The Great Figure

Discussion questions and related resources for the poem "The Great Figure" by William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams was a 20th-century American poet whose poetry, along with that of other modernist and imagist poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, was radically different from the more flowery Romantic and Victorian poetry that preceded it. Imagist poetry attempts to capture the essence of its subjects by painting a vivid picture with simple, brief, direct language, stripped of the long-winded figurative descriptions characteristic of some schools of poetry. In its descriptions of everyday things, it seeks to reveal the power of the ordinary, to show the significance of things that we take for granted, and to renew the vitality of language. Consider this context as you read and think about this poem.

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
moving tense
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

Questions for Discussion and Writing

1. Read the poem aloud, listen to the way it sounds, and form a mental picture of what it describes. What feelings do the poem’s imagery and sounds evoke? What sound devices are present? Cite specific examples to show how these images and sounds are related to the feelings evoked by the poem.

2. Consider the form of the poem (structure, meter, rhyme scheme—or lack of these elements). In what ways does the poem’s form contribute to its effect and to its meaning?

3. How would you describe the tone of the poem (the author’s attitude toward the subject)? Discuss specific details that develop this tone.

4. What is “the great figure”? In what senses might it be thought of as great?

5. Why is the firetruck’s movement “tense” (line 7)? Why is it “unheeded” (line 8), and what is significant about this fact? Think about what a firetruck’s movement and sirens imply.

6. Given all of these factors, how would you explain the purpose and meaning of the poem?

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Notes and questions © 2019 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.