The Red Wheelbarrow—William Carlos Williams

“The Red Wheelbarrow” is a typically Williams poem—it elevates a humble object, sees it for what it is, does not blur it into a symbol, and writes about it in a plain, yet very graphic style.

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens

Background

  • Imagists first started writing around 1908
  • Wanted to reject Romantic sentimentality/vagueness

Determined that Imagist poetry would…

  • Have no fixed form
  • Have variety, irregularity and individuality
  • Use free verse
  • Emphasis the momentary capture of a minute in time
  • Have a strong visual image
  • Be concrete

About William Carlos Williams

  • A country doctor in New Jersey
  • Had a large practice and spent long days visiting the sick and maintaining two offices
  • Neil Baldwin, in his 1984 biography, wrote, “Williams was afraid life would escape him. He saw importance and significance in every single thing that happened and could not afford to let any event, large or small, pass by without making a record of it” (123).
  • William Carlos William wanted to create a new type of poetry for America: one in which the new experiences of America did not have to fit into old, traditional forms
  • Williams says, “Why does every line of a poem have to begin with a capital letter? It’s annoying…We don’t speak in iambic pentameter…Our language is free! It is the language that we hear which should go into a poem.”
  • Master of the “glimpse”
  • Wrote about small details of everyday life in order to help people better see, taste, touch, smell and enjoy the world
  • Created poems in which he held an object up to scrutiny
  • Believed that the awareness of the object was the purpose of the poem
  • Wrote poem with what he called “edges:” parts that would break through our everyday experience and make us really SEE

Summary—‘The Red Wheelbarrow’

The poem ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is a very short poem comprised of fourteen words only. It is a Japanese haiku-style poem, in which a single image is elaborated and the meaning of that image is left entirely up to the reader’s imagination. It is objectivist, rooted in reality, and uses no metaphors or symbols to escape from hard, even worldly reality. The fragmentation of the syntax is proof of William’s effort to capture new, intrinsic, especially American cadences in his poetry.

The object of Williams’ attention here is a red wheelbarrow, a humble country implement used to carry straw or manure or animal food around a farm, set up against some white chickens, “glazed” or made bright by the rain. Due to the contrast between the wheelbarrow’s red and the white of the chickens, the image becomes pungent. What is also unusual is that Williams can write a poem on such an ordinary farm object–poetry can indeed be composed about anything at all. Probably the phrase “So much depends.. .” refers to the task set by the poet himself—can he indeed write a poem about a wheelbarrow and some chickens, a poem that people won’t laugh at a poem worth the name? All these questions are answered affirmatively by the fact that this poem continues to be anthologized 70-odd years after it was composed.

QUESTIONS TO THINK ABOUT

1. Why doesn’t the first word start with a capital ‘S’?

2. Are the line breaks and stanza divisions important in some way?

3. Are there any specific words that seem particularly interesting or significant to you?

In order to get the answers of these question read on the analysis of the poem as follows.

Analysis —‘The Red Wheelbarrow’

Have you spent some time thinking about this poem? If not, go back and do so before you read on.

What were your initial thoughts while reading this poem? Did you wonder, “Is this even a poem?” Well, it is. What makes it a poem? Well, it looks like a poem: therefore, it must be a poem. Let’s do a ‘close reading’ of this poem: a close reading is one in which we look at each part of the poem in detail. We won’t be doing complete close readings for every poem in the course, but this one should help to get you started on the practice of close reading.

First, we have the title: the red wheelbarrow. Note how the title immediately presents a very vivid visual picture. Poems often appeal to our senses, and one of the most effective ways in which poets present their thoughts is by giving us visual, auditory and other images that bring the poem to life. In fact, we can even go so far as to say that no poem is complete without imagery.

Think about the image in the title for a minute. What kind of wheelbarrow are you imagining? We know it’s red, but is the paint fresh and new, or old and peeling? Does it look new, or show signs of wear? The poem will give us more clues about the object that it is about.

On to the first stanza:

so much depends upon

Yes, this is a stanza, even though it only contains four words. Why do we identify it as a stanza? We do so because the poet chose to structure it that way. Note the lack of capitalisation at the beginning of the first sentence. Poets often focus on punctuation in interesting ways. Sometimes they use the rules to make a point (as we will see with Shakespeare’s sonnets), and sometimes they break the rules in order to make a certain point. Let’s now try to focus in-depth on the questions in your pre-analysis section.

First, why doesn’t the first word start with a capital letter? When we start a sentence with a word that beings with a capital letter, it’s clear that we’re starting a new sentence. By starting the poem with a word without an initial capital letter, Williams seems to be indicating that his sentence is a continuation of an earlier thought. He also seems to be suggesting that he is showing us only a part of a larger picture or process. we are being given a glimpse of something that we can’t see completely.

2. Are the line breaks and stanza divisions important in some way?

As you must have realised, the poem is actually one single sentence: so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens. Would you have read these sixteen words the same way if they’d been written in the form of a prose sentence? Probably not. Notice how the points at which Williams chooses to put in his line breaks and stanza breaks guide your reading of the poem. Typically, each stanza of a poem presents an individual thought.

From time to time during the course, we’ll be looking at grammatical aspects of sentence structure in order to better understand the poem. Remember that poetry is a craft, and a poem is just as much a physical object as is a table or a chair. Like any other object, a poem can be divided into its various components. To further the analogy, think of the way a table is constructed: it’s made of a particular material: say wood. The wood is divided into different parts: the surface of the table and its legs. These parts are held together using nuts and bolts.

In a poem, the ‘wood’ is the words. The ‘nuts and bolts’ are the sentence structure and punctuation. When you understand the material and the ‘nuts and bolts’ better, you’ll be able to take a lot more away from a poem than you did when you were ‘just’ reading the poem without paying attention to the way it’s written.

The first stanza says: so much depends / upon. While this may seem to be a very unconventional poem, the first stanza actually follows the traditional rules of sentence structure: the sentence starts with a subject, “so much”, and a verb, “depends”. The content of this subject-verb pair also raises some intrigue about the object of the sentence. “So much depends upon something.” This something must be pretty important if so much depends on it.

Stanza 2:

a red wheelbarrow

Grammatically, the phrase “a red wheelbarrow” is the object of this sentence. In grammar, a sentence is defined as a subject-verb pair, with the object as an optional element. Everything else in the sentence is an add-on or something that adds extra information to the ‘main point’ of the sentence. These parts are typically modifiers. We’ll learn more about them as we read on.

Note how the poet splits the word ‘wheelbarrow’ into two. Now, this word is typically not split into two. By dividing the word in this atypical way, the poet seems to be drawing our attention to the parts of the object: the wheels are separate from the ‘barrow’ or the frame. This is another hint that we’re looking at a macro-cosmic view of something larger. We’re stripping something down to its basics: in this case, both the wheelbarrow and the sentence (and, by extension, the poem) itself. Notice how form and theme are very closely interlinked. The poet has something to say, and he’s using the form of his poem to guide his readers into finding meanings in the poem. What meanings have you come up with so far? Are they similar to or different from this analysis? Are you beginning to see the poem in a different light from what you would have if you hadn’t been reading this lesson?

Stanza 3:

glazed with rainwater

“Glazed” is certainly a word that stands out in this poem. In fact, it’s the only unusual word that might make you reach for the dictionary. Let’s think of meanings that we can associate with this word. Poets often use such connotations to imply certain meanings that aren’t explicitly stated in the poem.

What does the word “glazed” bring to mind? There are two interesting ways in which we can examine this word. One is from the meaning aspect, and the other is from the grammatical aspect. Meaning wise, this word is typically associated with baking and with pottery. To glaze a sweet is to coat it with syrup. To glaze a jar is to varnish it. But we also use the word in a sentence such as “my eyes were glazed over.” This is a metaphorical rather than literal meaning. Note that this meaning often has negative connotations. We say our eyes are glazed over when we’re tired or sleepy or unable to concentrate on or to understand something. By using this word, Williams is bringing in all these connotations of the word.

How do we understand this word in the context of the poem? The wheelbarrow is “glazed”.

In the context of food or pottery, the object is glazed in order to make it tastier or prettier. In the poem, the word is used as a modifier rather than a verb. So, the word is used to describe the object rather than to show a process. It’s passive rather than active. Also, while someone glazing an object does so deliberately, here the effect of the rainwater is almost accidental. The rainwater doesn’t intend to glaze the wheelbarrow: or does it? Depending on how we choose to interpret it, the meaning can change. The overall effect here is to add an aspect to the way in which we first visualised the wheelbarrow. It’s shiny with rainwater. Note how this word changes the way in which we originally pictured the wheelbarrow. This is often something that poems do: modify our perception of their themes in some way. Form is truly guiding the meaning here.

Note that “rainwater” is another word, like “wheelbarrow”, that can be written as either one word or two. By splitting the word into two, Williams is again drawing our attention to the individual components of the object: the parts that make up the sum.

Stanza 4:

beside the white chickens

To better understand the sentence structure, let’s write it down like this:

• so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow à Subject + verb + object o glazed with rainwater a Modifier 1 (describing the wheelbarrow) o beside the white chickens. a Modifier 2 (describing the wheelbarrow)

As mentioned before, modifiers add descriptive information to sentences. Interestingly, the modifiers in this poem consist of exactly the same number of words as does the ‘main point’ section of the sentence. In fact, since ‘red’ is also a modifier—all adjectives and adverbs are modifiers—we can say that the descriptive parts of the sentence actually outweigh the rest. As was implied right from the start, the poem is overwhelmingly an attempt to present a vivid image of the titular object.

The last stanza presents us with another visual aspect of the picture painted by the poet: there are chickens beside the wheelbarrow. This addition immediately brings to mind the broader context of a farm, maybe in a rural area. Now the function of “so much depends” is also clearer. This wheelbarrow is probably the source of someone’s livelihood.

Contrasts are also a common feature in poetry. There are several contrasts to be found here: the colours red and white (note the different associations or connotations that each colour has); the rural and the urban (something that is implied or not directly stated can also be a part of the poem); nature (as represented by the rain and the chickens) and technology (as represented by the wheelbarrow), and so on. There are many aspects of each word of this short poem that can be endlessly discussed. The wheel, for example, is probably the earliest and most significant invention to have influenced the technological development of the human race. By separating the word “wheel” from the word “barrow”, Williams is encouraging us to reflect on the individual meanings of both words and to think about how the two become parts of a larger whole.

Close readings of poems are essential to all students of poetry, and to everyone who wishes to enrich their understanding of a poem. The more you think about the individual components of the ‘object’ that is the poem, the more you will be rewarded in terms of your understanding and perception.

In the remainder of this course, we will attempt to understand what poetry is, and how poems work. You are encouraged to do your own reading of secondary sources that analyse the texts that we will read, but first and most importantly, to hone your understanding of the process of reading poetry so that you can do so independently and derive your own understanding from each poem.

Model Questions With Answers

Q. List all words from the poem that are crucial to the imagery.
OR
Discuss ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is an Imagist poem.
Ans. The images in the poem must be viewed in the context of their basic circumstances. The speaker will see that the wheelbarrow is red. Red is likely to suggest things like life, blood, courage and zeal that are part of what the farmer supports and supports. The wheelbarrow is one thing for us but it’s splitting the word into two lines. The poet separated the wheel and the barrow (the body). The barrow is on the wheel. The wheel could be a symbol of life (process), progress, time and life, and so on. The theme of dependency and interdependence can be extended in all directions. The chickens are white, probably suggesting that this is a pure and sacred profession, uncorrupted and honest. Peace also exists in this natural and simple way of a farmer. It might also remind readers of innocence. The word ‘rainwater’ is divided into two so that we can see them separately and in turns and appreciate them. The poem draws our attention to many things, but all the time with the utmost possible attention. The glazing/glossy wheelbarrow, bathed in natural rainwater and white chickens, creates simple but significant imagery that is symbolically responsible in many ways. A Christian reader may interpret the red as the blood of Christ, and the white as the white of holiness.

Q. How could “so much” depend on a wheelbarrow? What, specifically, could depend on a wheelbarrow? Explain.

Ans. By declaring that so much depends upon the wheelbarrow, the poem implies the importance of agriculture and farm labourers. More broadly, the wheelbarrow can also act as a representation of all everyday objects that the speaker believes are worthy of appreciation.

Q. What do the chickens symbolize in the red wheelbarrow?
Ans. “The Red Wheelbarrow” is without symbols. In fact, the objects in the poem—the wheelbarrow, the rainwater, and the white chickens—are the very opposite of symbols. They are simple objects that represent the idea of simplicity. The fact that the chickens are white does not make them a symbol of purity, for example.

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