A critical reading of a classic short poem
It may be just sixteen words long, and consist of eight short lines, but ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams has generated more commentary than many longer twentieth-century poems. In this post we offer a short analysis of Williams’ poem, which you can read here.
Williams’ poem turns on enjambment, which is utilised in every one of its four short stanzas. The first stanza even highlights how the syntax of the run-on line reflects the meaning being conveyed: we read ‘So much depends / upon’ and depend upon the continuation of the poem into the second line to provide us with the rest of the meaning. ‘Depends’ leaves us suspended, dependent. Similarly, ‘a red wheel’ finds itself transformed by the next line: not a red wheel, we realise, but red wheel barrow; not merely glazed with rain but with rain water. This latter example doesn’t alter the poem’s semantic sense – rainwater is, after all, rain – but the effect of thinking we have the full story, only to have the extra ‘water’ appear in the following line, enacts the slow dripping of the rainwater droplets from the barrow onto the ground, or, indeed, the slow recognition of the water droplets on the wheelbarrow. By that fourth and final stanza, we have grown wise to this technique, and we know that ‘beside the white’ remains unfinished, with the noun being required to complement the adjective ‘white’.
Why does ‘so much’ depend upon such a minor thing as the red wheelbarrow? One answer is to interpret that red wheelbarrow as a metonym for something greater, as a specific example of a general phenomenon or idea. The red wheelbarrow being ‘glazed’ by the rainwater captures the wheelbarrow in a brief, transient moment after the rainfall, when the rainwater has made the red wheelbarrow shine in the sunlight. (This is much like the fleeting ‘apparition’ of the faces of the commuters in Ezra Pound’s poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’.) This moment will pass, as soon as the rain evaporates and the wheelbarrow is dry again. We might say, then, that Williams is declaring – in typically concrete, Imagist terms – that much depends on these fleeting moments, on capturing moments of beauty which may seem ordinary or mundane (wheelbarrow, chickens). It is important that we observe and perceive such small, everyday details, and recognise the poetic beauty in them. An interesting parallel can be found in the Edward Thomas poem ‘Tall Nettles’.
However, another way to interpret the meaning of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is to affirm that Williams literally means that much depends upon a red wheelbarrow and the white chickens: that these symbols of farming and agriculture are central to the maintaining of life as we know it. Of course, one may ask here why it’s important the wheelbarrow is red; would a green wheelbarrow be viewed as less important in the agrarian history of the world? But this interpretation is tenable, nevertheless.
Yet although ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is unrhymed, the subtle interplay between the sounds of the words that end each line creates a melodious pattern that reminds us of rhyme: ‘chickens’ very faintly picks up on ‘depends’ from the beginning of the poem, while it is possible to detect a faint alliterative relationship between ‘water’ and ‘white’. In the last analysis, William Carlos Williams clearly set out to write a poem that offers concreteness of expression as its main feature. And, of course, that red wheelbarrow.
For more analysis and discussion of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, see the University of Illinois page comprising a number of quotations from leading critics of the poem.