The Figured Wheel Summary
by Robert Pinsky

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Figured Wheel Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Figured Wheel” is a poem that reports the condition of humanity. The first line describes the wheel as rolling, which immediately gives the reader a specific image that acts as a device to carry the reader through each scene.

The images and actions of the poem are set in contrast within each line throughout the poem. In a single line, snow and sand are separated and then recombined, and the wheel rolls through fresh water and salt water as well as flecks of tar and molten rock. There is a constant separating and combining through each image as the reader passes through the pantheons of gods, demigods, gargoyles, and dryads. An inescapable terror also exists in this “cold, cyclical dark, turning and returning,” an undeniable guilt that is in both the scorched and the frozen parts of this world.

These images and scenes through which the figured wheel rolls are collected by the wheel and eventually include the life of Pinsky and his family. Because the poet is also a part of this figuration, the reader may get a sense of himself or herself as a part of this wheel’s accretion, and thus one is led to a vision of complicity. In the final line, three versions of this figuration are presented: figured, which may represent a present state; prefigured as in a past figuration; and transfiguring, something that will continue to change. This suggests that in all three states—past, present, and future—Pinsky, his family, and the reader exist on this wheel.