up before Williams was able to serve. The situation tormented him with feelings of rage, powerlessness, and humiliation. On 21 February 1953, he was admitted to a private mental hospital in Queens, where he underwent psychiatric treatment until his release on 18 April.
Most painful of all, the old uneasy balance between confession and deceit in Williams' marriage to Flossie finally gave way. During his stay in the mental hospital, threatened by death and ready at last to let Flossie truly know him, he worked on poems, including "Asphodel," and wrote letters confessing past adulteries that finally compelled Flossie's full belief. The process must have been immeasurably painful for them both. Needing his wife to hold firm now more than ever, the poet must test her by buffeting and shaking her. "Having your love / I was rich," he tells her in "Asphodel." "Thinking to have lost it / I am tortured / and cannot rest." And so, in three "Books" and a "Coda," he writes to Flossie about the flower of the Elysian fields, the flower that grows also "in hell." The flower has a central meaning: "Of love, abiding love / it will be telling." In the first two Books he speaks of their marriage, their past, shared projects, triumphs, and griefs; in Book III he begs for forgiveness, but also writes movingly of desire, giving "the steps / if it may be / by which you shall mount, / again to think well / of me." The "Coda," then, is his gift to Flossie, made possible by her forgiveness of him. They approach the end, the "thunderstroke," together, and tenderly he seeks to reassure her:
Inseparable from the fire
Reassuring her, he also reassures himself. Without Flossie's love, any attempt at final affirmation would be whistling in the dark; with it, although the dark remains real, the poet's voice rings with authority, soars in celebration, and nearly breaks in a quiet hymn of praise.
The threats of both physical death and the death of love are right at the center of "Asphodel"--and not just at the personal level, but also at the level of global destruction. The poem has a strong dimension of public, as well as private, utterance. Throughout, it confronts what Williams calls "the bomb," both the nuclear threat itself and all forms of "avarice / breeding hatred / through fear," all forms of cruelty, oppression, and repression. But against thanatos, the death instinct, again and again the poet sets eros; whether it take the form of art, medicine, discovery, or desire, eros is the force that drives the imagination, the force that counters death:
If a man die
"Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" is not, perhaps, a perfect poem. Some have felt its final vision of Flossie as bride, "a girl so pale / and ready to faint / that I pitied / and wanted to protect you," to be condescending. Furthermore, as a philosophy of life the "Coda" is problematic, for Williams cannot quite articulate what he means by "the light." But "Asphodel" is a great poem. It was written by a man in his 70s who had to type it with the fingers of one hand, who could sometimes barely see. Yet it is one of those extraordinary utterances that prove the truth of Keats' contention that the world is a "vale of Soul-making." As a young man, in Spring and All, Williams wrote, "Life is valuable--when completed by the imagination. And then only." Thirty years later, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" reveals a life completed by the imagination. Despite the ruin of the body, the made soul shines out indestructibly.