There are only 31 words in the poem, divided across 13 very short lines. The constantly enjambment means that the poem flows incredibly quickly. This is a representation of the firetruck speeding through the city. There is no time to stop, and the poem similarly does not slow down.
The Great Figure addresses the idea of a firetruck moving through a city by night. The poem is quite literally a flash in the dark. Taking maybe 15 seconds to read through, the poem is a direct reflection of its content, with the firetruck appearing and rapidly disappearing into the night. The poem can be read as a critique on how quickly life can pass us by. The transience of time is compounded into this image of a speeding firetruck. Indeed, the firetruck never stops, and we are only a witness to its passing. You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Great Figure
The first thing, and also last thing, Williams focuses on within this poem is the atmosphere. The key words from this descriptive field are ’rain’, ‘lights’, ‘rumbling’ and ‘dark city’. The description of the scene, although short, is a sensory overload. Williams hastens to fit in as many sights and sounds as he can during the 31 lines. By setting the poem within this rainy, dark city, the poem takes on an air of nostalgia. By not identifying the city, the reader can self-identify with the poem, reading it into a location of their choosing. Without the appearance of the firetruck, the scene is actually a little depressing. The focus on the ‘rain’ and ‘dark’ culminate into a dingy and washed out image. The sudden appearance of the truck which breathes life into the poem, searing itself on the memory of the reader.
The lack of sound within the city is also evident by the appearance of the truck. The onomatopoeic ‘siren howls’ and ‘wheels rumbling’ culminate together to slice through the silence of the city. This moment, although only a flash is one that sensorially captivates the reader. The flash of ‘red’ and ‘gold’, searing as an image accompanying the loudness of the firetruck.
This moment is temporary, yet very impactful. Perhaps here Williams is reflecting on the idea of memory, with this seemingly insignificant moment creating such a powerful image. This is supported by the odd elements which William writes, especially that of the number ‘5’ seared onto his brain. It does not always have to be the magnificent which is solidified in memory.
Movement is one of the key faucets of this The Great Figure . The slow steadiness of the ‘rain’ and ‘light’ beginning the poem are contrasted against the sudden disruption of the firetruck. Interestingly, ‘moving’ is one of the only words in the poem that has a line to itself, elevating its importance. The fleeting nature of the firetruck can be linked to the transitory nature of time. This moment of explosive action speeds past us and then is gone. The firetruck comes into, and out of, sight in the blink of an eye. Williams could be suggesting that the fleeting nature of life needs to be focused on. Moments happen and then they are gone, most lost to forgetting. Perhaps William urges the reader to be more present, find the extraordinary within the ordinary.
The Great Figure, Title and Images
The title is one that reflects exactly what happens in the poem. The adjective ‘great’ categorises the importance of the figure, with the fleeting image one that leaves a continuous impression.
Again, the strange balance between insignificance and memorability encompasses the poem. The sight itself is a forgetful one, firetrucks are an everyday occurrence for most people. Yet, there is something about the fleeting chaos which captivates the reader. The sudden disruption of everything, then the instant vanishing, is dazzling. This mundane moment has been understood as something phenomenal.
Moreover, colour is given lots attention within the poem and helps to illustrate the quick passing of the firetruck. In a flash, that which Williams remembers is of course the bold ‘red’ and ‘gold’ of the ‘figure 5’. These stark images burn brightly against the ‘dark city’ and help the reader to visualise the scene.
The blandness of the scene and how explosively it is captured represents Williams’ ideas on the fleeting nature of time. Memory is very strange, and that which one remembers can be totally random. For Williams, this insignificant moment has meant something. Although brief, this one flash of ‘figure 5’ has etched itself into the poet’s brain. I think what Williams is trying to convey is that even the most minute moments can be incredibly special. There does not have to be some awesome grandeur, even the mundane can be translated into the permanence of memory.
In a world where time is fleeting, William argues that memory is a glimpse of eternity.
About William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams was born in 1883 to an English father and Puerto Rican mother. Throughout his life, Williams spent over 40 years working as a doctor, while also enjoying literary pursuits. Valued as a poet, novelist and playwright, Williams was an inspiration to the Beat Generation in the 1950s and 60s. He was a key figure in the Imagist movement, being grouped amongst poets such as Ezra Pound and H.D. By identifying with the Imagist movement, Williams managed to escape the rigidity of his childhood. Growing up under two strict parents, his love for arts for placed secondary to his education in medicine.
In his lifetime he published many collections of poems, collecting awards as he did so. The most notable of these were the first National Book Award for Poetry; Gold Medal for Poetry of the National Institute of arts and Letters; named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress; finally, he won a Pulitzer Prize posthumously.