It’s a strange courage
you give me ancient star:
Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you play no part.
William Carlos Williams
I have liked this poem from the first time of reading it, but have never really given it much thought. On the surface it expresses that awe and sympathy towards the stars which we find in a lot of literature. I thought of it a week or two ago, reading a passage from Ethan Frome where Orion’s Belt is described in a way to make us think of the main character of the story. I wondered then if Williams was referring to a star in particular, and whether that might be significant in terms of his sympathy with the star. Then I looked up the poem and saw the title, ‘El Hombre’, and thought that ‘el Hombre’ might be what Americans, or Latin Americans or Spanish speakers called a particular star. I looked for this on Google, but to no avail. There is no star ‘el Hombre’ (unless someone reading this knows otherwise.)
What I found instead was a book called ‘The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams’ by Julio Marzan – or at least as much of it as was available on Google books. Marzan explains how Williams’ family had strong connections with Puerto Rico and how his parents spoke Spanish rather than English together in the house. In the first chapter, Marzan brings up the poem ‘El Hombre’, explaining how it has another layer of meaning to it more personal to Williams and his background. That the title is in Spanish, he argues, is a clue that its meaning might be concealed in the Spanish sense of some of its words (the title of its collection is also Spanish – Al Que Quiere! – ‘To him who wants it’ ). The word ‘courage’ shares a root with the Spanish word ‘corazon’ – heart, while ‘strange’ derives from a Latin root that gave Spanish ‘extrano’ – foreign. Marzan links the ‘ancient star’ to Williams’ mother’s name – Helen. The concealed sense of the first line then comes out as ‘It’s a foreign heart you give me, mother’. Marzan’s interpretation of the second line is less convincing – he writes that Williams is saying she played no part in the rising of her son’s (which ‘sunrise’ puns on) poetry career. I find it hard to swallow that Williams would use an image of beauty to make rather a petty point like that – perhaps the second line is more about Williams’ separateness from American tradition and its Anglo-Saxon roots.
But Marzan makes another interesting point about the poem’s Spanish roots. In an earlier essay, Williams had singled out the Spanish poet Luis de Gongora (see last post) as ‘the man!’ Williams then is acknowledging a major influence, as well as signalling his belonging, in part, to a Spanish-American as well as an Anglo-American tradition. All of which goes to show what can be concealed in the shortest of poems by a poet of acute sensitivity. None of this, though, contradicts or undermines the main, simpler sense of the poem that one gets on first reading.