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The poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” is considered to be the masterpiece of 20th century writer William Carlos Williams, supposedly written in five minutes when he was caring for a sick child that eventually died (The Book of the Dead Man 109).
While there have been many interpretations over the years as to the meaning behind the words of the poem, the use of Occam’s Razor which states “one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything” (Pretorius 339) suggests that an explanation examining the situation when the poem was written rather than using all manner of literary theory and word by word examination would be the best and most accurate way of determining what Williams was trying to impart. Though the red wheelbarrow can be described in many ways its influence in our lives is priceless.
Examining the Pattern of the Poem
The overall pattern of the poem is slightly reminiscent to the style utilized in Japanese haikus where importance is placed on the power of individual words to convey meaning to the reader. In this case instead of the various lines being measured by syllables they are instead measured by words with each stanza in the poem having three words with a single line coming after that with just a single word.
Again, this is almost reminiscent of the style of various Japanese haikus however in this case the words in the poem have different measurements with some having three syllables while others have four. Overall this work has a specific combination which attempts to place a certain amount of stress on certain words but for some reason appears to miss placing a sufficient amount.
Use of Symbology
In lines three to four of the poem the image of a wheelbarrow is emphasized with the word “red” clearly being used to enhance the visual image of the wheelbarrow itself.
This is noticeable due to the fact that the monosyllable words which can be found in line three seem to elongate the length of the stanza placing a distinct pause between the word “wheel” and the word “barrow” which helped to actually break down the image of the wheelbarrow into separate parts. In such a case the examination of stanza by a reader seems to be a scrutiny of the individual parts of the scene (Barker 112).
It appears to be a method by which the speaker attempts to place greater emphasis on seeing the object in the scene more closely which actually conforms to the famous phrase “no ideas but in things”(Barker 112). One method of looking at this is that the speaker is using the words as a means of capturing the essence of the moment, similar to how a painter uses various lines and color combinations to create a still life painting.
This apparent style can actually be seen in the rest of the poem. For example on lines five to six the word “glazed” is emphasized which is actually a term associated with certain painting styles. In the last lines the word “white” is also focused on, similar to the word “red” in lines three to four which further enhances the apparent connection between the poem and the creation of a painting.
Speaker’s Point of View
The speaker of the poem appears to place emphasis on the phrase “so much depends” (Williams 1) and on the word “wheelbarrow” apparently conveying importance on an apparently unimportant object that most people tend to overlook.
It appears as if the speaker places a type of importance on the wheelbarrow beyond what it was meant to do and it is this importance that the author seems to connect to the phrase in the first line of the poem. The speaker seems to gaze at the wheelbarrow from afar using the chickens as some sort of method of estimating distance. If this is so the wheelbarrow could be interpreted as a type of goal for the speaker.
Earlier it was stated that the best way of determining the meaning of the poem is one using Occum’s Razor as a means to eliminate unnecessary additions to the examination process. An examination of the history of the poem shows that it was created within the span of five minutes by the author when he was tending to a child that was terminally ill.
An examination of this event shows that the author who was also a physician thought that if he could get the child to walk to the wheelbarrow in the courtyard, to employ some form of exercise on the body, the health of the child would be able to improve. Unfortunately the child died before such an attempt was made and the author realized that he placed so much importance on the goal of the wheelbarrow that he neglected helping the child in another fashion.
The poem “the red wheelbarrow” can be interpreted as a moment in time captured by the speaker in an apparent still life painting, wherein the absolute goal represented by the wheelbarrow which the speaker focused on resulted in the speaker neglecting what was truly important.
The emphasis on the bright red color is due to the speaker using it in comparison to the goal blinding him to what truly must be done. The phrase “so much depends” (Williams 1) is thus meant to be said in sorrow due to the utter blindness by which the speaker focused too much on what was ahead of himself that he neglected what was around.
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The white chickens actually represent the tasks he was meant to accomplish but due to the brightness of the goal he set forth for himself he ignored what he was suppose to do and blindly focused on reaching it. As a result the end was sorrow and regret, the poem is meant to influence our lives in a way in which we should not blindly follow the “red” goals of our life, that we should take into account that which we neglect.
This can take the form of parents neglecting their children in order to provide them with a better life, a husband ignoring his wife in order to plan their future and society merely placing money in the hands of a beggar while ignoring the true problem at hand. The poem speaks volumes in its simplicity, it captures what is today a common occurrence and it warns of the folly such actions have on life.
Barker, Wendy. “Teaching “The Red Wheelbarrow” the Thirtieth Time.” Southern Review. 112 – 114. Southern Review, 2010. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web.
Pretorius, Elizabeth J. “Issues of complexity in reading: Putting Occam’s razor aside for now.” Southern African Linguistics & Applied Language Studies 28.4 (2010): 339-356. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web.
“The Book of the Dead Man (The Red Wheelbarrow).” Boulevard. 109-110. OpoJaz, Inc., 2010. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Red Wheelbarrow .” Park Illustration. Sungkyung Park, 2010. 1.Web. <http://parkillustration.blogspot.com/2010/04/red-wheelbarrow.html>.