The End of Innocence and My Little One
My favorite poem by Tennessee Williams is
Life, Love and Tennessee Williams
My little one whose tongue is dumb,
whose fingers cannot hold to things,
who is so mercilessly young,
he leaps upon the instant things,
I hold him not. Indeed, who could?
He runs into the burning wood.
Follow, follow if you can!
He will come out grown to a man
and not remember whom he kissed,
who caught him by the slender wrist
and bound him by a tender yoke
which, understanding not, he broke.
Like everything written by the great American playwright, Tennessee Williams, his poem, My Little One, is open to interpretation. Depending on your mood and how you generally read things, this poem can be read one of two ways. I will explore them both.
In the first stanza, we are introduced to a male baby. He cannot speak, “whose tongue is dumb.” He cannot do things for himself, “whose fingers cannot hold to things.” He is “mercilessly young” and only cares about the here and now or “the instant things.” In other words, he is innocent and pure and has yet to be told that he is fallible and capable of failure. For the time being, he is perfect in everyway.
We learn in the second stanza that he is an active, uncontrollable child “I hold him not. Indeed, who could?” and that he is growing quickly. He is no longer as small and innocent as he was once believed to be. As “He runs into the burning wood.” it is clear that the trouble has begun and that there’s no turning back. The poet can chase after him, but the chances of the child exiting from the woods in his former state are slim to none. He has entered into the world and can’t be saved from all of its evils. Each day, as he goes deeper into the woods/world, he will grow and be shaped into who he is meant to be and “He will come out grown to a man.” Once a child learns to walk (let alone run), the end of innocence begins to draw near.
The final stanza describes what happens to all of us once we reach a certain point in our lives. The poet speculates that when the child finally emerges, he will have experienced so much life that he won’t remember the little, important details. He will have enjoyed intimate encounters with people he no longer knows or remembers “and not remember whom he kissed, who caught him by the slender wrist.” He will have let one important person get away due to a mixture of stupidity and fear, “and bound him by a tender yoke which, understanding not, he broke.” We are given the sense that he will be an unfulfilled adult who realized too late it's quality and not quantity that matters most when it comes to finding true love. The energetic, adventurous infant will undoubtedly become a bitter, wistful old man.
As stated, you can look at this poem in two ways. The first way is the way in which I have analyzed the poem. In this way, you see the poet as a person in this child’s life who is fantasizing about what type of adult the baby will turn into. The second way is to argue that there is no present day child, but only the memory of one. What I mean by this is that the poet is contemplating his baby self and wishing he could advise his young self to turn back before it is too late. Let’s delve more deeply into this second perspective.
Being that I’m a fan of Williams, I know that he had little luck in love. He had love affairs that inspired him to write beautiful pieces, but, to the best of my knowledge, he only found true love once. Admittedly, he had his heart broken on numerous occasions and presumably he broke some hearts too. To me, this poem both warns the younger generation to be more cautious in love and voices a wish that he could’ve done the same. It’s the same wish we all have made at some point in our lives. If only for a day, we long to be young and have untouched minds again so that we may know once more what it feels like to be loved and love others with no strings attached. We learn too late in life that unless we appreciate what we have and who we have it with it can easily we lost. Overanxious about what lies head, we run into the "burning woods" without realizing what awaits us there and prove to regret it in the end.
No matter how you read this poem, you can’t deny that the imagery is beautiful, his word choices are wise and the rhyme scheme is simple. Unlike many poets, Tennessee Williams chooses to center more on his message than on how it looks or sounds in print. For this reason, the poem is takes on a life of its own and is as fragile and human as its poet. May we all be inspired by Tennessee Williams’ poem and the message to love others with our whole hearts (and minds) that it projects.
To read more poetry analysis by this writer, please click on the link below.