Even though it consists of a single sentence broken down into four stanzas consisting of four words each, the poem "The Red Wheelbarrow", by William Carlos Williams is a very complex work. Each stanza is further broken into two lines between the third and forth word. The opening stanza is "so much depends/ upon". Depend can be looked at in a number of different ways. The first thing that comes to mind as a definition of "depend" is to count on, to trust to do something. Children are viewed as "dependants". If something is hung from a string it is said to be depending.
Sometimes it can be referred to as a particular choice. You might ask your boss for a raise. Your boss may tell you that it all "depends" on your performance on the job, that it hinges on your actions. This is what Williams is saying in this case. He is implying that a lot hinges on how you read the next line. He is trying to get you to ponder the poem itself. In effect what he is saying is how you view "a red wheel/ barrow" is very important to him, and the poem itself.
Williams wrote, “No ideas but in things”, meaning that it was the poets job to deal with concrete particulars and to let ideas take care of themselves. Further meaning that for some poets, like himself a wheelbarrow is simply a wheelbarrow. Nothing that is outside the poem can be placed inside the poem. For instance, it would be simple to say that the wheelbarrow was the thing that a lot depended on. The last stanza of the poem, "beside the white/ chickens" might cause the reader to see the wheelbarrow as a symbol.
Perhaps "so much depends/ upon" the wheelbarrow because it is an important farm implement. The farm could be inferred because the wheelbarrow is "beside the white/ chickens". However, Williams himself warns against doing this. How can we be sure that the farm exists? How can we know if a farm was what he had in mind?
The reader cannot say for sure at all. When I was younger I kept a chicken for a pet and I didn"t live on a farm. One cannot say that because a chicken exists that the farm exists as well. Williams himself tells us "No ideas but in things". If the connection between the wheelbarrow and the chicken is not a farm (and it cannot be because the farm is not in the poem) then what is it?
The only thing in the poem is the wheelbarrow itself. Everything else is descriptive of the wheelbarrow. The other lines call attention to or enhance certain aspects of the wheelbarrow. The third stanza, "glazed with rain/ water" these lines don’t call attention to rain but rather the rain accentuates the wheelbarrow.
The connotation would be a lot different if it said something similar to "rain covered". The way it is worded causes focus to be placed on the wheelbarrow itself. It"s not the rain that"s important. What is important however is how the rain is interpreted. Here the rain could also be said to be a symbol. Perhaps the symbolism of a rain-wet wheelbarrow could be hardship as in "it always rains on a parade". In this case I would argue that the rain is simply rain. It serves only as a method to further describe the wheelbarrow itself, to bring a clearer picture of it to the reader"s mind.
The next stanza "beside the white/ chickens" also calls attention to the wheelbarrow. The chickens aren"t symbols themselves. From the poem we know that the wheelbarrow is red. We also know that nearby are some chickens. The chickens nearby are white, that"s what is important, their color not the birds themselves.
The sharp whiteness of the birds is a dramatic contrast to the red of the wheelbarrow. Williams, instead of telling the reader that the wheelbarrow was a vibrant red, added some white chickens for a comparison. The chickens are only important because they describe the wheelbarrow in greater detail. The rain painted a picture of the wheelbarrow in the reader"s mind, the contrast of the white chickens colored-in that picture.
The lesson in "The Red Wheelbarrow" is to not overlook the smaller things in life. By focusing in on the wheelbarrow and including only the things that give greater detail to it, Williams is taking a quick sort of snapshot. By narrowing the reader's vision he gives what is described a greater deal of clarity. I would compare it to the occasions when I went to the optometrist and he gave me a piece of plastic that had a very small hole in it. When I held the plastic to my eye and looked through it, I couldn’t see a lot through the hole but what I did see was absolutely clear, not blurry.
This is what Williams is doing. A whole picture exists but he is only allowing us to see a very small portion of it. The portion that we are allowed to see is very clear. The lesson that Williams is trying to teach through this poem is people should not have the tendency to assume that all poets speak in metaphor; sometimes the poem is not that complex. This is a warning to students not to read too much into a simple poem.
Sometimes a wheelbarrow is simply a wheelbarrow. Perhaps a poem is like a car in that when it is taken apart to it’s basic components it no longer resembles the car. That’s the lessonbe careful how you interpret a poem. Trying to break a poem into it’s base components you end up with something that is entirely different from what the poet had in mind.