The Red Wheelbarrow (from poets.org)
William Carlos Williams
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
I have no idea what this poem means. But it isn’t hard to see what it suggests. “So much depends upon” combined with three images associated with farm life implies “earth” as an element. “Earth” would not just contrast with “rain water” but also with the “red wheel” split from the barrow. Is that an image meant to evoke a fiery sun? How could a sun – or fire of any sort – be “glazed with rain water?” We can see how one might say it is a “wheelbarrow” of sorts, bringing light and heat for growth. Perhaps “earth” is the combination of “fire” and “water.”
That is only a provisional conclusion. We breathe, as do other creatures upon the earth. “Barrow,” taken by itself, means “a large mound of earth or stones placed over a burial site.” It also means “a pig that has been castrated before reaching sexual maturity.” So if our prior considerations were pushing us to see the earth as a combination which is the locus of birth and growth, we now have to think about the earth as related to death, where we may violently consume other animals. Williams’ speaker sets the “wheelbarrow” and “rain water” “beside” the chickens we may eat. The “earth” is not equivalent to what is “upon” it.
Which brings us back to “so much depends upon.” The earth isn’t just a bunch of elements. It doesn’t just provide. It isn’t only a place we end up buried in. Fundamentally, it is where we exercise choice, even in our very nourishment. We push wheelbarrows, receive rain, raise chickens. It’s really stunning, on further reflection, how well “we” stayed hidden in consideration.