Poetry Explication: "The Red Wheelbarrow," by William Carlos Williams
|Source: "`The Red
Wheelbarrow'," in Poetry for Students, Vol. 1, Gale
Source Database: Literature Resource Center
Copyright (c) 2001 by Gale Group . All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.
Author: William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) also known as: William C. Williams
William Carlos Williams's poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" was first published in the collection Spring and All in 1923. The poem is a good example of Williams's statement, "No ideas, but in things." As an unusually broken up sentence, the poem presents the reader with a seemingly ordinary object (the wheelbarrow) as the exclusive image. The poem focuses so deeply upon this image that the reader discovers the wheelbarrow is not an ordinary object, but is the poem itself. Such close scrutiny of an image reminds one of certain aspects of art. As in painting, the poem uses line and color to form the image of the wheelbarrow. Notice the painterly language. The colors red and white contrast sharply with one another, while the word "glazed" works to transform the image into its new, poetic form.
The opening lines set the tone for the rest of the poem. Since the poem is composed of one sentence broken up at various intervals, it is truthful to say that "so much depends upon" each line of the poem. This is so because the form of the poem is also its meaning. This may seem confusing, but by the end of the poem the image of the wheelbarrow is seen as the actual poem, as in a painting when one sees an image of an apple, the apple represents an actual object in reality, but since it is part of a painting the apple also becomes the actual piece of art. These lines are also important because they introduce the idea that "so much depends upon" the wheelbarrow.
Here the image of the wheelbarrow is introduced starkly. The vivid word "red" lights up the scene. Notice that the monosyllable words in line 3 elongates the line, putting an unusual pause between the word "wheel" and "barrow." This has the effect of breaking the image down to its most basic parts. The reader feels as though he or she were scrutinizing each part of the scene. Using the sentence as a painter uses line and color, Williams breaks up the words in order to see the object more closely.
Again, the monosyllable words elongate the lines with the help of the literary device assonance. Here the word "glazed" evokes another painterly image. Just as the reader is beginning to notice the wheelbarrow through a closer perspective, the rain transforms it as well, giving it a newer, fresher look. This new vision of the image is what Williams is aiming for.
The last lines offer up the final brushstroke to this "still life" poem. Another color, "white" is used to contrast the earlier "red," and the unusual view of the ordinary wheelbarrow is complete. Williams, in dissecting the image of the wheelbarrow, has also transformed the common definition of a poem. With careful word choice, attention to language, and unusual stanza breaks Williams has turned an ordinary sentence into poetry.