Portrait of a Woman in Bed

Williams, William Carlos

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Terry, James
  • Date of entry: Jan-16-1998


It is the voice of the woman in bed that makes this poem, and she is a tough character as she reveals herself, physically and otherwise. "I won’t work / and I’ve got no cash. / What are you going to do/about it?" she demands in the first few lines. She implies that she is a loose woman and perhaps even comes on to the physician: "Lift the covers / if you want me . . . ." and later, "Corsets / can go to the devil-- / and drawers along with them-- / What do I care!"

The woman shifts subjects rapidly, between poverty and sexuality, hinting that she might be pregnant again, writing off her two sons. At the end, she delivers a proud challenge to the physician who has come to see her in the abandoned house: "Try to help me / if you want trouble / or leave me alone-- / that ends trouble. // The county physician / is a damned fool / and you / can go to hell! // You could have closed the door / when you came in; / do it when you go out. / I’m tired."


Williams titled this work a portrait, but it might easily have been an etching. The speaker limns her own image with a rapid-fire yet casual spray of acid-tinged pronouncements, her pride and defiance never wavering even though she appears to know that she is in tough straits. Her name, Robitza, suggests possible ethnic or cultural gaps to go with the socio-economic chasm between her and the doctor she taunts. By making the poem a monologue rather than a dialogue, Williams may be suggesting clues to his reactions: speechlessness, perhaps; maybe even a feeling that he is overpowered; but certainly a measure of admiration and a willingness to let someone down and out insist on keeping her dignity.

Primary Source

The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume 1, 1909-1939


New Directions

Place Published

New York




A. Walton & Christopher MacGowan