The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams: Summary and Critical Analysis

One of the most famous poems in the twentieth century American poetry 'The Red Wheelbarrow' is an Imagist poem. 'The Red Wheel barrow' is a poem of the Imagist movement. Imagism was a movement in early twentieth century poetry that emphasized concise language and fresh imagery over abstract ideas. The poem can be taken to illustrate many of the features of modern American poetry.

William C. Williams (1883-1963)

Though it is deceptively simple, it is actually rich and multiple in meaning. It foregrounds a commonplace situation and image with sheer simplicity and an unusual poem is made out of a single, simple sentence. The poem is composed of one sentence broken up into four stanzas of two lines each.

This new vision of the common image is that the poet is obviously aiming at. With careful word choice, attention to language and unusual stanza breaks, Williams has turned an ordinary sentence into a beautiful poem that has influenced the very idea of what poetry is. The poem is at first sight puzzling, but if the reader knows the basic techniques and tact for exploring the poetic situation and meaning, it is not so. First, (as with any poem) it is necessary to guess who this persona (not the poet) is. Then, a series of other questions can be asked about its basic (imaginative) situation in order to understand the simple paraphrasable meaning of the poem.

The speaker is a farmer, more specifically a poultry farmer, because he is talking about ‘chickens’ and ‘wheelbarrow’. He doesn’t seem to be talking/ addressing to anyone; this seems to be a typical poetic context of meditation (thinking aloud to oneself). He seems to be in the backyard of his house. Looking at the wheelbarrow kept beside the poultry sheds, and a few chickens seem to be huddling beside the wheelbarrow. It is most likely early in the morning, after a rainy night, because the wheelbarrow is glazing/ shining with rainwater as if in the first hour after sunrise. In this situation, the speaker has just noticed the wheelbarrow (with chickens beside it) and he suddenly and strongly realizes that it is an important thing on which “so much depends”. This first stanza is meditative; the farmer suddenly becomes thoughtful when he realizes that an ordinary object is practically so important, and probably that he has never realized it. Yes, so much depends on the wheelbarrow, that is, for the poultry farmer: his very life, his and his family’s livelihood, their happiness and success, besides their food, clothes and other basic needs, their education and health care…. and what not. This is the simple meaning of the poem. But generally and symbolically it means much more.

The images in the poem must then be interpreted in the context of its basic situation. The speaker sees that wheelbarrow is red. Red probably suggests things like life, blood, courage and zeal that are a part of what the farmer sustains and supports. The wheel barrow is one thing to us, but by splitting the word in two lines. The poet has separated the wheel and the barrow (the body). The barrow depends on the wheel. The wheel could be the symbol of life (process), progress, passage of time and life, and so on. The theme of dependence and interdependence can be extended in every direction. The chickens are white, probably suggesting that this is a pure and sacred, uncorrupted and honest profession. There is also peace in this natural and simple mode of a farmer. It may also remind readers of innocence. The word ‘rainwater’ is split into two to make us see them separately and in turns, and appreciate them. The poem draws our attention to several things, but all the time with the utmost attention possible. The glazing/shining wheelbarrow, bathed with the natural water of rain and the white chickens create a simple but significant imagery that is symbolically accountable in many ways. A Christian reader may interpret the red as the blood of Christ and the white as related to the white of sacredness.

The Red Wheelbarrow is a good example of Williams's statement, "No idea, but in things". The poem presents an ordinary object as the exclusive image. The poem focuses so deeply upon this image until the reader is forced to discover that this wheelbarrow is not an ordinary object, but is the poem itself. By the end of the poem, the image of the wheelbarrow is seen as the actual poem, as in a painting when one sees the actual thing that is painted. It becomes the actual piece of art, the piece of poetry that it is. The concept of "no ideas but in things" means that all ideas are dependent upon the concrete things that we directly observe; in this case the whole idea of 'theme' or any abstract concept thereof "depends" so much on the actual 'thing', the wheelbarrow.

The poem is remarkable in its poetic technique of creating a meditative poem out of a simple prosaic sentence. For instance, the pause between the word "wheel" and "barrow" has the effect of breaking the image down to its most basic parts. 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. "Red wheel-barrow" is about the relationship between the imagination and reality.

The meaning of this poem may in fact seem so transparent because of its sheer simplicity. It basically releases us from the expectations that good poetry must be difficult to understand or that it must be written in a language removed from everyday speech. It is a new Romanticism that Williams is putting into practice, once again after Wordsworth, who did not actually implement the idea of simplicity. The techniques of the poem in foregrounding the simple as special are remarkable. Williams's use of line-break forces us to read slowly; it invites us to look for significance in the scene described and the word used to describe it. There need be no hidden meaning, though one is free to see it; but one should not overlook the simple beauty of the poem as that of the simple wheelbarrow. While the sense is ordinary and a perhaps typically American, we are urged to see it in a new light.

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Shrestha, Roma. "The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 19 Nov. 2013,

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