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The Great Figure

The Great Figure


by William Carlos Williams

Lines 1-6 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 1

Among the rain

  • In a poem this short, every word counts, so let's take 'em one by one.
  • The first word, "Among," has a strange sound when you repeat it to yourself. It means "surrounded by" or "in the midst of" multiple things.
  • If you isolate the phrase "Among the rain," as Williams does, the words do not quite make sense. They have a jarring effect, because "Among" refers to being in the presence of multiple things, and "the rain" is only one thing.
  • "Among the raindrops," for example, would make grammatical sense.
  • "Among" carries the suggestion of being in a group of people. There is the faint impression, then, that "the rain" is like a person or a crowd.

Line 2

and lights

  • The first line of the poem could have been set anywhere outdoors, but the second line puts us near human society – likely in a city.
  • Now the word "among" suddenly makes sense, because we have multiple objects. We've got a crowd on our hands: the rain, the lights, and maybe some other object that we'll learn about shortly.
  • Williams is setting the stage, as if he were about to present a drama. The setting is atmospheric, like a 1940s film noir movie or the game Heavy Rain. To complete the association, we'd only need to be shown someone lighting a cigarette in a trench coat under an umbrella.
  • The combination of the rain and lights makes for an interesting sight: the lights illuminate the individual droplets of rain as they fall down.

Line 3

I saw the figure 5

  • The observer of the poem's drama makes his entrance here: "I."
  • Next comes the appearance of the first verb: "saw." Not a terribly exciting verb, it places the speaker in a passive position relative to the scene.
  • But what comes after "saw" gets our attention: "the figure 5." This expression would be intriguing even if the poem were not called "The Great Figure."
  • A "figure" is like a symbol: a word or image that represents something else. A number is one of the most common types of figures. The number five is expressed as the figure "5." At the most basic level, "5" is just a drawing that can represent five of anything: candy bars, guinea pigs, cars, etc.
  • Aren't we just blowing you away with these complicated ideas?

Line 4

in gold

  • The figure 5 is in gold lettering. Either the number is painted in gold, or this is real gold. Maybe he's looking in a jewelry store window?
  • The gold number contrasts with the somewhat chaotic, even depressing surroundings. Also, a gold number seems like some kind of good-luck charm. Maybe the speaker should rush out to the casino and put all his money on "5" at the roulette table!

Lines 5-6

on a red

  • Like puzzle pieces falling into place, the gold number suddenly makes sense. The speaker is looking at the number painted gold on the side or back of a fire truck.
  • Williams contrasts the colors red and gold here, much like he contrasted the "red wheel barrow" with "white chickens" in "The Red Wheelbarrow."
  • By now the reader is trying to reconcile the almost mythic importance the poem has given the gold number with the conventional, everyday setting in which it appears. What is so "great" about a number on a fire truck?

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