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William Carlos Williams

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English Literature

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was an American poet, author, and medical doctor. He was a prominent figure in Imagist and Modernist poetry, and critics regard Williams as a quintessentially American poet. Williams often disagreed with his contemporaries and, unlike many of the poets of his time, attempted to write in the vernacular of his fellow Americans. As the first-ever winner of the National Book Award for Poetry and holder of the position of Consultant in Poetry (which would later become the Poet Laureate), Williams is a titan in American poetry.

William Carlos Williams: Biography

William Carlos Williams was born and raised in Rutherford, New Jersey. As a teenager, he was sent to school abroad in Geneva and Paris. When he returned to the United States, he attended the Horace Mann School, a prestigious science and mathematics-based school in New York.

Williams's father was English and raised in the Caribbean, and his mother was Puerto Rican. As a result, Williams grew up speaking Spanish at home. It was during his time at Horace Mann High School that Williams began to experiment with writing poetry. Upon graduation, Williams attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and met fellow student Ezra Pound who would become a lifelong friend to Williams and fellow leader of the Modernist poetry movement.

Williams did his post-graduate medical training in the United States and Germany before opening a medical practice in his hometown, Rutherford, New Jersey. Williams is one of the few poets of his time who chose to pursue a full-time career unrelated to poetry, and his writing was inspired by the average Americans who lived in Rutherford and came to his practice.

Williams married a woman named Florence, affectionately known as Flossie, and the couple had two sons. Williams worked at his medical practice during the day and spent his time writing poems in the evenings. Throughout his literary career, Williams published various poetry collections, short stories, novels, and founded his own literary magazine.

In 1942, Williams was asked to take up the position of Consultant Poet to the Library of Congress which would later become the title "Poet Laureate," however, Williams initially refused the offer due to his failing health. Williams changed his mind in 1952, but The Library rescinded their offer; by that time, America was living in the era of McCarthyism, and Williams was identified by the government as a communist poet, despite these accusations proving baseless.

McCarthyism refers to the actions of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. McCarthy repeatedly accused public figures of being communists, leading to widespread fear of communism and the repression of left-wing government officials and famous Americans.

Posthumously, Williams has been treated with higher regard than he was during his lifetime. Though he received prestigious awards such as the first National Book Award and Consultant Poet position, Williams was often overlooked in favor of more popular and outspoken contemporary poets such as T. S. Eliot. Toward the end of his life, he served as a valuable mentor for many younger poets of the Beat generation, including Allen Ginsberg.

William Carlos Williams: Death

In 1948, William Carlos Williams suffered a heart attack. This was followed by a series of small strokes that continuously worsened his health in the following years, contributing to Williams' institutionalization for a depressive episode in the 50s. Williams died in 1963 at his home in Rutherford, New Jersey.

William Carlos Williams: Facts

William Carlos Williams is well-known for his poetry and published three major poetry collections including Spring and All (1923), The Desert Music and Other Poems (1954), and Pictures from Bruehgel and Other Poems (1962) for which he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize. One of Williams's most famous poems, Paterson, was an epic poem published in five separate volumes from 1946-58. The 5 volumes were first published as a full set in 1963.

Williams also wrote short stories, novels, and plays. Many of the short stories in his collection, Life Along the Passaic River (1938) are drawn from his experiences as a physician. His first prose novel, Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), was not well-regarded by his peers. He published various other novels including White Mule (1937) and its sequel, In the Money (1940), both of which follow again the life and times of a common American family. He also wrote plays including A Dream of Love (1948) which followed a man who sleeps with his secretary and tries to convince his wife it was to strengthen their marriage.

Williams Carlos Williams: Writing Style

From Williams' amateur teenage poetry to his final publications in the 1960s, William Carlos Williams's poetic style transformed. Williams' early, unpublished poetry was inspired by his poetic idol John Keats (1795-1821), however, as Williams began to publish his first professional works of poetry, he became increasingly associated with the Imagists. Williams's Imagist poetry is most clearly showcased in his first collection, Spring and All (1923), especially in "The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923) and "This Is Just To Say" (1934). These poems are sparsely worded; "The Red Wheelbarrow" contains just 16 words while "This Is Just To Say" contains 28.

Imagism was a poetic movement in the 1900s in which poets wrote with clear, concise language to convey precise imagery.

After the publication of Spring and All, Williams moved away from Imagism and stayed within the Modernist school of poetry. William's developed his own Modernist style by focusing on writing poetry that reflected the distinctly American vernacular that he heard and spoke each day.

One of Williams's most salient contributions to poetry was his use of the "variable foot" in his poetry. Rather than use the predominant English meter in his poetry, Williams developed the variable foot which determined the placement of line breaks in his poetry to better reflect American cadence and intonation. In practice, this meant that Williams rejected rigid poetic structures such as iambic pentameter and instead applied line breaks in order to reflect American patterns of speech. Williams often used enjambment (where a line of poetry carries into the next) to achieve this goal.

Modernism was a poetry movement of the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries that emphasized a breaking with tradition. Modernist poets sought to develop new techniques and styles in poetry while eschewing the poetic conventions of the past.

A foot in poetry refers to a unit of measurement of rhythmic meter in poems. A foot generally contains a stressed and unstressed syllable.

Williams developed this poetic style when writing Paterson, his five-volume epic poem which utilized the "variable foot." Paterson's influences include the speech of Williams' neighbors and patients and other Modernist literature such as James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), and the poem is also considered a response to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" (1922). While Williams knew Eliot, he disliked "The Waste Land," as he didn't view it as modern poetry given its reliance upon classical themes and styles. With Paterson, Williams wanted to hone a distinctly American approach to poetry without the influence of classical European poets.

Williams Carlos Williams: Poems

Throughout his career, William Carlos Williams wrote many poems, the majority concerned with the lives of everyday Americans. Some of his most famous poems include:

  • "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a sparse, 16-word rumination on a red wheelbarrow.
  • "This Is Just To Say" is a brief poem that is categorized as "found poetry" as it is based on a note left by Williams' wife to say she ate all of the plums.
  • Paterson is a five-volume epic set in Paterson, New Jersey that features the plights of Americans who live there and the impact of the nuclear power plant located in Paterson.
  • "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (1955) is an example of Williams's later work that demonstrates his use of the variable foot and confronts the topics of death and love.

Found poetry is poetry that is adapted from a pre-existing text. The words remain the same while the poet adds embellishments such as line breaks and punctuation. In the case of "This Is Just To Say," the original text is a note left by Williams to his wife which he has adapted into a poem.

William Carlos Williams, plums in a wooden box, StudySmarterPlums in a wooden box, pixabay.

William Carlos Williams - Key takeaways

  • William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was an American poet, novelist, playwright, and medical doctor.

  • Williams wrote within two schools of American poetry: Imagism and Modernism.

  • His Modernist poetry aimed to reflect the way Americans spoke in real life; his writing was concise and direct.

  • His poems such as "The Red Wheelbarrow," "This Is Just To Say," and Paterson all reflect his Modernist writing style and innovative use of the "variable foot."

  • Williams is influential due to his development of a distinctly American voice in poetry.

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams is known for his Modernist poetry and writings. He developed a uniquely American voice in poetry by replicating the cadence and intonation of how Americans spoke in his poetry. He did this by using a concise style and his development of the "variable foot" as a poetic form.

William Carlos Williams wrote in different styles throughout his career as a writer. His early poetry is considered Imagist, in that it utilized clear, concise description. His later work is Modernist, an attempt at creating a new form of poetic expression. He did so by reflecting American vernacular and cadences in his poetry.

William Carlos Williams is considered a Modernist poet because of his development of a new style of American poetry. Rather than rely upon classical imagery and the formalistic qualities of European poetry of centuries prior, Williams intended to create an American voice in poetry that reflected the way Americans actually spoke.

William Carlos Williams wrote "The Red Wheelbarrow" as part of his poetry collection Spring and All. Williams's neighbor, Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr., inspired Williams to write "The Red Wheelbarrow," as he enjoyed Marshall's company and had an image of him standing with a red wheelbarrow next to white chickens in the background.

William Carlos Williams wrote and published numerous poems and poetry collections throughout his lifetime. His major poetry collections include Spring and All (1923), The Desert Music and Other Poems (1954), and Pictures from Bruehgel and Other Poems (1962).

Final William Carlos Williams Quiz

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Who was William Carlos Williams?

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William Carlos Williams was an American poet, playwright, novelist, and medical doctor. He wrote both imagist and modernist poetry. He is known for developing a distinctly American voice in poetry.

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In what style did William Carlos Williams write?

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In his early poems, Williams wrote in an Imagist style. He used clear, concise diction in his poetry. Later, he became associated with Modernist poetry. His break from traditional poetry styles was represented in how he portrayed a distinctly American voice in his poetry. 

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What poems did William Carlos Williams write?

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Williams published multiple poetry collections which each contained numerous poems. His most famous poems include "The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923), "This Is Just To Say" (1934), and Paterson (1963) a five-volume epic poem.

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What is the difference between Modernism and Imagism?

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Imagism is a subcategory of modernist poetry that emphasized concise writing. Modernism was a movement that was concerned with rejecting classical forms and creating new styles of poetry.

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What was William Carlos Williams's job? 

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Williams was unusual in that, in addition to being a poet, he worked as a medical doctor during his entire adult life. He tended to patients during the day and wrote poetry at night. It was a tradeoff as he had less time for poetry but a stable income with which he could provide for his family.

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What is "The Red Wheelbarrow?"

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"The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923) is a poem by William Carlos Williams, originally published in a poetry and prose collection entitled Spring and All (1923). "The Red Wheelbarrow" is considered a prime example of Imagist poetry. For this reason, and because it shows how impactful even short poems can be, "The Red Wheelbarrow" endures as one of the most important poems of the 20th-century.

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Who wrote "The Red Wheelbarrow?"

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American poet and medical doctor William Carlos Williams wrote "The Red Wheelbarrow" early on in his poetry career. Williams is notable for having a full-time career outside of poetry as a medical practitioner in Rutherford, New Jersey. He is associated with Imagism and Modernism. His goal was to create a uniquely American voice in poetry that reflected the way Americans actually spoke in daily life. 

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What does "The Red Wheelbarrow" mean?

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"The Red Wheelbarrow" is an example of Imagist poetry, in which Williams wanted to pay attention to the small moments in everyday life. The central image, that of the red wheelbarrow, is something that other poets, and other people, may have overlooked as ordinary. By dedicating a poem to the red wheelbarrow and its physical properties, Williams gives this subject the same weight as the grand subjects of classical poetry. He also associates the red wheelbarrow with life and harmony, pointing to the nature of a livelihood of farming.

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What literary devices are used in "The Red Wheelbarrow?" 

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Williams utilizes enjambment, the continuation of a phrase into separate lines, throughout the poem to build anticipation. He also utilizes juxtaposition; between the colors of the red wheelbarrow and white chickens as well as between the reader's expectations of what a poem should be about and what Williams wrote a poem about. His use of a free verse style was meant to mimic the cadence of American speech.

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Why is "The Red Wheelbarrow" so short?

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At just 16 words and 8 lines, "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a brief poem. Imagist poetry emphasized concise, clear writing that still conveyed sharp images. With this poem, Williams proves just how concise a poet can be and still paint a complete picture. 

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What is Imagism?

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Imagism was a poetry movement in which poets emphasized clear, concise diction used to portray sharp images. "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a quintessential example of Imagist poetry for its short length, free structure, subject matter, and clear imagery.

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Who wrote "This Is Just To Say" (1934)?

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William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), an American poet and medical doctor, wrote "This Is Just To Say." The poem reads like an apology note left to Williams's wife for eating all of her plums.

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What are the themes of "This Is Just To Say?"

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"This Is Just To Say" touches on themes of temptation and guilt. Williams confronts the irresistible temptation of the sweet plums and must ask his wife's permission for giving in. There may be an underlying allusion to Williams's various extramarital affairs in his plea for forgiveness. Williams also feels guilt over eating the plums, but the pleasure of them outweighs the guilt. The poem is also written in a joyful, playful tone despite these seemingly heavier themes.

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What is Imagism?

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Imagism is a poetic movement in which poets utilized clear, concise diction to express a central image. The Imagist poets were concerned with the small pleasures and delights of everyday life.

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What is the purpose of “This Is Just To Say?”

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“This Is Just To Say” reads as an apology poem to the author’s wife for eating her plums. He delights in the deliciousness of the plums but asks for forgiveness as he knew she was saving them for breakfast.

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What poetic devices are used in "This Is Just To Say?"

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Williams utilizes enjambment, apostrophe, the variable foot, and imagery in "This Is Just To Say." These devices are used to give the poem a rhythm that mimics American speech patterns and concisely articulates the central image of the cold, sweet plums.

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Which best describes the rhythm of “This is just to say?”

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The rhythm of “This Is Just To Say” was written by Williams in order to reflect the cadence of American speech. He utilizes enjambment, the ‘variable foot,’ and simple description in order to achieve this goal. Rather than stick to a rigid form such as iambic pentameter, he mixes free verse with the ‘variable foot’ of his own creation to achieve the poem’s uniquely American rhythm.

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How is "This Is Just To Say" related to found poetry?

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Found poetry refers to poems that were taken from other texts; in this case, "This Is Just To Say" reads like a poem taken from a note left for the poet's wife, or that this poem was just found left on a counter.

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Who is Flossie?

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Flossie is William Carlos Williams's wife. She is considered the intended recipient of this poem, as Williams apologizes to her for eating her plums. She penned a response poem, entitled "Reply (Crumpled on Her Desk)."

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What is the central image of "This Is Just To Say?"

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The central image of the poem is that of the plums. They are described as having been in the icebox (refrigerator). Williams eats the plums and notes that they are "delicious" (10), "sweet" (11), and "cold" (12). 

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What is the intention of the speaker in “This Is Just To Say?”

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In “This Is Just To Say,” the speaker, poet William Carlos Williams, is accomplishing two things: first, he is asking his wife for forgiveness for eating her plums, and second, he is expressing delight in one of the small beauties of life- cold, sweet plums.

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Why is "The Red Wheelbarrow" so famous?

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“The Red Wheelbarrow” is famous as a perfect example of Imagist poetry, and as a testament to the power of poetry even in such a short form. Williams is well-known as a Modernist and Imagist poet, and "The Red Wheelbarrow" could be considered the magnum opus of his early Imagist poems. 

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What are the two main colors in "The Red Wheelbarrow?"

A. Red and Blue

B. Red and Yellow

C. Red and White

D. Red and Green

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C. Red and White

Williams describes the wheelbarrow as red and the chickens as white. These two colors may imply a subtext in which Williams extolls a pastoral lifestyle as vital and peaceful.

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Why does "so much depend/upon" (1-2) the red wheelbarrow?

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Williams leaves the answer to this question ambiguous. The poem almost poses it to the reader- he state that so much depends upon the red wheelbarrow but doesn't explicitly tell us why, leaving us to investigate. As an example of Imagist poetry, Williams could be saying that so much depends upon the small moments in life, such as the simple beauty of a red wheelbarrow. He could also have utilized the colors in the poem to reference the vital functions of farms and the peaceful nature of farm life, saying that so much depends upon this type of lifestyle.

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What is the literal meaning of the poem "The Red Wheelbarrow?"

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The literal meaning, by which we ignore all subtext and possible subjective interpretations, is Williams’s effort to paint a clear image of a red wheelbarrow. The literal meaning, then, is just this- a red wheelbarrow, exactly as described, next to the white chickens. Williams asks the reader to determine why the red wheelbarrow carries so much importance.

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What is the poem 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' (1960)?

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'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' (1960) is a poem by American poet William Carlos Williams. The poem is inspired by a painting of the same name by Dutch Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The poem and painting concern the myth of Icarus, and have themes about the cycle of life and death.

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Who painted Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560)?

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Dutch Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder is attributed to Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560). The actual painting itself that hangs in a museum is believed to have been painted by an apprentice in Bruegel's studio. However, art historians believe the original painting, which has been lost, was done by Bruegel.

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What is the theme of 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?'

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The major theme of 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' is life and death. Williams emphasizes life in recounting the landscape—it is springtime, the farmer is plowing, and the rest of the world is made up of "pageantry" (6). By contrast, Icarus dies by drowning. However, life goes on. By stating Icarus's death goes unnoticed, Williams emphasizes the continual nature of life, and how, even in the face of tragedy, it must go on.

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What is the myth of Icarus?

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The myth of Icarus is recounted in Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is a Greek myth in which craftsman Daedalus creates wings of wax and feathers so that he and his son, Icarus, can escape Crete. He warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun or too low to the sea in order to not damage his wings. Icarus, in the joy of flight, ignores this warning and flies close to the sun. As a result, the wax on his wings melts and he plunges to his death in the sea below. It is a story that warns of hubris and ambition.

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Which piece of art came first?

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'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' poem by Williams

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How are Bruegel and Williams similar as artists?

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Both Williams and Bruegel are known for their innovation in their respective fields that rejected previously standard classical conventions. For Bruegel, that meant he rejected the hierarchy of genre in art that favored historical paintings by creating works of art that emphasized the everyday moments of life. Similarly, Williams rejected classical poetic structures in favor of new poetic forms that also captured the small moments from day-to-day life.

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Williams is associated with which poetic movements?

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Imagism and Romanticism

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What is the main idea of ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?’

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The main idea of ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,’ William Carlos Williams’s poem, is that, even in the face of immense tragedy, life goes on. While Icarus plunges to his death, spring continues on, farmers continue to tend to their fields, and the sea continues to rise and fall.

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What literary devices does Williams use in 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?'

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Williams utilizes enjambment, juxtaposition, imagery, and a distinct tone throughout the poem. Each of these devices serves to further Williams's poetic position and the meaning of the poem as a rumination on life and death and how, even after a tragedy, life goes on.

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What is the structure of the poem ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?’

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‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ is a free verse poem composed of seven stanzas with three lines each. Williams writes using enjambment, so that each line of the poem continues into the next without punctuation.

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