In the poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams, there is no specific mention of any person. However, he wrote that the poem "sprang from affection" for an old man named Marshall, to paraphrase. How does this affection for Marshall come through in the poem? Is it visible in the subtext of the poem?

2 Answers 2


The exact quote you're alluding to is presumably this one, cited at Wikipedia:

["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.

So how did that affection get into the writing? Where's the connection between the old Marshall and the poem? For reference, the full poem is only 16 words long and goes as follows:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Maybe Williams was talking nonsense.

It's not unknown for authors, including poets, to just make stuff up when talking later on about the inspirations for their work. I found this article (mostly hidden behind a paywall, sorry - I'll include lengthy quotes here) which speculates that:

Williams' desire, late in his life, to say that his "affection for the old man somehow got into the writing" suggests his muse had trouble digesting Marshall and the black working-class experience he represents. Undoubtedly, Williams has a genuine affection for this man and sympathy for his plight that "somehow" get into the poem. But the question to ask is how they got there, because the poem, and Williams' lifelong relationship with it, would suggest that every effort was made to erase from the poem not only Marshall but, perhaps more importantly, Williams' feelings for him. [...]

As Williams sought different titles for the poem, little or no regard seems to be given to Marshall's role in the poem and even less to the black working-class experience he represents. Nonetheless, in so far as the title, "The Red Wheelbarrow," works to make the poem's "a red wheel / barrow" the wheelbarrow upon which so much depends, one could argue the definite article indicates its owner. In a certain way, it does, although the owner is usually read in terms of some abstraction—mankind, primitive man, rural life—not in terms of a historically specific individual. More than Marshall or these other owners, though, what the title's definite article indicates is Williams' ownership or authority, stating in effect: here is the red wheelbarrow I discovered and turned into "a red wheel / barrow." As Williams removes the poem from Spring and All and finds new contexts for it, he seeks to establish both his authority to speak for it, and, more importantly, its authority to speak for him. At some points in this process the emotional significance of Marshall all but disappears. At other points, however, Williams opens the poem up to the sort of symbolism and sentiment—those "extraneous comparisons, similes, [and] overweening autobiographies of the heart" that Zukofsky praised Williams for avoiding in Spring and All—that allow the figure of Marshall to appear.

(emphasis mine)

Let's be honest, there isn't really much room among those mere 16 words for "affection" or any other emotion to shine through very strongly. This seems to be the best anyone's been able to come up with (from the same source as above):

Combined with the thematic and color associations Perloff draws out, perhaps one could see Williams' admiration for the red wheelbarrow's black owner as lifting the poem's technical virtuosity into a whole other realm of social commentary and irony. The comment that "so much depends / upon" the wheelbarrow could be an acknowledgement of the precarious nature of Marshall's life of manual labor. And the vibrant red of the wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater could embody Marshall's blood, sweat and tears, silently condemning "the white / chickens" beside it. However, if these feelings are in the poem, they can only begin to emerge with the discovery of Marshall thirty years later in William's account of the poem in his article for Holiday.

  • This poem seems to be a very clear direction to high school students: "You don't understand poetry. You will never know why we picked these particular 16 words for inclusion in your textbook, and any thought inspired will have more to do with us as editors than with anything Williams may have had in mind." Feb 15, 2017 at 19:30

"The Red Wheelbarrow" presumably has some "hidden meaning".

Here is my own explication via transliteration:

so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.

I think it means:

so much depends upon

Here's why. Using @ = aleph, KH = het, kh = khaf, 3 = aiyin, a: = vowel "aye" and [T] for the ancient sound of the shin

  • wheelbarrow = KHaDoFeN < Aramaic KHaD = one + @oFeN = wheel.
  • red wheelbarrow = KHaDoFeN @aDoM KHaD BeN-@aDaM = one + man/human/person

  • rain water = Ma:-GeSHeM. Glazed = Z'khookhi.

  • with rainwater glazed = B'Ma:GeSHeM Z' khookhi B'MaGSHiM MaSHiaKH = as [the] corporealization of + [the] Messiah

  • Beside the = 3aL YaD Ha- 3aL YaDa: Ha- = by means of, through; because of [this]

  • white chickens = TaRNaGoLoT LaVaN [T]aR NaGiLaT LaBeN = sing, let us rejoice + for [the] son

Did Williams do this with conscious intent?
Did Williams know enough Hebrew to implement this process?

If this poem were written by Lewis Carroll, I would say "yes". Carroll was fluent in all of the languages mentioned in The Hunting of the Snark.

Williams’s mother was a Puerto Rican woman of French Basque and Dutch Jewish descent.
Perhaps he learned some Hebrew from his mother?
Perhaps he “engineered” this poem by doing the exact opposite of what I did?

  • 3
    I... speak Hebrew and I'm not sure what you're trying to say here. Can you please edit to clarify what exactly you're trying to say?
    – Mithical
    Mar 4, 2018 at 7:48

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