“The Red Wheelbarrow” is a free verse poem by William Carlos Williams that was first published in 1923. The poem consists of a single sentence describing a red wheelbarrow that is glazed with rainwater and sitting beside some white chickens. The poem is often interpreted as an example of imagist poetry, which emphasizes the use of precise, concrete images to convey meaning. The poem has been widely anthologized and is considered one of Williams’s most famous works.
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Source: The Collected Poems: Volume I 1909-1939 (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1938).
William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow” from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1909-1939, edited by Christopher MacGowan. Copyright 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corporation. Public Domain.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams is a seminal piece of imagist poetry that conveys its message through clear, sharp images without excess verbiage or metaphor. The poem presents a single, simple image: a red wheelbarrow, wet with rainwater, standing next to white chickens. The opening line, “so much depends upon,” suggests that this ordinary scene is of great significance, although Williams does not elaborate on what specifically depends on the wheelbarrow, leaving it open to interpretation.
The focus on the wheelbarrow’s color and its condition, being “glazed with rainwater,” along with the stark contrast of the “white chickens,” serves to draw the reader’s attention to the beauty and importance of commonplace objects and scenes. It reflects a moment in time, frozen and detailed, that might otherwise be overlooked.
This poem is celebrated for its ability to capture a vivid picture with minimal language, encouraging the reader to contemplate the interconnectedness of things and the value found in everyday moments and objects. The layout of the poem itself—breaking the sentence across stanzas and lines—forces the reader to slow down and consider each phrase carefully, further emphasizing the significance of the image. Williams’s work suggests that even the most mundane aspects of life can be imbued with depth and meaning.
Opening line: “so much depends upon”
These words introduce the poem with an assertion of importance. The phrase “so much depends” creates a sense of urgency and significance, yet Williams leaves it ambiguous as to what “so much” actually refers to. This ambiguity invites the reader to ponder the interconnectedness of objects and events in the world, suggesting that even the smallest things can have great importance.
Lines 2-3: “a red wheel barrow”
The poem’s subject is introduced here: a wheelbarrow, an everyday object often associated with labor and utility. The use of the color “red” is striking, calling attention to the wheelbarrow’s distinct presence. The breaking of the word “wheelbarrow” into two lines emphasizes the object’s physical structure, and perhaps metaphorically, its function — to carry loads, just as these simple objects carry weight in our lives.
Lines 4-5: “glazed with rain water”
The imagery here is vivid—the wheelbarrow is not just wet; it’s “glazed,” a word choice that evokes a visual of a glossy, reflective surface created by the rain. This not only captures a moment in time, following a rainfall, but also reflects on the transformative effect of nature on man-made objects, highlighting their beauty.
Lines 6-7: “beside the white chickens.”
The final lines place the wheelbarrow in context, beside “white chickens.” The color contrast between the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens is visually striking, and placing the wheelbarrow in a farmyard setting grounds it in a specific place and time. The chickens also add life to the scene, contrasting the inanimate wheelbarrow with animate creatures, suggesting a harmony between tools and animals in this snapshot of rural life.
Imagery and Form
The poem’s structure is unusual—eight lines divided into four stanzas, each stanza composed of a two-word line followed by a three-word line. This form forces a pause after each line, making the reader consider each image on its own and as part of the whole. The simplicity of the language and the layout reflects the imagist desire to strip away complexity and focus on the image itself.
I feel a quiet reverence for the overlooked moments in life upon reading “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. The poem illuminates the ordinary, casting a red wheelbarrow and white chickens in a new, significant light that stirs a sense of wonder within me. The stark, clear imagery and the weight of importance placed on such a simple scene prompt a contemplative stillness, a pause to consider the beauty and meaning inherent in the everyday. It’s as if the poem invites me to see the world through a lens that captures and magnifies the subtle yet profound elements of the mundane.