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The Red Wheelbarrow

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English Literature

Can a 16-word poem evoke emotion and feel complete? What’s so special about the red wheelbarrow next to the white chickens? Read on, and you will discover how William Carlos Williams’s short poem 'The Red Wheelbarrow' has become a fixture of 20th-century poetic history.

The Red Wheelbarrow poem

'The Red Wheelbarrow' (1923) is a poem by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). It originally appeared in the poetry collection Spring and All (1923). Initially, it was entitled 'XXII' as it was the 22nd poem in the collection. Composed of just 16 words in four separated stanzas, 'The Red Wheelbarrow' is sparsely written but stylistically rich.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens1

William Carlos Williams: life and career

William Carlos Williams was born and raised in Rutherford, New Jersey. Upon graduation from medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, Williams returned to Rutherford and began his own medical practice. It was unusual among poets of the time to have a full-time job apart from poetry. Williams, however, drew inspiration from his patients and fellow residents of Rutherford for his writing.

Critics consider Williams to be both a modernist and imagist poet. His early works, including 'The Red Wheelbarrow,' are hallmarks of Imagism in the early 20th-century American poetry scene. Williams later broke from Imagism and became known as a Modernist poet. He wanted to divert from the classical traditions and styles of European poet predecessors and American poets that inherited these styles. Williams sought to reflect the cadence and dialect of everyday Americans in his poetry.

Imagism is a poetry movement in the early 20th-century in America that emphasized clear, concise diction to convey defined images.

'The Red Wheelbarrow' is part of a poetry collection entitled Spring and All. While critics generally refer to Spring and All as a poetry collection, Williams also included prose pieces intermixed with the poems. Many consider Spring and All an important comparison point for another famous 20th-century poem published in the same year, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Williams was not fond of 'The Waste Land' for he disliked Eliot’s use of classical imagery, dense metaphors, and the poem's pessimistic outlook. In Spring and All, Williams extolls humanity and resilience, perhaps as a direct response to The Waste Land.

The Red Wheelbarrow, A red wheelbarrow on a green field, StudySmarterA red wheelbarrow atop a green field, pixabay

The Red Wheelbarrow poem meaning

'The Red Wheelbarrow,' short and sparse as it may be, is ripe for analysis. Of its 16 words and 8 lines, only the first two lines and first of four stanzas doesn’t directly describe the titular red wheelbarrow. Right off the bat, Williams tells us that this wheelbarrow carries great importance as “so much depends/upon” (1-2) it. He then goes on to describe the wheelbarrow – it is red, “glazed with rain/water” (5-6), and sits “beside the white/chickens” (7-8).

So what does that mean? Why does so much depend upon the red wheelbarrow? To understand, it is important to know a little bit about Imagist poetry and William Carlos Williams. As previously mentioned, Imagism was an early 20th-century movement in American poetry. Imagist poetry is characterized by clean, clear diction used to evoke sharp images. Rather than rely on overly poetic, flowery language, Williams diverges from the Romantic and Victorian poetic styles of the past with his brief and to-the-point poem. There is one central image, one that he paints vividly despite the short nature of the poem—the red wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater, beside the white chickens.

Can you picture that in your head? I’m sure from his description you have a clear picture of just what the red wheelbarrow looks like and where it is situated despite it being described in just 16 words. That is the beauty of Imagism!

Another facet of Imagism and Modernism, in addition to clear, concise writing, is attention to the small moments in everyday life. Here, rather than write grandly about battlefields or mythical creatures, Williams chooses a familiar, commonplace sight. “So much depends/upon” (1-2) this red wheelbarrow, implying that so much depends upon these small moments in our everyday lives. Williams captures a moment in time and chooses to draw our attention to one small moment that we may overlook as ordinary, meaningless. He breaks this moment down into its parts, separating wheel from barrow and rain from water, making sure the reader pays attention to each small detail in the picture he paints.

Broader connections can be made by examining the two colors used in the poem. Between describing the wheelbarrow as red, in reference to life and vitality as it is the color of blood, and the chickens as white, a color symbolizing peace and harmony, you can look at the broader picture of what Williams describes. The wheelbarrow and chickens taken together imply that we are looking at farmland or a household that grows plants and raises farm animals. By emphasizing red and white, Williams shows that farming is a peaceful, fulfilling livelihood.

The Red Wheelbarrow, two white chickens, StudySmarterTwo white chickens stand on a dirt path, pixabay

The Red Wheelbarrow literary devices

Williams makes use of various literary devices in 'The Red Wheelbarrow' to fully portray the central image. The most notable literary device Williams used is enjambment. The entire poem could be read as one single sentence. However, by breaking it down and continuing each line into the next without punctuation, Williams builds anticipation in the reader. You know that barrow naturally follows wheel, but Williams makes you wait for the connection to be made by separating it into two lines – just as he does with rain and water.

Enjambment is a poetic device in which the poet does not use punctuation or grammatical pauses to separate lines. Instead, the lines carry over into the next line.

Williams also uses juxtaposition. We first encounter “the red wheel/barrow” (3-4) before ending with “beside the white/chickens.” (7-8). These two images contrast sharply with one another. The use of a red wheelbarrow as the central image juxtaposes with what poetry had historically been about – grand emotions, historical events, twisted tales. Here, Williams uses a simple, everyday image to ground his poem, juxtaposing the medium with its muse.

Williams as a poet sought to represent a truly American voice in poetry, one that mimicked the cadence and intonation of the way Americans speak naturally. 'The Red Wheelbarrow' eschews formalistic, rigid poetic structures such as sonnet or haiku. Though it follows a repetitive structure, it is a free verse style invented by Williams to suit his poetic purposes.

The Red Wheelbarrow - Key takeaways

  • "The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923) is an example of Imagist poetry by American poet William Carlos Williams.

  • The poem originally appeared in Spring and All (1923), a poetry and prose collection by Williams.

  • At just 16 words, the poem represents the use of the concise diction and sharp imagery employed by Imagist poems.

  • The poem emphasizes the importance of everyday moments and the small details that make up every facet of our lives.

  • Williams also makes reference to farming as a vital, peaceful livelihood.

  • The poem uses enjambment, juxtaposition, imagery, and free verse to depict its central image.

  • "The Red Wheelbarrow" endures as an important Imagist poem and example of how impactful such a short poem can be.

1. William Carlos Williams, "The Red Wheelbarrow," 1923.

The Red Wheelbarrow

The literal meaning, by which we ignore all subtext and possible subjective interpretations, is Williams’s effort to paint a clear image of a red wheelbarrow. The literal meaning, then, is just this - a red wheelbarrow, exactly as described, next to the white chickens. Williams asks the reader to determine why the red wheelbarrow carries so much importance.

'The Red Wheelbarrow' rejects metaphor by instead representing an image for what it is - the red wheelbarrow is a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain, beside the white chickens. While the colors may represent broader themes and the central image be used to give importance to farming as a livelihood, at its core, the red wheelbarrow is a red wheelbarrow.

'The Red Wheelbarrow' is famous as a perfect example of Imagist poetry, and as a testament to the power of poetry even in such a short form. Williams is well-known as a modernist and imagist poet, and 'The Red Wheelbarrow' could be considered the magnum opus of his early Imagist poems.

The central image of 'The Red Wheelbarrow' is in the title - a red wheelbarrow! Every line of the poem, except for the first two, directly describes the red wheelbarrow and its location in space. The wheelbarrow is red, it is glazed with rainwater, and it is beside the white chickens.

Final The Red Wheelbarrow Quiz

Question

What is "The Red Wheelbarrow?"

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Answer

"The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923) is a poem by William Carlos Williams, originally published in a poetry and prose collection entitled Spring and All (1923). "The Red Wheelbarrow" is considered a prime example of Imagist poetry. For this reason, and because it shows how impactful even short poems can be, "The Red Wheelbarrow" endures as one of the most important poems of the 20th-century.

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Question

Who wrote "The Red Wheelbarrow?"

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Answer

American poet and medical doctor William Carlos Williams wrote "The Red Wheelbarrow" early on in his poetry career. Williams is notable for having a full-time career outside of poetry as a medical practitioner in Rutherford, New Jersey. He is associated with Imagism and Modernism. His goal was to create a uniquely American voice in poetry that reflected the way Americans actually spoke in daily life. 

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Question

What does "The Red Wheelbarrow" mean?

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Answer

"The Red Wheelbarrow" is an example of Imagist poetry, in which Williams wanted to pay attention to the small moments in everyday life. The central image, that of the red wheelbarrow, is something that other poets, and other people, may have overlooked as ordinary. By dedicating a poem to the red wheelbarrow and its physical properties, Williams gives this subject the same weight as the grand subjects of classical poetry. He also associates the red wheelbarrow with life and harmony, pointing to the nature of a livelihood of farming.

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Question

What literary devices are used in "The Red Wheelbarrow?" 

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Answer

Williams utilizes enjambment, the continuation of a phrase into separate lines, throughout the poem to build anticipation. He also utilizes juxtaposition; between the colors of the red wheelbarrow and white chickens as well as between the reader's expectations of what a poem should be about and what Williams wrote a poem about. His use of a free verse style was meant to mimic the cadence of American speech.

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Question

Why is "The Red Wheelbarrow" so short?

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Answer

At just 16 words and 8 lines, "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a brief poem. Imagist poetry emphasized concise, clear writing that still conveyed sharp images. With this poem, Williams proves just how concise a poet can be and still paint a complete picture. 

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Question

What is Imagism?

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Answer

Imagism was a poetry movement in which poets emphasized clear, concise diction used to portray sharp images. "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a quintessential example of Imagist poetry for its short length, free structure, subject matter, and clear imagery.

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Question

Why is "The Red Wheelbarrow" so famous?

Show answer

Answer

“The Red Wheelbarrow” is famous as a perfect example of Imagist poetry, and as a testament to the power of poetry even in such a short form. Williams is well-known as a Modernist and Imagist poet, and "The Red Wheelbarrow" could be considered the magnum opus of his early Imagist poems. 

Show question

Question

What are the two main colors in "The Red Wheelbarrow?"

A. Red and Blue

B. Red and Yellow

C. Red and White

D. Red and Green

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Answer

C. Red and White

Williams describes the wheelbarrow as red and the chickens as white. These two colors may imply a subtext in which Williams extolls a pastoral lifestyle as vital and peaceful.

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Question

Why does "so much depend/upon" (1-2) the red wheelbarrow?

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Answer

Williams leaves the answer to this question ambiguous. The poem almost poses it to the reader- he state that so much depends upon the red wheelbarrow but doesn't explicitly tell us why, leaving us to investigate. As an example of Imagist poetry, Williams could be saying that so much depends upon the small moments in life, such as the simple beauty of a red wheelbarrow. He could also have utilized the colors in the poem to reference the vital functions of farms and the peaceful nature of farm life, saying that so much depends upon this type of lifestyle.

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Question

What is the literal meaning of the poem "The Red Wheelbarrow?"

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Answer

The literal meaning, by which we ignore all subtext and possible subjective interpretations, is Williams’s effort to paint a clear image of a red wheelbarrow. The literal meaning, then, is just this- a red wheelbarrow, exactly as described, next to the white chickens. Williams asks the reader to determine why the red wheelbarrow carries so much importance.

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