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.

Analysis, meaning and summary of William Carlos Williams's poem Complete Destruction


  1. Josh Mickle says:

    . Imagine, after studying abroad, taking in the world around him, Williams needs time to reflect, so he sits next to the fireplace in his study one “icy” December night, deep in thought fueled by the silent embers of the roaring fire, when everything around him goes numb: The famous are “buried” and mourned, their works are reviewed and critiqued long after they die, the “fire” of their imaginations enlightening the “back yard”, younger generations willing to accept new knowledge, yet eventually every conceivable means of reflection has run its course and the “fleas,” the partisans that fed on the mystery behind those great works, are consumed by the earth. And the “fire dies” for no one is left to kindle it. Immortality is impossible.

  2. Nick Smart says:

    This is an essay that I wrote for my degree course last year. What do you think?

    “Complete Destruction” – A Burlesque

    William Carlos Williams’ poem, “Complete Destruction” is often, like much of Williams’ work, taken at face value and regarded as a simple piece of work that simply tells the story of its own subject matter. However, like almost all poetry, the work can be seen in greater depth if analysed in greater detail.

    “Complete Destruction”, incredibly, given that Williams himself died in 1963, appears to refer, prophetically, to the cold war of the 1970’s and 80’s. The poem’s title leads us to recall the idea of mutual destruction that prevailed during the cold war years. It was widely believed by governments of the time that the best way to avoid being destroyed by one’s enemies was to ensure that the enemy understood that if they were to launch an attack, a counter attack would destroy them also. Each side would be completely destroyed and there would be no victor. Many people believed that this notion helped to avert a nuclear disaster during this period.

    The first line of the poem “It was an icy day” appears to be the first specific reference to the cold war, and “icy” certainly appears to be an accurate description of the mistrust between the Warsaw Pact and NATO at the time.

    The second line: “We buried the cat” would not perhaps appear to be related to the subject, until one considers the Russian national preoccupation with felines. Moscow is the only capital city in the world to have a museum dedicated to the cat. The “EKATERINANDEI” opened in 1993 and hosts many thousands of visitors each year, In recent months, in Russia, cats have dominated the news, and stories have included a “winged” cat that drowned by locals in Kursk because they thought it was a devil, a “contract killing” upon a cat that worked as an detective of illegal caviar, and the story that the world’s fattest cat, weighing 23 kilos, lives in the city of Asbest, in central Russia. It does not take a particularly great leap of imagination, then, for us to see the cat in the poem as an allegory for Russia itself. Indeed the Cat Museum refers to the animal as “an enigma which it is impossible to sole completely”. This could easily describe a western view of Russia.

    So what are we to make of the line “We buried the cat”? It would appear to be an expression of a desire, on the part of NATO, perhaps, to “bury”, or destroy Russia itself. So perhaps Williams, from his early twentieth century vantage point, is prophetically advising the USA and her allies to destroy the Soviets before it is destroyed by them.

    Williams goes on to say: “then took her box
    and set fire to it
    in the back yard.”

    This is evidently a further urging, by Williams, for his fellow Americans and their allies to ensure the complete destruction, not only of the Russian, but also of their entire country, or “box”. The notion of doing so “in the back yard” leads us to think of Americans destroying not only the Soviet people and their country but also to weed out any infiltrators in the Americans’ own “backyard”. During the cold war a great deal of spying took place on both sides, so even destroying the people of the Soviet Union and their country is not sufficient, all these “stragglers” need to be dealt with too. This is certainly complete destruction.

    The final lines of the poem: “Those fleas that escaped
    earth and fire
    died by the cold”

    seem to describe in perhaps slightly distasteful detail, the means of the deaths of the victims of this destruction. The “earth” that is referred to (ostensibly referring to the burial of the cat) appears to also refer to those who die immediately from the nuclear explosion and are, perhaps, buried by the impact. Just as the next among the fleas to die would do so in the fire of the cat’s box, so the next people to die would be those who perish in the fires that would rage for many hundreds of miles around the site of impact. Those who escape the immediate impact and the resulting fires would perish in the ensuing nuclear winter, thus ensuring that the destruction is complete.

    It would appear from this reading of the poem that Williams, even from the standpoint of the early twentieth century long before the cold war, was able to capture, highly specifically, the biggest issues that would face the world in the 1970s and 80s. Although he may not have been able to see into the future, it seems that he was at least able to create a poem that is timeless in its treatment of the great issues that face mankind.

    As a result of writing this burlesque critique of a relatively straight-forward poem I had expected to learn that it is dangerous and unwise to read too much into a poem and that one should therefore take care to avoid getting carried away with one’s analysis. However, I actually feel that the opposite is true. The idea that the reading is in the eye of the reader, not in the intention of the writer has become much clearer to me. I have made a ridiculous parody of a critical analysis of this poem, but I have written nothing that I have not found or felt from the poem. The fact that Williams certainly did not intend to put them into the poem does not alter the fact that I have been able to extract them. Perhaps it is only through constant re-interpretation that a poem can achieve longevity.

  3. FulySikhChik says:

    It was an icy day. (implications of sadness or evil… hatred?)
    We buried the cat, (Cat is a symbol of elegance, independance… maybe a friend?)
    then took her box (coffin… thoughts… influence?)
    and set fire to it (book burnings, death… forgotten)
    in the back yard. (putting the past behind us)
    Those fleas that escaped (Fleas? on the cat? ideas that survived afterwards?)
    earth and fire (escaped becoming part of her death)
    died by the cold.(in the end dies anyway…)

    It’s a very sad poem about death…. “Lest we forget?” Bull shit… It’s implying that no matter how much we swear never to forget “something”, whether it be ideas, a friend or more, we always (as imperfect human beings) do….


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