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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


"The Red Wheelbarrow" was published in William Carlos Williams's collection Spring and All in 1923 and is an example of a new, twentieth-century style called imagism. Imagist writers sought to break from earlier poetic traditions by shying away from abstract or metaphysical ideas and instead creating fresh images, hence the name of the movement.


Williams chooses a rather simple but vivid image as the subject of this poem, but he begins the poem with a kind of argument: that a lot depends on the image he is about to present. This image is that of a red wheelbarrow which is slick and shiny with rainwater, next to some chickens that are white in color. At face value, that is the entire summary of the poem. However, as with all poetry, readers must critically examine the meaning and subtext behind every word.

What can "depend" upon such an image? Such an opening statement makes it seem as though the rain-wet wheelbarrow and white chickens are incredibly important, rather than just a simple tableau from farm life. A farmer, certainly, must depend on their wheelbarrow and chickens, and even the rain itself: the wheelbarrow would be essential to the farmer's work, the chickens would provide sustenance in the form of eggs or meat, and a farm certainly requires rain in order to be successful.

Further than this simplistic layer of necessity, though, many other lives depend on the image Williams presents. What is viewed as essential here is no less than the fabric of sensuous reality. The world that is seen and felt by a perceiver—that surrounds them in their knowledge of even the most ordinary daily life—is integral to their ideas of and experiences in the world. If that perceiver is an artist, this becomes even more true: artists build up not only their own personal realities but also, through their work, the realities of others.

In the end, then, a lot does depend upon the simple elements that make up the poem's central image. Williams takes objects that may seem everyday, mundane, and simple to the average reader and shows that, when treated seriously and thoughtfully, those objects actually are quite significant and meaningful.

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