Robert Frost’s “Neither Out Far nor In Deep”–The Nature of Aspiration, Longing, Disappointment, and Fulfillment

Today, I had it in mind to share a poem by Robert Frost, “The Bearer of Evil Tidings.”  Unfortunately, this poem has no version which is in the public domain yet (i.e., which has been out for a sufficient period of time and can be found elsewhere on the Internet), and so my own sense of aspiration and longing to communicate both the poem and an analysis closely interwoven with it cannot be met.  Strangely and funnily enough, however, as I was searching the Frost poems that are quotable in full, I ran across another Frost poem which I find intriguing and worth commenting on, and so I wasn’t doomed to disappointment, but instead was able to fulfill at least some part of my desire to share a Frost poem today.  The title of the poem is “Neither Out Far nor In Deep,” and it appears in several other places on the Internet, but I want to quote it in full, so here goes:

“The people along the sand/All turn and look one way./They turn their back on the land./They look at the sea all day./As long as it takes to pass/A ship keeps raising its hull;/The wetter ground like glass/Reflects a standing gull./The land may vary more;/But wherever the truth may be–/The water comes ashore,/And the people look at the sea./They cannot look out far./They cannot look in deep./But when was that ever a bar/To any watch they keep?”

Some commentators on this poem (who can be found in other sites on the Internet) like to point out that the people who watch the sea and its horizon are deluded (are in fact “gulls” like the bird in the foreground, that is, “dupes”).  Others point to the finite nature of human achievement.  By contrast, I would like to point to the infinite nature of human aspiration, which persistently looks at that which seems opaque, or boundless, or impenetrable.  The received wisdom about this poem also seems to be that Frost is taunting or mocking the effort to see “out far” or “in deep,” but I’m not sure that’s really the point of the poem.  It may well be that he is in fact practicing a sort of self-mockery in titling his poem “Neither Out Far nor In Deep,” as if he was aware that his own view is shallower than that of those whom he is watching.  The mystery of the sea beckons, casts its external evidences forward (like ships and sand–the “wetter ground”–and the gull) and seems to frustrate or deliberately limit what can be seen.  Still, the humans insist on their view of the horizon and the water which “comes ashore” to such an extent that Frost, writing of them, does not say that they “turn their backs on the land” but rather that they “turn their back on the land,” as if they were all one body.

As one body thus the humans “look at the sea all day,” regardless of the land behind them which “may vary more.”  They clearly find something which makes up to them for the fact that “they cannot look out far” and “they cannot look in deep”–perhaps after all, Frost is not slighting the watchers at the shore, but is instead commenting on and commending to our attention the nature both of disappointment and fulfillment, and the difference between goal and process, between achievement and journey.  For, despite the fact that the sea seemingly limits our abilities to penetrate its meaning, still the goal and the achievement of doing so may not be the correct things for us to be focusing on.  Perhaps instead we are meant to be focusing on the process of the quest and the journey, of the seeking itself.  And thus, the people who sit and stare so fixedly at the sea are not necessarily the “dupes” of the view (and of Frost, one might add), but instead are doing what humans always do when faced with a limitless puzzle–continuing to ponder and question the conundrum in view, somehow secure in the “knowledge” that even if none of the present watchers manage to circumvent the enigma’s unending nature, yet there is more than enough of that nature there to supply generations to come with riddles which they can solve, not perhaps the ultimate riddle of existence, but smaller goals to achieve which all chip away at that riddle, piece by piece, adding more and more to the stock of human understanding.  And here, I’ve mixed Frost’s metaphor, by suggesting that the sea (a fluid, after all) is a solid something which can be chipped away at like a block of stone–I apologize to my critical readers for this figure, though of course I could switch my figure and say that Frost, in mentioning “the wetter ground like glass” means to foreground the sand as an objective correlative of sorts for what the sea itself endlessly washes back and forth, gradually itself eroding the solid earth beneath.

Finally, the nature of human faithfulness to “keeping watch” is perhaps also being commented upon, whether or not one sees it as commendable being a matter of individual interpretation:  “They cannot look out far./They cannot look in deep./But when was that ever a bar/To any watch they keep?” suggests other sorts of watches, such as religious vigils and death watches over deceased bodies or ill persons, and the victory of human perseverance in maintaining watches of these sorts.  For, who can look “out far” or “in deep” to the endless mystery of human life and death, and not wonder “wherever the truth may be?”  Whether “on the land” of our ordinary perspectives or “on the sea” of our more unusual views and speculations, we are both limited by our capacities and distinctly suited by our longings and aspirations to touch some small parts of the “infinite sea,” and find some sorts of fulfillment in the watches we keep.  Thus, though today I did not get to put before you the full text of “The Bearer of Evil Tidings,” I was able to find some measure of fulfillment and soften my own disappointment by putting before you yet another Frost poem, which I hope you have enjoyed.  A simple search of the author’s name and the title of the poem, listed together, will take you to various sites where other commentators have written on it.

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5 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

5 responses to “Robert Frost’s “Neither Out Far nor In Deep”–The Nature of Aspiration, Longing, Disappointment, and Fulfillment

  1. I had forgotten this poem, and it was wonderful to read it with your analysis. You make a strong case that this is a positive poem about human nature, not a negative or cynical one, and I agree. It’s all in how one sees our efforts to understand, to try to make meaning.

  2. They cannot look out far./They cannot look in deep./But when was that ever a bar/To any watch they keep?

    That definitely has religious connotations, and also a human one.
    We keep faith in beings we cannot see or feel, and use what they tell us to guide our way, sure that they will guide us true.
    Humanity has always sought further understanding. We once could not look far (space) or deep (DNA and microbial life). Did it deter our insightful ancestors and contemporaries from keeping watch on the world around them?

    To sit and watch the sea is a humbling thing. The waves ebb and crash, and the Sun will inevitably descend below it. We need do nothing to help the world continue this process; it manages perfectly fine on its own. It likely did the same when humanity first thought to see what lies above the water. It gives perspective to our own humble experiences.

    • Hi, and thanks for your response. You and Richard both have responded as I hoped my readers would, by seeing the infinite that’s being hinted at, in my view of Frost’s poem. You write very compellingly about this issue, and I can only think that it is one close to your heart. Frost might have been curmudgeonly on occasion, but I don’t think he was a genuine sourpuss.

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