Williams published Spring and All in 1923, one year after what C.D. Wright, in her introduction to the 2011 New Directions re-issue, calls the "head blow" of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land: "Now he knew what he was opposing" (p. viii). On her list of work that was published in 1922, one modernist classic is conspicuous by its absence: Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Having read and re-read that book for many years, when I finally got around to Spring and All, in the winter and spring of 2013, the latter seemed like a carefully constructed "other" of the former. Indeed, there is an almost perfect sense in which the two books are pangrammatical supplements.
We can begin with the surface features. Both are small books of under a hundred modest pages. And both books challenge the distinction between prose and, let us say, verse. I would argue they radically enforce the distinction between poetry and philosophy, however, even though they bring each right up to the other.
This only marks the difference more clearly. Where Wittgenstein says that the value of his book lies the fact that "thoughts are expressed in it", Williams could have established the value of his book in its expression of feelings. If we are in the presence of someone who has thought a great deal in the Tractatus, and very precisely, we are in the presence of someone who has "felt something through", if you will, in Spring and All.
Even the organization of the two books are poetico-philosophical mirror images of each other. Wittgenstein's book is ostensibly ordered in rigorously number of propositions that situate them into a clear hierarchy (1, 1.1, 1.11, 1.12, etc.) Williams, meanwhile, goes from an untitled preface to "Chapter 19", to "Chapter XIII" (which is printed upside down), then VI, then 2, then XIX, and then, on page 15, "Chapter I". It's almost as though Williams is commenting on the insistently clear logic of Wittgenstein's book with his own stubbornly intense pathos.
Finally, note the similar ways that Wittgenstein and Williams and address their reader:
Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it—or at least similar thoughts.—So it is not a textbook.—Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it. (T, preface)
To whom then am I addressed? To the imagination ... In the imagination we are from henceforth (so long as you read) locked in a fraternal embrace, the classic caress of author and reader. Whenever I say "I" I mean also "you". And so, together as one, we shall begin. (S&A, pp. 3-4)
Wittgenstein and Williams, it seems to me, arrive at the imagination by separate routes, one through thought and philosophy, the other through feeling and poetry. Once there, however, they discover the same thing, in the same sad condition.
"Philosophy is not a doctrine," said Wittgenstein, "but an activity." (T4.112) In Spring and All, I believe, we can discern Williams telling us that poetry is not a program but a facticity. More on that in my next post.