Williams is considered a "modernist" poet, meaning that his poetry deals with the distinctiveness of modern life: urbanization, new modes of communication, the isolation of the individual, and the seeming randomness of everyday existence. All of these themes appear at some point in his work. "The Great Figure" is devoted to the particularly modern experience of being in a big city when a big, noisy truck passes you by, headed toward some unknown emergency. In the old days, when most people lived in small towns, they would probably think, "Heavens! I hope that truck isn't headed toward Auntie June's cottage!" Nowadays, we're more likely to think, "Hmm, I wonder what the number on the truck stands for."
Questions About Technology and Modernization
Why do you think the movement of the fire truck is described as "tense"?
What is the effect of all that noise at the end of the poem?
Which parts of the fire truck does Williams emphasize? Which parts does he ignore?
How is "The Great Figure" a modern poem? Aren't modern poems supposed to be hard to understand?
Chew on This
The poem shows how, in the modern world, people must find sacred objects in their everyday lives, not from the traditions of the past.
"The Great Figure" celebrates the excitement of modernity's break with the past rather than lamenting it.