Analysis

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Last Updated on August 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332

This poem, one of the most famous of the twentieth century, was published in 1923 in Williams's Spring and All. It is an example of a then-contemporary poetic movement called imagism. This name was coined by the poet Ezra Pound—who, borrowing from the philosopher T. E. Hulme, conceived of this new style of poetry that distanced itself from the more metaphysical and abstract subjects of earlier movements and eras. Pound wanted poetry to focus on fresh images rather than abstract ideas, to be economical with its use of language—using only enough words as are required to contribute to the image—and to get away from the idea of morals and other traditional aspects of the genre.

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The poet F. S. Flint defined the major tenets of imagist poetry: it must directly treat the object(s) it describes; it must use no words that fail to contribute to the image; and it must pay attention to the musicality of phrasing rather than beat the drum of typical meter.

The central image of "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a red wheelbarrow that is made slick and shiny with rainwater next to a group of white chickens. The wheelbarrow is "red"; it is not bright red or dark red, weathered or newly-painted. It is just red. It is "glazed" with rain; it is not sparkling (which would be rather a romantic word choice) or dripping or shining. It is simply glazed. The chickens are "white," not pure white or snowy.

Williams here employs the linguistic economy consistent with imagist poems. His word choices do not convey abstractions, nor do they romanticize their subject. Furthermore, the line and stanza breaks help us not only to hear but also to see the way each phrase achieves musicality, with the second line of each of the four stanzas made up of only one word. With its focus on image over abstraction, its economy of language, and its musicality, this poem stands as a perfect exemplar of imagist poetry.

Commentary

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Last Updated on October 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 267

“The Red Wheelbarrow” is perhaps one of the shortest serious poems ever published by an American poet. The structure is rigidly formal. The poem consists of four miniature stanzas of four words each.

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

Three images are involved: the wheelbarrow, described simply as red, the qualifying adjectival phrase “glazed with rain/ water,” which relieves the excessive severity of the second stanza, and the contrasting white chickens of the final stanza. The first line is colloquial and open in its invitation; the second line, the preposition “upon,” prepares the reader for the specifics to follow. Each two-line stanza has two stressed syllables in the first line and one in the second, and yet there is lively variation in where the stresses fall.

In “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Williams discovers an aesthetic pattern and sensory pleasure in an ordinary sight. The poem—or the moment of perception it reports—evokes no cultural traditions or literary associations. The absence of these is strongly noticed, however, for if the poem is an immediate experience, it is also a demonstration and argument. “So much depends,” it says, on the object being there, but it also means that so much depends on the reader’s response to what is seen. If one’s response is dull, the world takes on this quality, and the converse is also true. Thus, although Williams believed that the American environment offered a new challenge and possibility to poetry, his deeper meaning was that anything, however familiar or even drab, would become significant and moving when met with a full response.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

“The Red Wheelbarrow” is a brief lyric written in free verse. It is composed of four stanzas, each consisting of two short lines. The entire poem contains only sixteen words, four words in each stanza. The lyric “I” does not appear, placing the reader in direct contact with the images of the poem. These are presented one by one in short lines, which slow the reading and focus the reader’s attention on each bit of information in a sequence that suspends completion of the scene until the very last word. The surprise implicit in this arrangement is particularly present in the poem as it was first published, without a title, as poem number “XXII” in Spring and All. In that book William Carlos Williams alternates passages of prose expressing his theories of poetry with groups of poems illustrating those theories.

The poet begins with an impersonal statement, composed of abstract words: “so much depends/ upon.” This stanza creates suspense by raising the question, What depends on what? This is partly answered in the second stanza: “a red wheel/ barrow.” In contrast with the words of the first stanza, each word here, except for the article “a,” evokes a sense of impression. By dividing the word “wheelbarrow” into its parts, “wheel” and “barrow,” and by breaking the line after “barrow,” the poet slows the reading, which helps to imprint the image on the reader’s mind. It also makes a wheelbarrow less familiar than usual, its wheel separated from its barrow, a tray with two handles at each end for carrying loads. Implicit here is the original idea for the invention of a wheelbarrow.

In the third stanza the poet begins to provide a context for the wheelbarrow in the natural world with the information that it is “glazed with rain/ water.” It might be thought that the word “water” is superfluous. By separating the word “rain” from “water” with a line break, however, the poet continues the slow motion and suggests that the rain has just stopped. The word “glazed” implies light shining off the film of water still present on the red paint of the wheelbarrow. The sun has come out.

The fourth and final stanza completes the scene. The wheelbarrow is “beside the white/ chickens.” The color white contrasts with the color red, which intensifies both colors and suggests bright light. The sentient chickens contrast with the inert wheelbarrow. The chickens are moving, and the scene comes alive. Human beings do not appear in the poem, but they are implied, as it took people to domesticate animals and invent machines.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

Williams has excluded most of the forms and devices traditionally associated with poetry in the composition of this poem. He rejects the convention of beginning each line with a capital letter; he does not employ a traditional form; he avoids writing in an established meter; and he does not use rhyme. He does not use words for their connotations or associations or write in elevated language. He excludes similes, metaphors, and symbols. Even the subject of the poem is mundane, a wheelbarrow not being the sort of thing likely to inspire aesthetic contemplation or reveal great truth. The term “anti-poetry,” sometimes applied to Williams’s work, is valid only in reference to characteristics such as these.

Williams relies almost entirely on images to communicate the meanings of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and the poem exemplifies the principles of Imagism, a literary movement originated in London by friends of Williams, the American expatriate poets Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) and Ezra Pound. Imagist poetry presents things directly, using only words essential to the presentation, and is composed in free verse. Although Williams sometimes used the term “Imagism” and “free verse” in reference to his work, he was intent on creating an American poetry distinct from English poetry, and he distanced himself from the expatriates, substituting the term “Objectivism” for “Imagism” and developing his conception of the variable foot to distinguish his versification from free verse.

Although the images in “The Red Wheelbarrow” refer to objects in the external world, Objectivism also applies to the poem as an object itself, made out of words and comparable to a painting made out of paint. Williams knew and was influenced by such visual artists as Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Demuth. He believed that a poem can be a painting and a painting can be a poem. “The Red Wheelbarrow” creates a visual scene in the reader’s mind, and the first stanza, “so much depends/ upon,” functions like a frame for the picture. It says, “Look at this.” A painting is seen, however, all at once, while the poem occurs image by image, line after line, having a duration in time.

The poem is intricately structured in repeating patterns. For example, there are four words and three stressed syllables in each stanza. Stanzas are arranged in two lines each, the first containing three words and two stressed syllables, the second containing one word and one stressed syllable. The poem also exemplifies the variable foot. Each line is a poetic foot, and each foot is to be given the same duration in reading. This results in a pause following the second line of each stanza to make up for the extra stressed syllable in each of the first lines. Variations in rhythm also result from the number and placement of unstressed syllables. For example, the unstressed syllable in the third line of the poem, “a red wheel,” comes before the two stressed syllables, while in the fifth line, “glazed with rain,” it comes between the two stressed syllables.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194

Axelrod, Steven Gould, and Helen Deese, eds. Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

Beck, John. Writing the Radical Center: William Carlos Williams, John Dewey, and American Cultural Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Bremen, Brian A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Copestake, Ian D., ed. Rigor of Beauty: Essays in Commemoration of William Carlos Williams. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann W. William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.

Gish, Robert. William Carlos Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Laughlin, James. Remembering William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Lenhart, Gary, ed. The Teachers and Writers Guide to William Carlos Williams. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1998.

Lowney, John. The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. 1981. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Vendler, Helen, ed. Voices and Visions: The Poet in America. New York: Random House, 1987.

Whitaker, Thomas R. William Carlos Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

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