William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”

The Red Wheelbarrow (from poets.org)
William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Comment:

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.

4 Comments

  1. Once again I feel myself compelled to take a stubbornly concrete interpretation.

    Have you ever tried to change the oil in your car? Or stared perplexed at a computer error for hours, only for a geek to resolve it in a few keystrokes? Or tried to do yardwork with the wrong tool? (Bare hands rather than a shovel; a shovel rather than a rake, etc.)

    So much depends on the right tool or the right approach. Think of a man lost in a desert. The right direction is such a trivial small bit of knowledge, almost too small a thing to even be called ‘data’. But it means the entire world to that man – the entire world.

    So much depends on little pieces of metal being 0.451mm wide and not 0.450mm, and on countless other dimensions. (Think of the insides of a jet engine, of thousands of planes and even more tens of thousands of people not falling screaming out of the sky.)

    Carlos Williams is sharing with us, in true Imagist style, a sudden realization, an epiphany in a previously mundane image.

    Here is a farm. It seems robust and eternal and sturdy. Nothing about this neglected wheelbarrow, glazed with rain and noticed only by fowl, draws our attention – until we suddenly realize how fragile everything is, how much everything has to go right 99.999% of the time, how without a wheelbarrow, we cannot do critical tasks and the whole complex farm ecosystem loses homeostasis and falls apart.

    (I sometimes have this feeling on the highway. Oh my god! I could die in so many ways right now, with just a tiny movement of my steering wheel or anyone else’s steering wheel! How can I possibly still be alive after all these trips?)

  2. I agree with Emory my initial take on this poem – every-time i’ve encountered it -was always a general like – without really understanding the meaning behind it – or i never invested much energy into thinking about it- because to be honest i kind of dismissed it as simplistic. With your analysis i see how wrong i was to be so quick to dismiss.

    I’d only like to add in to the mix that the red wheel barrow is a human concoction that sustains our lives. Its part of our ability to harness the power of nature that makes us unique. Earth/fire/ and wildlife have always existed but its the wheel barrow that allows them to be combined in such unique and wholly new combinations that allow them to in the end benefit us. so the choice we have is how we chose to harness the power of the wonderful possibility.

    It sounds like an homage to the human intellect.Thats my two cents. Thanks for the analysis.

  3. I always took this one literally like gwern and thought it was pretty pointless. Have fun making fun of me, but I still think it’s pointless.

    so much depends
    upon

    a gray laptop
    computer

    with a mostly dead battery

    laying on the stained
    tan carpet

Leave a Comment