The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams (line by line Summary) and Analysis

The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams

The Red WheelBarrow, poem, summary and analysis

The poem, “ The Red Wheelbarrow” was written by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), an American poet and physician who was an ardent follower of modernist poetry. He was closely associated with modernist poets and writers like Erza Pound and Hilda Dolittle, whose ideas and beliefs influenced many of his life’s works, which are written in the style of the modernism movement and imagist poetry.

Most of his works are on American themes and he sought to renew language through raw idioms and phrases by inducing the American spirit in his writings and consequently removing the influence of the British and European literature, which he saw as being hackneyed.

He wished to create a separate and unique form of poetry that mirrored the life of the Americans and their everyday struggles. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Pictures from Brueghel.

Overview of the Poem – The Red WheelBarrow

“The Red Wheelbarrow” is a short, simple poem of only eight lines and in no way is the length of the poem, an impediment as to how revolutionary and simply profound the poem is. It was published in 1923 in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I. The big question that “The Red Wheelbarrow” holds is still debated much in literary societies. There are plenty of interpretations as to why the wheelbarrow, that too of the color red, holds such enormous importance.

As his writings were majorly influenced by the American culture, the red wheelbarrow can signify the hopes and dreams that every American citizen has to carry. However, as the setting of the poem indicates a farm, the wheelbarrow can be a metonymy for the hard labor of the farmers and the importance of agriculture, in the development of a country.

The Red WheelBarrow – Poem Lines

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

Summary of the Poem – The Red WheelBarrow

I wrote the Summary of the poem with two interpretations for your better Understanding…

1st Interpretation of the Poem

The poem can, at first glance, seem like a rather meaningless and bizarre concoction of words and it can also be discerned that undue importance is given to a simple thing, like a wheelbarrow. But, when the layers of the poem are peeled and dealt with in minuscule detail, a rather profound meaning can be unearthed. Imagist poetry is the technique used by Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow” and it is characterized by the acute description of a single image in vivid detail. Other characteristics that can be observed in the poem are direct verses, the economy of words, and precise phrasing.

A wheelbarrow is a simple object used in the field of agriculture and as the poem’s first stanza goes, “so much depends/upon”, the importance that such an object holds is not only portrayed, but also made to be revered or worshipped. The poet’s tone towards the object is gentle and tender, as he pauses to glance at an object that is often overlooked and such a deed is mindful because the importance of a lowly object is realized.

For the vivid picture that Imagist poetry creates, the color of the wheelbarrow is illustrated, giving the object a much more life-like structure. The third stanza indicates that the wheelbarrow is out of doors and is “glazed” with “rain/water.”

The semantic meaning doesn’t change with rain or rainwater, but the latter can specify that it is the slow descending of the “rainwater” from the structure of the wheelbarrow and onto the ground. The wheelbarrow is positioned beside the chickens which are “white.” Only the color is spoken about here but as white is considered a calm or gentle color, it can also signify that the chickens are quiet.

The whole atmosphere of the poem is calm and the setting can be imagined as a countryside farmhouse, after a heavy storm in which sits a wheelbarrow on which droplets of rainwater are descending down to the ground or drying up and even the chickens are quiet in their pens.

The poem renders the reader with a calm sense of being and urges the reader to analyze the poem in a slow and meditative tone as if wanting the reader to recognize the importance that the wheelbarrow holds on all of civilization. The poem lacks both capitalization and punctuation (except for the period in the last line), and the rudimentary elements of grammar and this can be a denotation of the reflective tone that the poet wishes to instill in the poem.

It is all but a mere observation, a sentimentality that the poet expresses for an everyday object. The poem has no urgency and is written solely for the purpose of nonchalant observation, private thinking, and varied interpretations.


2nd Interpretation of the Poem

The poet insists that even a small and seemingly insignificant object such as the wheelbarrow can have so much depended upon it, as is highlighted in the first stanza. The setting of the poem clearly indicates agricultural surroundings and the wheelbarrow can be perceived as a connecting link between humanity and nature and also of how the former has to worship the latter, again referencing the first stanza.

As farming is the foundation for a civilization to thrive, the wheelbarrow’s connection with agriculture could show the basic elements of the present society.

It can also indicate the working class and as Williams primarily wrote on American themes, the wheelbarrow can be an extended metaphor/metonymy for the working-class population. The wheelbarrow is overlooked quite often and that is the same with that of the working-class population.

Physical labor is often categorized as being “lowly” or “menial” but the responsibility that it shoulders is of particularly high regard and one that we cannot live without. One of the predominant devices used by the farmers or agricultural workers is the wheelbarrow and the acknowledgment of a, before, the unadorned object now placed on a pedestal is an act of subtle and sincere appreciation. The chickens are also, an obvious agricultural reference.

The wheelbarrow is in a current state of unuse (probably, momentary) and this state can be an indication of a realization of how significant even a simple wheelbarrow is in everyday life. The sentimentality and significance of a very simple object are illustrated here.

Only when something is absent, do we notice the enormous part that it played in our lives. If the agricultural workers were to go on a strike, then the consequences like food scarcity, inflation, etc. will be inevitable. Therefore, dismissing the toils of the working class as being menial is a nonsensical belief

The theme of the Poem – The Red WheelBarrow

The theme of the poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow” is about the sentimentality of an everyday object, the monumental importance that it carries, and how there is always more than what meets the eye and on a wider scale, about humankind and its bond with nature and the elements. The wheelbarrow, when seen as a lone object, does not hold much significance but when it is looked at with a more evaluative eye, many meanings can be unearthed.

It can be a metonymy for the farmhands or broadly, the working class or it can simply be seen as a wheelbarrow that is sitting on the farmland after a heavy storm, and the rest of the wheelbarrow can denote the unfinished and many jobs that farmland has.

Forms of the poem – The Red WheelBarrow

Comprising eight lines, and four stanzas with couplets, it is a perfect example of imagist poetry. Inculcating the elements of an imagist poem, the poem is direct and vivid, creating a permanent impression in the mind of the reader and the economy of words does not allow for any superficial detail that doesn’t directly concern the “image” at hand. The poem is a product of the modernism movement and that explains its rather unusual and unique form. There is no set meter or rhyme that the poem follows.

The absence of punctuation and capitalization gives the poem a casual, almost conversational tone. There is no exact rhyme scheme, but the last words of the first line and last line might be taken as near rhyme: depends-chickens.

Literary devices

Williams has made quite some use of literary devices, despite the shortness of the poem. As an imagist poem, it has made the use of imagery. The wheelbarrow is expressed in minute detail and distinct clarity. Juxtaposition is applied in the poem, when an ordinary, often overlooked object like the wheelbarrow is given such high importance, as something that the whole world has to be dependent on. Alliteration is rather unclear, but it can be seen in “red rain”, “white water” and “beside-barrow”.

Line by Line Analysis of “The Red Wheelbarrow”

“so much depends
the red wheel

It must be noticed that the first stanza alone, doesn’t give any proper meaning and here the poet uses enjambment (the textbook definition being:- the continuation of a sentence or clause across a line break) for a cliffhanger or for an element of suspense. The first stanza is a typical cliffhanger and urges the reader to move on to the next line, in order to unravel the suspense brought about by the first stanza.

The lower case lettering of the first stanza can be misleading, given that the poet talks about a serious event as if the whole world hangs onto that specific thing as if it were a harbinger of something monumental.

The first line of every stanza has three words in the first line and one word in the second line, therefore, when only the first line of the stanza is read, the meaning is “the red wheel”, while the second line is read, the meaning changes to “the red wheel/barrow”, the use of enjambment is for providing the text with a fine musical rhythm and for giving it a certain, enigmatic and elegant connotation. Such enjambment can be seen in “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks.

“glazed with rain
beside the white

The poem has an elegant tone (the following observation made upon the words employed) and on the wheelbarrow is sheathed a thin “glaze” of rainwater. The wheelbarrow is so much neglected that it is left out in the elements but the poet adds the word “glaze” in order to give it a shiny and embellished covering.

The specification of the color “red” adds to better clarity of the image. The red wheelbarrow is said to place adjacent to the white chickens, which can be another factor as to why the wheelbarrow is overlooked. What we can derive is that the wheelbarrow is a plain, inanimate and dull object and therefore, besides the white chickens, there are higher chances of the said wheelbarrow being overlooked.

The poem can be an indication of the people who are essential to our lives but in the tumult, they go unnoticed and the wheelbarrow can be an allusion to those people. The only punctuation used in the poem is the final period, which could be a warning that when these “invisible” things are taken for granted and are not treated with any form of appreciation, the relationship between two things can deteriorate.

Thanks for reading, please leave your comments about the analysis and Summary of the poem.

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Arun Kumar S
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