Perhaps I’m taking a Humpty Dumpty approach to poetry but…

I’m a Brit, so I wasn’t raised on Robert Frost. The only poem I was taught was ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’. I loved the sound of that poem before I ever gave a thought to its meaning. I’m like that with songs, certain phrases hook my imagination while the rest of the lyrics slip past me. I fell in love with the last verse

The woods are lovely dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I didn’t need or want to do a line by line analysis. My magpie mind went straight for the shiny things. The rich, soft curves of ‘lovely, dark and deep’ let me feel the yearning for wild unbounded beauty and the repetition of ‘And miles to go before I sleep’ laid its weighty hand on me, dragging me from pleasure to duty. It’s not a very scholarly approach to poetry but I’m not a scholar, I’m just someone who reads poetry because i like it.

Recently, I bought a copy of Robert Frost’s ‘A Further Range’ to try some more of his poetry. Not all of it is immediately accessible but they all seem to be permeated with the ability to feel nature’s pulse and see society’s strings and that’s enough to make me want to read them a few times.

The first magpie-friendly piece of shiny poetry I came to was this:

NEITHER OUT FAR NOR IN DEEP

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?

This felt like familiar territory to me. I grew up by the coast. I know the draw of the incoming tide and the constant flow of the ocean. Yet even I could see that this poem was a message in a bottle. Is that last verse reproachful, empathetic or hopeful?

To me, the metaphor seemed clear. The people looking out to sea are staring at their possible futures. They spend all day looking at them and in the process turn their backs on the land where their past deeds and present duties lie while taking not a single step towards their future.

I didn’t see this as a reproach. I saw it as an acknowledgement of how we are, yearning for a future we can’t quite see. We know we can’t see far or deep but that’s no reason to look away and see nothing at all.

I liked that sentiment. I imagined myself labelling my visions of my own future as ‘neither out far nor in deep’ but still being glad to have poor vision rather than none.

I should have stopped there and taken my pieces of shiny to line the nest of my magpie imagination but I took a look at a couple of poetry sites – the kind that are there to help you do your homework without having to think too hard – and learned that I’d gotten the poem all wrong. Frost is apparently criticising people for being too easily distracted from the real world of work and action – the land – and wasting time looking into a sea where nothing is happening and where their vision is limited.

I was surprised to find I was angry at this interpretation. It wasn’t shiny at all. It made me wonder if the guy who wrote this point of view had ever seen the sea or if he lived in a landlocked place under a big sky. Did he not get the power of the sea? Did he not understand the call of even a glimpse of our future?

I realised I was going all Humpty Dumpty on the poem. You know that thing in ‘Through The Looking Glass’ where Humpty Dumpty and Alice are talking about words and meaning:

Everyone laughs at Humpty Dumpty for being a pompous ass when he says that. I’m sure Carroll meant him to be the typical slippery politician – the kind who says ‘Brexit means Brexit’ with a straight face and a clear conscience. But I wonder about how Humpty Dumpty’s approach to words applies to reading poetry.

I don’t see poems as problems to solve or codes to crack. I think they speak to you or they don’t. I think they mean something or they don’t. The ones that mean the most don’t need anything added to the text. If you need a footnote explaining ‘The woods are lovely dark and deep’ then that poem isn’t for you.

I feel the pull of that title: ‘Neither out far nor in deep’. I want to know what it means not because its a puzzle but because it has the sound of an unknown truth. What does that mean? Well, something that I don’t have to work out but that I’ll understand once I’m told it. Like this piece of shiny from William Blake:

‘The truth can never be told so as to be understood and not be believed.’

After three verses of ‘the people look out to the sea’ I recognise it’s a compulsion, then, in the fourth verse, I’m told:

They cannot look out far.  
They cannot look in deep.   

But then I’m given a sort of ‘So What? It was ever thus.’ statement. So I get to what the poem means to me. If that makes me Humpty Dumpty, I’m ok with that.

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