The Red Wheelbarrow
"The Red Wheelbarrow" is a poem by American modernist poet and physician William Carlos Williams (1883–1963). The poem was originally published without a title and was designated as "XXII" as the twenty-second work in Williams' 1923 book Spring and All, a hybrid collection which incorporated alternating selections of free verse poetry and prose. It is one of Williams' most frequently anthologized poems, and is considered a prime example of early twentieth-century Imagism.
Writing and publication
from Spring and All (1923)
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The pictorial style in which the poem is written owes much to the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz and the precisionist style of Charles Sheeler, an American photographer-painter whom Williams met shortly before composing the poem. The poem represents an early stage in Williams' development as a poet. It focuses on the objective representation of objects, in line with the Imagist philosophy that was ten years old at the time of the poem's publication. The poem is written in a brief, haiku-like free-verse form. With regard to the inspiration for the poem, Williams wrote:
["The Red Wheelbarrow"] sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.
In 2015, research identified the man who had inspired the work as Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr., who lived a few blocks away from Williams in Rutherford, New Jersey and is buried in Ridgelawn Cemetery in neighboring Clifton.
When the poem was originally published in Spring and All, it was simply titled "XXII", denoting the poem's order within the book. Referring to the poem as "The Red Wheelbarrow" has been frowned upon by some critics, including Neil Easterbrook, who said that such reference gives the text "a specifically different frame" from that which Williams originally intended.
Prior to the revelation about Marshall, some critics and literary analysts believed that the poem was written about one of Williams' patients, a little girl who was seriously ill:
This poem is reported to have been inspired by a scene in Passaic, New Jersey, where Williams was attending to a sick young girl. Worried that his patient may not survive, Williams looked out the window and saw the wheelbarrow and chickens.
At the time, I remember being mystified by the poem. However, being properly trained in literary criticism, I wondered what the real meaning of the poem was, what it was really about. ... What is left out of Williams' poem is the fact that when he conceived that image he was sitting at the bedside of a very sick child (Williams was a medical doctor). The story goes that as he sat there, deeply concerned about the child, he looked out the window, saw that image, and penned those words.
I remember well the sneer associated with sentimentality in the university English classes of the early 70s. William Carlos Williams' celebrated red wheelbarrow poem was written after a night at the bedside of a desperately sick child, but to directly mention the child and describe that situation would have been to court pathos. Such a poem would have been fit only for greeting cards or the poor souls who didn't know any better than to like Robert Service.
Of course you can't figure it out by studying the text. The clues aren't there. This poem was meant to be appreciated only by a chosen literary elite, only by those who were educated, those who had learned the back story (Williams was a doctor, and he wrote the poem one morning after having treated a child who was near death. The red wheelbarrow was her toy.) 
The editors of Exploring Poetry believe that the meaning of the poem and its form are intimately bound together. They state that "since the poem is composed of one sentence broken up at various intervals, it is truthful to say that 'so much depends upon' each line of the poem. This is so because the form of the poem is also its meaning." This viewpoint is also argued by Henry M. Sayre who compared the poem to the readymade artwork of Marcel Duchamp.
Peter Baker analyzed the poem in terms of theme, writing that "Williams is saying that perception is necessary to life and that the poem itself can lead to a fuller understanding of one's experience."
Kenneth Lincoln saw humor in the poem, writing "perhaps it adds up to no more than a small comic lesson in the necessity of things in themselves."
In popular culture
- "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a recurring reference in Mr. Robot. The poem is referenced in the season 2 finale "eps2.9_pyth0n-pt2.p7z", and also the sixth episode of season 3 "eps3.5_kill-process.inc" . In the season 2 finale, the character Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) recites it to protagonist Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), explaining that it was the only English that Wellick's father knew.
- This poem becomes a significant plot point in the second season of the podcast The Black Tapes. It is left as a message for Dr. Richard Strand by his missing wife Coralee.
- In the television show Homeland Season 3 Episode 8, Carrie receives a text message that says "So much depends upon..." she replies "a red wheel barrow."
- The poem is briefly referenced in the Jay Asher novel Thirteen Reasons Why.
- It is mentioned in the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Just like Williams, who was sitting at the deathbed of a child as he wrote the poem, so the reader is aware that one of the children is going to die.
- In the "Rhyme for Your Life" episode of Arthur, Binky is thrown into prison for not being able to speak in rhymes in a dream sequence. His cellmate is William Carlos Williams, and together they escape using a red wheel barrow and a tunnel he had dug.
- The poem is mentioned in "The Fault in Our Stars", a novel by John Green and in the movie adaptation of the same name.
- In the television show The Office (US), Season 8 Episode 4, Dunder Mifflin CEO Robert California recites it.
- The poem is briefly referenced in the Sharon Creech novel Love That Dog.
- The poem is referenced in a cartoon by Edward Steed, featuring garden implements plotting around a table, captioned “Everything depends upon the red wheelbarrow.” published in The New Yorker in March 2020.
- Williams, William Carlos, "XXII", Spring and All (New York: Contact Editions / Dijon: Maurice Darantière, 1923).
- Hefferman, James A. W. (1991). "Ekphrasis and Representation". New Literary History. 22 (2): 297–316. doi:10.2307/469040. JSTOR 469040.
- Cho, Hyun-Young (2003). "The Progression of William Carlos Williams' Use of Imagery". Writing for a Real World. 4: 62–69.
- Quoted in Rizzo, Sergio (2005). "Remembering Race: Extra-poetical Contexts and the Racial Other in "The Red Wheelbarrow"". Journal of Modern Literature. 29 (1): 35. doi:10.1353/jml.2006.0011.
- Pugliese, Nicholas (July 18, 2015). "Poet William Carlos Williams' muse found, honored in Rutherford". The Record. Retrieved 19 July 2015.
- Easterbrook, Neil (1994). ""Somehow Disturbed at the Core": Words and Things in William Carlos Williams". South Central Review. 11 (3): 25–44. doi:10.2307/3190244. JSTOR 3190244.
- Robert A. Troyer, "So Much Depends Upon Linguistics". Unfolding Linguistics, ed. by Wirote Aroonmanakan. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Press, 2007, p. 209-216. Troyer cites Lezlie Couch's 1987 essay "So Much Depends" (English Journal, v76 n7 p. 29-35, November 1987) for this information.
- G. Lynn Nelson, Writing and Being (New World Library, 2004), p. 69.
- Alice Major, Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science (University of Alberta Press, 2011), p. 119.
- Dave Wolverton, "On Writing as a Fantastist". Tangent fantasy/SF review magazine, vol. 18, Spring 1997. Entire text online at On Writing as a Fantasist at the Tangent website, reprinted by permission.
- Hollander, John. Vision and Resonance: Two Sense of Poetic Form. Copyright © 1975 by Oxford UP. cited here
- Exploring Poetry, Gale. © Gale Group Inc. 2001
- Sayre, Henry. The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1983 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
- Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.
- Lincoln, Kenneth.Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890–1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.