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.
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.
“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...
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