William Carlos Williams wrote this poem in 1923. It was supposed to have been written as Williams, a pediatrician, was attending to a very sick young girl. The poem depicts the image that was outside her window.
Williams would have been influenced by the Imagist poets, like Ezra Pound. Imagists believed in using their poetry to portray pictures of life all around them. The deeper, symbolic meanings that are associated with so many Romantic poets were not important - only the clear and pure representation of modern life. This poem certainly holds true to that form.
However, with this genesis of the poem in mind, readers can connect Williams image to the beauty and importance of life itself. The red wheelbarrow is symbolic of the blood of life, and the rain of life-giving water. The white chicken is the innocent person, like an innocent young girl. So much depends upon her being able to have the necessary elements of life - the blood and the water. Life should go on.
Considering the time period, there can be another inferred theme. The Industrial Revolution shifted the focus of this country from agricultural centers to urban centers. Cities became heavily populated, and factories were tearing up both the landscape and the air quality. This pure image of farm life is a reminder of how important the agrarian lifestyle is.
While caring for a sick child at the child's home Williams, a paedtrician by profession, looked outside the window and saw the wet red wheelbarrow. He wrote this poem quickly in less than five minutes just like an impressionist painter would paint quickly in order to capture the precise quality of light of a particular moment: "glazed with rain/water" - if he had delayed writing the poem the wetness would have dried up and the glaze would have disappeared.
"The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923) is one of Willaims' early poems and is influenced by 'Precisionism' an artistic movement in America which peaked during the interwar period. 'Precision' artists shunned European influences, and as the term itself suggests their paintings were very objective and clearly defined almost like the 'photorealists' of the next generation. Just before Williams wrote this poem Williams had met Charles Sheeler the photographer journalist and a self-proclaimed 'precisionist.'
The poem expresses in the starkest and simplest manner possible the practical usefulness of a wheelbarrow on a farm. There is a sharp ironic contrast-almost haiku like- between the sick room 'inside' and the daily routine of the practical affairs of the farmhouse 'outside.'