Complete Destruction (from poets.org)
William Carlos Williams
It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set fire to it
in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.
“Cold” is not so much an element, but an absence of one. Part of the poem is a differentiation of “cold” and “icy.” “Cold” here looks to be in the service of “icy” and is not quite the same thing. One may say that can’t quite be right: isn’t an icy cold doing the killing? Certainly: but at least two other elements, earth and fire, are involved in making the whole day “icy.”
The poem is three sentences, but the second of them is split. The part split off is “in the back yard.” Burying the cat and burning her box – however morbid those actions may be, we’re discussing the cat’s home. “Icy day” locates our speaker and whoever is with him outside. “Back yard” makes us aware of another, human, home.
The difference between the humans and the cat is everything. Fleas are much more threatening to a cat than a human – for us, they’re mainly an irritation. Her box resided on our much larger property. Even her time came within the scope of our time. What we take for granted in our daily lives is enormous to a cat; the implicit trauma in burial and burning suggests that what we think is small to us actually might be enormous for us, too. One wonders why the everyday involves such grim necessity, that even if there weren’t wars to fight, people would still have to do things like mine or drill oil wells or be part of an emergency response crew. Williams is giving us a schema for thinking about those issues, one which resolves nothing and maybe even makes our perspective more frightened. Our residing occurs in a larger residence, with our being incidental to creatures and forces we are only dimly aware of. Some we’re closer to than others, like the cat. But others – like the fleas – are more part of the cat’s world than ours. They’re an irritation at best. If you put us in the situation those fleas were in, which isn’t hard to do when one thinks on a cosmic scale… well, you get the idea.
“Cold,” the absence of an element, begins to make a bit more sense. It stands for that which we don’t apprehend. In the poem, it isn’t manipulated or controlled by us; there’s no burying under cold or starting a cold instead of a fire. It suggests the absence of rationality, the beginnings of unconsciousness. In the Protagoras, there’s a famous discussion about courage between Socrates and Protagoras. The question comes up whether people who dive into wells to retrieve pots people drop there sometimes are really courageous or merely crazy. In order to answer the question, it is provisionally resolved that one needs to talk about courage as being governed by reason. While the nature of courage is certainly not in play here, it does look like Williams might have another suggestion for such a discussion. Maybe certain actions must be taken in a less than conscious manner. Sometimes, what matters most is that we are effective, that we get things done, but there is a price to be paid.