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William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” is comprised of perhaps the most famous collection of sixteen words in all of American poetry:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
What does this poem mean? What is the significance of the denotations and connotations of its phrasing? Here are some possibilities:
- The denotations of most of the words here are fairly clear. Each verb and each noun seems explicable according to the common, dictionary definition of each word. There is nothing mysterious here, and perhaps that is part of the point. To define these words any further in terms of their denotations seems unnecessary.
- The phrase “so much depends / upon” seems to suggest a topic of immense importance, one that deserves great and serious attention.
- The phrase “a red wheel / barrow” thus seems ironic when following the first phrase. How and why, we wonder, can “so much” depend on a simple wheelbarrow of any color? A wheelbarrow is a tool made by human beings and is often used to manipulate nature.
- The next phrase – “glazed with rain / water” – brings us into even closer contact with nature. Rain is not made by humans but falls freely from the sky. Wheelbarrows are solid; rain is liquid. There is perhaps a hint of beauty in the word “glazed,” which implies another aspect of nature: sunlight.
- Perhaps the “white / chickens” are meant to symbolize yet another aspect of nature – in this case, nature that is actually living, breathing, and probably eating. One way to view the poem's movement, then, is to see that movement as a movement from something man-made, solid, inert and lacking life, to something that is made by nature and is liquid and is associated with motion uncontrolled by humans, and finally to living, natural things that are conscious, alert, and moving according to their own instincts and desires.
- Stanzas one and three contain verbs; stanzas two and four do not. Stanzas one and three refer to colors; stanzas two and four do not. Thus the poem has a kind of symmetry in which the odd lines resemble one another, as do the even lines.
- Does anything really depend, in any truly practical sense, on the wheelbarrow, rain, and chickens? One might argue that all are symbols of a kind of agricultural productivity and that all are therefore symbols of things necessary to sustain life.
- Or is the poet less concerned with practical significance and utilitarian symbolism and more concerned with how we perceive things? In that case, the wheelbarrow, rain, and chickens may simply symbolize the importance of paying attention to “simple” things that we normally ignore.
Something extra: Williams' poem lends itself especially well to formalist readings, since formalist critics assume that every word and indeed every little detail of a poem is crucial to the meaning of the poem. At the same time, the poem also invites attention from a historical perspective. Why was this highly unusual poem written when it was written? What cultural influences was Williams responding to or reacting against? How is this poem deliberately different, for instance, from T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land or from The Cantos of Ezra Pound? Reader-response criticism might also be appropriate here: why does this poem often frustrate readers who would not be frustrated by a painting depicting the same things?
This is a good task to help you interpret the meaning of a seemingly simple poem. Although the words are sparse and the lines and stanzas short, you must examine the text on more than one level. First, highlight words that stand out to you. Consider the title, objects, and actions. Then, discuss the dictionary, denotative, meanings of those words. After you analyze the literal meaning, consider the emotional meaning. Are they positive or negative? How does the context influence those charges? Are they presented as formal or informal? After considering all of your analysis, think about the theme, or central meaning.
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