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To a Poor Old Woman by William Carlos Wiliams

“To a Poor Old Woman” is written by the American imagist poet William Carlos Wiliams. This poem is about a poor old woman who is munching plums in the street. It is based on this simple scene of savoring the rich taste of ripe plums with all the senses. To depict the feelings associated with it, Williams uses vivid imagery and sound devices resonating with the sound of eating plums. This poem appears in The Complete Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, 1909-1938.

To a Poor Old Woman by William Carlos Wiliams


Summary

In this poem, Williams talks about a poor old lady who is munching a plum on the street. She has a bag full of plums. By looking at her, it seems to the poet as if she is extremely pleased with their taste. Besides, the repetition of the line “They taste good to her” makes it clear that the lady likes plums. The speaker remarks that one can validate his point by looking at how the lady sucks the rest of the plum in her hand. She feels “comforted” with its taste and how the rich smell of those ripe fruits emanates her senses.

Meaning

The title of the poem “To a Poor Old Woman” gives readers a hint about the woman at first hand. She is struggling with both poverty and old age. Williams addresses this piece to that old lady who has probably tasted the plums after a long time. Due to her poor condition and the reference to a bag full of plums, it is clear that she might have bought the fruits with her hard-earned money. Both of these conditions heighten the taste. On top of that, she got such tasty plums with the money she had. All these factors somehow elevate their taste for the lady.

Structure & Form

This poem is written in free-verse. It is told from the perspective of a third-person narrator describing an old lady who is having plums after a long time. The poet creates a lyrical effect by using repetitions and internal rhyming. Readers can find only one instance of rhyming in the last two lines. Here, “air” and “her” rhyme together. The overall poem consists of four stanzas having four lines each, except the first stanza. Besides, this piece has a few modernist features. For example, the first word begins with a small case letter, and each section does not end with a full stop.

Literary Devices

Williams uses the following literary devices in his poem “To a Poor Old Woman”.

  • Repetition: There is a repetition of the line “They taste good to her”. It is used four times in the text for the sake of emphasizing how much the lady likes the fruits.
  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the poem. Williams uses this device for internally connecting the line. In the second stanza, he achieves an artistic effect by using this device.
  • Anaphora: It is used in the first two lines of the second stanza. These lines begin with the same phrase “They taste good”. 
  • Onomatopoeia: It occurs in the usage of the words “munching” and “sucked”.
  • Alliteration: It occurs in “her hand”.


Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

Stanza One

munching a plum …

… in her hand

The poem “To a Poor Old Woman” begins with a sound that quickly grabs readers’ attention. In the beginning, the term “munching” refers to the way the old lady eats the plums. For her age, she might not have teeth to savor the fruits. But, her gums can squeeze the juice out of the fruits easily. That’s why she has a particular preference for this fruit.

She is on the street. It gives another hint to her financial state. She is poor. Probably, she does not have a place to sit cozily and have the fruits she has bought. Besides, she has a paper bag full of plums with her. It is another hint of how much she likes them. From another perspective, it can also be inferred that a poor lady cannot buy the things she wants often. She got this opportunity to buy the plums after a long time. So, she bought a sufficient amount of the fruits to fill herself.

Stanza Two

They taste …

… good to her

The second stanza contains the repetition of the line “They taste good to her”. It is used thrice but in a different pattern. The first line is direct and unbroken. So, it is a factual reference to how they taste. This line refers to the fact that she is hungry or could not satiate her hunger for some time. When the sweet drops of the juice touch her tongue, it gives her pleasure and lits her drooping face.

The second repetition is broken into two parts and enjambed. Williams breaks the line into “They taste good” and “to her”. It completely changes the interpretation of the first line. Here, the poet emphasizes “good” and “to her”. As she does not have the opportunity of having the plums for quite a long interval, it feels “good to her”.

The third repetition puts the emphasis on “taste” and “good to her”. This time the poet talks about the “taste”. She has probably gotten a great bargain. These fruits taste really good. 

Stanza Three

You can see …

… in her hand

In the third stanza, the poetic persona directly addresses the readers and welcomes them to closely observe the lady. He particularly focuses on the way she eats the plums. As he has repeated the same line thrice before, he must give a supportive argument to prove his point. Hence, he depicts how the lady eats the rest of the plum in her hand. She is totally engrossed in eating the fruit. The way she eats the other half that is sucked out in her hand depicts she enjoys every bite of it.

Sometimes not being fortunate enough at getting things we desire increases the happiness of getting them. Be it a simple plum or a precious thing, the enjoyment of getting the things we badly want after a long wait increases our attachment with the thing. In the old lady’s case, she becomes extremely attached to the plums for not being solvent enough to buy them whenever she wants.

Stanza Four

Comforted …

… good to her

Readers have to focus on the one-word line that opens this stanza. Originally, the line read: “Comforted, Relieved—”. The poet excludes the word to focus on the simple pleasure of having plums. He does not want his readers to feel pity for the lady’s condition. Rather his focus is solely on the process of getting pleasure from simple things. That’s why she uses a term that highlights the magic of simple pleasures.

The old lady is comforted by the taste of the fruits. Food is definitely a great comforter for poor people. In a solvent fellow’s case, comfort comes from a variety of objects such as a well-lit room, a cozy sofa, etc.

In the second line, the word “solace” refers to the comfort the lady gets in her distress. The source of solace is nothing but the “ripe plums”. In the next line, there is olfactory imagery. Here, the poet conveys the sweet smell of ripe plums that fill the air around her. The last line acts as a refrain of the dominant idea of this piece.

Themes

Williams’ poem “To a Poor Old Woman” taps on themes of desire, eating, poverty, and pleasure. The main theme of this piece concerns the taste of plums and the pleasure associated with having them. To exemplify this theme, the poet chooses a character who is poor and old. Due to her poverty, she is not fortunate enough to have enough food per day. Besides, she is distressed about her physical condition. When she tastes the ripe plums, she forgets everything and becomes engrossed with only savoring the fruits. It seems to have a positive impact on her health and mind. The repetition used in the poem highlights how pleased the lady is while eating the plums.

Imagery

The poet uses the following types of imagery in this poem:

  • Visual Imagery: There is an image of an old lady eating plums on the street. To describe how she eats the fruits, the poet uses visual imagery.
  • Gustatory Imagery: The image associated with the sense of taste is present in the second and third stanzas. For example, readers can feel the taste of the plums by reading the line “sucked out in her hand”.
  • Tactile Imagery: It is used in the following lines, “munching a plum on” and “sucked out in her hand”.
  • Auditory Imagery: The images that depict the sound of eating plums are present in the first line and the last line of the third stanza.
  • Olfactory Imagery: This type of imagery is present in these lines “a solace of ripe plums/ seeming to fill the air”. Here, the scent of “ripe plums” is conveyed.
  • Organic Imagery: Throughout the poem, Williams uses organic imagery to make readers feel as the old lady feels while eating the plums.


Historical Context

The poem “To a Poor Old Woman” was published in William Carlos Williams’ Collected Poems: 1909-1938. It was published in 1938. This poem was written in 1934-35 when America was struggling through the Great Depression. The theme of poverty hints at this historical background.

Williams’ poetry taps on the themes of modernism and imagism. According to Randall Jarrell:

William Carlos Williams is as magically observant and mimetic as a good novelist. He reproduces the details of what he sees with surprising freshness, clarity, and economy; and he sees just as extraordinarily, sometimes, the forms of this earth, the spirit moving behind the letters. His quick transparent lines have the nervous and contracted strength, move as jerkily and intently as a bird.

“Fifty Years of American Poetry” by Jarrell Randall

Likewise, in this poem, readers can also find how Williams uses a simple scene to give great pleasure to readers. He describes the taste of plums with freshness, clarity, and the economy of words.

FAQs

In “To a Poor Old Woman”, how does the woman herself serve as a symbol?

In this poem, the woman serves as a symbol of poverty and old age. The way she eats the plums highlights the fact that she cannot buy the plums often. It increases the taste of the fruits. Due to her old age, her physique is not well. But, the taste of ripe palms somehow cures and comforts her from within.

What is the significance of the plum in the poem “To a Poor Old Woman”?

The “plum” acts as a symbol of simple pleasures that satiate one’s heart. In this poem, the paper bag full of plums symbolizes a bag full of joy for the poor old lady who does not have enough happiness in her life. The moment she tastes them she feels rejuvenated and starts enjoying their taste with all her senses.

How does the image of ripe plums seeming to fill the air affect the poem?

In the last stanza of the poem, the poet uses olfactory imagery to convey how the plums fill the air around the old lady. Due to their ripeness, it seems to the poet as if their sweet odor has filled the surroundings.

What trait of the old woman is revealed in the poem?

The woman is poor and old. From the description of her eating plums in the street, it is clear that she has no home. Besides, the way she enjoys plums depicts her simplicity and how little things can give her pleasure.

How does the use of repetition affect the poem?

The poet uses the repetition of the line “They taste good to her” four times within the text. In each time, the same line conveys slightly different ideas. For example, in the second stanza, this line conveys three ideas. While in the end, it is used for the sake of emphasis.


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