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What is the famous poem about the color red?

What is the famous poem about the color red?

The famous poem about the color red is “Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. This iconic modernist poem was originally published in 1923 and continues to be widely read, analyzed, and discussed today. In this article, we will explore the background, meaning, themes, and poetic devices used in “Red Wheelbarrow” to understand why it remains one of the most famous short poems of the 20th century.

About the Poet

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was an American poet and physician who was a leading figure of the modernist movement in early 20th century poetry. He was born in Rutherford, New Jersey and practiced medicine in the same area for most of his life, while also writing poetry, novels, essays, and plays. Williams was friends with many other writers and poets of the modernist era, including Ezra Pound and H.D. His poetry rejected traditional meters and forms in favor of experimental free verse focused on capturing the authentic rhythms of American speech. The Language and subjects of Williams’ poems were drawn from everyday life and centered on ordinary objects and people. As a poet, he aimed to invent an entirely new poetics that was grounded in the American idiom.

Background and Context

“Red Wheelbarrow” was originally published in Williams’ 1923 poetry collection Spring and All. By the time this collection was published, Williams had already established himself as a leading modernist poet through earlier works like Kora in Hell (1920) and Sour Grapes (1921). He was continuing to develop his signature spare, imagist style in the Spring and All collection. “Red Wheelbarrow” exemplifies Williams’ focus on using clear, sharp images from everyday life to convey meaning.

The brevity and free verse form of “Red Wheelbarrow” also aligns with the modernist priorities of compactness and experimentation in poetic forms. Many modernist poets like Williams were rebelling against the flowery romanticism and rhyming forms of 19th century poetry in favor of a harder, leaner style that mirrored the jarring new realities of the 20th century.

Text of the Poem

Here is the full text of Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The poem is only 16 words long, consisting of 4 short two line stanzas.

Meaning and Themes

At only 16 words long, “Red Wheelbarrow” uses crisp imagery to convey deeper symbolic meaning. The wheelbarrow can be seen as symbolizing hard work, manual labor, and the dignity of the working class. The fact that so much depends “upon” this wheelbarrow elevates it as an object of significance and purpose.

The color red often symbolizes vitality, energy, strength, and passion. The bright red wheelbarrow may represent life and vigor. Meanwhile, the glaze of rainwater adds a glistening beauty to this simple, functional object.

The white chickens can be interpreted as purity, innocence, or routine – clucking and pecking in their instinctive ways beside the stoic wheelbarrow. Together, the parts come together to portray the holiness and meaning that can be found in ordinary moments of life.

Overall, the poem seems to suggest that significance lies all around us if we pay attention. Small details like a wheelbarrow matter just as much as grand things in giving our lives meaning.

Literary Devices

Williams employs several poetic techniques to create vivid imagery within the concise language of “Red Wheelbarrow”:

Metaphor – The wheelbarrow serves as a metaphor for hard work and its role in society.

Symbolism – The red wheelbarrow and white chickens carry deeper symbolic meaning through their colors.

Imagery – Visual details like the glazed rainwater evoke sensory impressions.

Juxtaposition – The wheelbarrow and chickens are contrasted images that complement each other’s meaning.

Enjambment – Lines break in unexpected places creating dynamic tension.

Concrete Language – Clear, specific words like “glazed” and “rainwater” directly convey the image.


The structure of “Red Wheelbarrow” reinforces its meaning:

Brevity – The 16 word length concentrates the imagery.

4 Stanza Format – Each stanza contains an image contributing to the whole.

Lines per stanza – The couplets slow down the pace and focus reflection.

Sentence Fragments – No complete sentences increase ambiguity.

Importance and Legacy

“Red Wheelbarrow” has lived on as one of the most iconic American poems of the 20th century for several reasons:

Concise, sharp imagery Vivid details captured in few words resonate
Inventive modernist style Rebelled against formal conventions of the past
Focus on ordinary objects Elevates everyday items and moments
Meaning from ambiguity Interpretation remains open with no set answer

The poem continues to be frequently anthologized and analyzed in high school and college Literature courses as an exceptional example of modernist American poetry. It exemplifies Williams’ famous dictum “No ideas but in things.” Its layers of meaning beneath a simple surface inspire analysis and discussion. For all these reasons, “Red Wheelbarrow” will likely remain embedded in the canon of great modernist poems for generations to come.

Analysis by Other Experts

Many scholars and poets have offered perspectives on the meaning and importance of William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow.” Here is a sampling of analysis from experts:

Professor John Lye of Brock University has called it “one of the most famous and controversial poems of the 20th century.” He notes that the poem encourages the reader to look at everyday objects in new ways and see that they have dependent meanings.

Poet Billy Collins has said the poem captures the “hushed magic” of ordinary moments through vivid imagery. He notes how the patches of sunlight and glistening rain on the wheelbarrow create a “visual haiku.”

Critic Camille Paglia described the wheelbarrow as akin to an ancient religious shrine, representing “the link between exposure to light and visionary consciousness.” The wheelbarrow elevates mundane physicality into spiritual transcendence.

Poet Kenneth Rexroth saw the poem as asserting the value of work, skill, and purposeful action. The dignity of labor, exemplified by the weathered wheelbarrow, is what gives life meaning.

Dana Gioia said the poem allows readers to “share one man’s moment of perception…We look, we see, we know.” The wheelbarrow scene creates an epiphany of significance.


Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow”:

What is the setting of the poem?

The poem has no specified setting, but the image of a wheelbarrow by chickens suggests a farm or rural area.

What style of poem is “Red Wheelbarrow”?

It is considered a prime example of modernist imagist poetry due to its focus on precise imagery in free verse lines.

Why did Williams write the poem?

He likely wanted to capture the simple beauty of a real life image while elevating an ordinary object as metaphorically meaningful.

What literary devices are used?

Devices like metaphor, juxtaposition, concrete words, and enjambment help create vivid imagery and symbolic meaning.

Why is the wheelbarrow red?

The red color symbolically suggests energy, passion, and vitality within the wheelbarrow object.


In only 16 words, William Carlos Williams’ poem “Red Wheelbarrow” uses crisp imagery and inventive form to convey deep meaning. It continues to engage and inspire readers to see significance in everyday objects and moments. The vivid snapshot of the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain beside white chickens will ensure this iconic modernist poem remains famous for generations to come. For a piece of writing so short, “Red Wheelbarrow” has had an outsized impact and legacy in modern poetry.