Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

What “depends upon” a red wheelbarrow, white chickens, and rain? The reader is aware of the usefulness—in the case of rain, the necessity—of these things in the external world. The things referred to in the poem are also particular instances of types and classes of things—the wheelbarrow being a machine, for example, on which life also depends. Furthermore, sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and ideas depend on such things. As the poet expresses it in his poem “A Sort of a Song,” “No ideas/ but in things.” The faculty of the mind that has ideas is the imagination. “The Red Wheelbarrow” is about the relationship between the imagination and reality.

In Spring and All, Williams explains that the imagination is the opposite of fantasy; it penetrates fantasies to reveal realities. It clears away personal and conventional associations and meanings that human beings have attached to things, and to the words that represent them, enabling human consciousness to perceive the things of reality as directly as possible. In Spring and All, Williams writes: “To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force—the imagination.”

The poet creates such an experience for the reader in “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The imagination is itself a force of nature that creates things like poems and wheelbarrows, just as nature creates rain and white chickens. The...

(The entire section is 455 words.)