Thursday, October 1, 2009

Robert Frost: Critical Analysis of "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep"

Robert Frost's mysterious little lyric "Neither Out Far nor in Deep" remains as elusive as "the truth" that is so relentlessly pursued in the poem itself. This cryptic poem is very much "about" this search for truth, and scholars, for the most part, persistently maintain that such effort is both necessary and noble, adding slowly but inexorably to the storehouse of human knowledge. Suggestive though such an interpretation might be, it distorts Frost's intentions--as a close examination of the curious image of "a standing gull," located strategically at the very heart of this enigmatic work (lines 7-8, its literal and thematic center) will reveal.

As "the people" stare vacantly seaward in search of "the truth," mesmerized by the mysterious, limitless sea, they closely resemble standing (as opposed to flying) gulls. Never directly stated, this comparison, so crucial to the poem's meaning, is clearly implied, and it works very much to the people's disadvantage. For the gull is doing what comes naturally, staring into the teeming sea that is its source of life (that is, of food), and it is merely resting from its life-sustaining labors. "The people," implies Frost, in literally and symbolically turning their backs on their domain, the land, to stare incessantly seaward, are unnatural. Their efforts are life-denying in the extreme.

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?

Frost underscores the life-denying nature of their mindless staring by introducing not a flock of standing gulls, but a single gull only--surprising in that standing gulls (or, more accurately, terns, which typically station themselves en masse by the water's edge) are rarely found alone. The solitary gull points up just what "the people" are doing and how isolating and dehumanizing such activity is. So absorbed are they in their quest for "truth" that they have become oblivious of all else but their own solipsistic pursuit. They have cut themselves off from the land world and all that it represents (struggles and suffering, commitments, obligations, responsibilities) and from one another as well. They have become isolates, like the solitary gull that they resemble. Furthermore, Frost emphasizes not the bird itself but only its reflected image in the glassy surface of the shore; it is the reflected image that is the object of our concern, for it bears significantly on "the people" themselves.

The poem reminds us of Plato's Parable of the Cave wherein the relentless pursuers of truth willfully turn their backs on the only "reality" they can ever know--the land world and all that it represents--and in so doing they have been reduced to insubstantial images, shadowy reflections of true human beings engaged in genuinely fruitful human endeavor. Nameless, faceless, mindless, they have become pale copies of the real thing.

All of this adds up to one inescapable conclusion: "The people" are indeed "gulls"--that is, "dupes." In their search for ultimate reality they have been tricked, cheated, conned. It is all a fraud, insists Frost (for all that they do see is the occasional passing ship mentioned in lines 5 and 6), and he clearly holds their vain efforts in contempt. As the final stanzas make dramatically clear, they are wasting away their lives in a meaningless quest, for whatever it is and wherever it might be, "the truth" is surely not here. In short, they can look "Neither Out Far nor In Deep." So why bother?

The poem cries out for comparison with Frost's most famous work, his personal favorite, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," wherein the seductive woods--"lovely, dark and deep"--recall the mysterious sea of "Neither Out Far nor In Deep." But the narrator of "Stopping by Woods" realizes how dangerously alluring the woods are. He realizes that he has "promises to keep," that he can not "sleep" in the face of his societal obligations, and so he shortly turns homeward. "The people" of the present poem, however, continue to "look at the sea all day," seduced by its deep, dark, mysterious depths. Turning their backs on the land world, their world, they have violated their promises; they are asleep to their human responsibilities, as their comparison to the reflected image of a solitary gull suggests. For "gulls" they surely are.

The much-admired "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep" focuses its nature symbolism so sharply on human concerns that its haunting picture tends to dissolve into a contemplation paralleling that of the people described. The initially detached speaker observes people by the sea who make a uniform mass as they gaze away from the commonplace shore toward the depth and mystery of the ocean. Few sights are visible; a ship rising on the horizon and a gull standing on the soaked beach provide contrasting images of hypnotic motion and uneasy stasis.

Implied commentary having begun with "They turn their back on the land," the speaker now philosophizes consistently. The people turn from the varying sights of land towards the distances of water, representing mysteries they hope to grasp, though the water may not really possess any more such truth than does the land. But the people continue to prefer this attempt at further vision, just as they do at the poem's opening.

Despite their determination and persistence, they cannot achieve a penetrating vision of reality--nature and human nature--or what lies behind it. But they will not stop looking. In the last two lines, the speaker calmly withdraws, balancing admiration and skepticism, glad to see human speculation continuing but confident that it will not achieve much. The poem has been seen as a harsh commentary on human limitations, a charge Laurence Perrine answers by stressing Frost's insistence on the truly impenetrable depths that challenge human knowledge and the demonstrated capacity of the people to see part of the way as they strive to see farther.

Similarly, Elizabeth Isaacs thinks the poet "joins forces with the rest of the human race when he climaxes the deceptively flat, calm poem with a grandiose, dignified ascent at its end". In an elaborate comment on the poem, Daniel Pearlman boldly asserts that it is a covert allegory expressing Frost's anger at the conformism of 1930s American radicals who turned away from the solidity and complexity of their native shores to the monistic simplicities of foreign socialist ideologies. Thus, the people Frost attacks do indeed fear to look out far and in deep. Pearlman supports this view with a close analysis of details and by citing parallels between the poem's message and conservative views evident elsewhere in Frost's writings.

The poem is a bit flat, grey, and at once tender and terrible. There is no consolation of rhetoric and exaggeration- there is also no sign of "primal fault", only the faint Biblical memories of "any watch they keep." The poet highlights the fact that what we do know we don't care about; what we do care about we don't know: we can't look out very far, or in very deep; and when did that ever really bother us? It would be hard to find anything more unpleasant to say about people than that last stanza; but Frost doesn't say it unpleasantly—he says it with flat ease, takes everything with something harder than contempt, more passive than acceptance. The poem seems to ask the question, isn’t there something heroic about the whole business, and something touching about our absurdity? The fact remains that mankind has persisted in spite of the incomprehensible complexity and uncertainty surrounding life.

Randall Jarrell takes a middle position, granting the poem a certain unpleasantness but insisting that the conclusion shows "careful suspension between several tones," making "a recognition of the essential limitations of man, without denial or protest or rhetoric or palliation". The tone of the last lines in the poem, or, rather, their careful suspension between several tones, like a piece of iron can be held in the air between powerful enough magnets. This recognition of the essential limitations of man, without denial or protest or rhetoric or an attempt to make it seem less serious, is and “Neither Out Far Nor in Deep” is a solid case in point.

"Neither Out Far Nor in Deep" first appeared in the Yale Review in 1934 and was included in A Further Range (1936). Randall Jarrell asserts that the poem's strength lies in its subtleties. According to Jarrell, the poem presents a notion common to Frost's poetry: a “recognition of the essential limitations of man, without denial or protest or rhetoric or palliation." Indeed, despite its deceptively simple veneer, the poem alludes to complex issues.

Though the juxtaposition of land and sea is reminiscent of Matthew Arnold's treatment of the subject in "The Forsaken Merman," Frost upsets Arnold's convenient dichotomy between land and sea and overturns the notion of the land's constancy versus the seductively dangerous allure of the sea through his coupling of the land with the notion of variance and the sea with an expression of constancy and hope. The speaker of Frost's poem implies that though locating truth is impossible, the people continue to "turn their back on the land" and "look at the sea all day." Despite their inability to locate truth, or even to acknowledge its existence, the people of the poem look with a kind of hope—or expectancy, at least—toward the sea.

The speaker also seems to imply that standing "along the sand," at that boundary where land touches sea, affords one the best vantage point. The speaker's interest in the ambiguity and fluidity of the shifting line of demarcation between water and sand suggests the dynamism and efficacy of such a position. Accepting such ambiguity and its simultaneous danger and promise contrasts with the imagery of another Arnold poem, "Dover Beach," for Frost's shoreline represents not only a tenuous negotiation of the land and sea but also a much less foreboding image than Arnold's "drear" and "darkling plain."

Although Frost's watchers on the beach have a restricted access to the truth or insight they seek and "cannot look out far" nor "in deep" when they gaze at the sea, they still keep the watch. The people on Frost's beach, having relinquished a desire for transcendent truth, the loss of which Arnold's speaker mourns in "Dover Beach," find purpose in the activity of simply watching; despite their lack of access to truth, they experience life most fully by straddling that border between land and sea, not allowing their inability to sec far and deep to "bar" them from "any watch they keep."

As William Pritchard recounts, in a speech delivered at Frost's eighty-fifth birthday party in 1959, Lionel Trilling characterized Frost as a "tragic poet" whose work reflected a "terrifying universe," using the poems "Design" and "Neither Out Far" as examples of Frost's dark side. In a letter to Trilling after the incident. Frost reveals that he was not displeased with Trilling's remarks but was in fact pleased that Trilling "departed from the Rotarian norm in a Rotarian situation." However, as Pritchard continues. Trilling does seem to miss Frost's "irony" and "playfulness" and certainly ignores the fact that "Neither Out Far" may not be so much about the despair of humankind in the face of the loss of truth but rather more about a recognition and affirmation of life's ambiguities.

Credits: Peter D. Poland. The Explicator, Mordecai Marcus. The Poems of Robert Frost: an Explication. Randall Jarrell. Poetry and the Age.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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