Stephen Crane

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What is the meaning of the poem "A Man Saw a Ball of Gold in the Sky" by Stephen Maria Crane? What is an analysis of the poem?

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Oscar Wilde once wrote, "The are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

In his poem "A Man Saw a Ball of Gold in the Sky," it's possible that Stephen Crane could be referring to more common instances of this experience of disappointment, such as meeting a person or achieving a goal which had seemed much more attractive from a distance. However, the poem seems equally open to the more literal reading that Crane is describing the experience of visual phenomena appearing differently depending on one's position or perspective. More pointedly, it seems possible that the poet's repetition of the word "gold" in the last two lines—"It was a ball of gold. /Aye, by the heavens, it was a ball of gold"—after the "man" of the poem is again seeing the sphere in the sky as a "ball of gold" rather than a "ball of clay," could be read as an invocation of the subjective nature of beauty, suggesting that the experience of beauty is of significance, regardless of its source.

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Crane intentionally leaves the metaphors open in this poem to allow readers to bring their own experiences, and therefore meaning, to the interpretation. The "ball of gold" that the man chases can be anything people put value in. Some people chase money. Some people chase degrees from prestigious universities. Some chase finding just the right spouse. Some chase extreme health and exercise journeys. This man has chased his own "ball of gold" and achieved his goal. However, when he finally holds it in his hand, he realizes that it wasn't as valuable as he'd imagined. It's clay, common and ordinary.

The man comes back down to reality, and when he does, an amazing thing happens. The man finds his ball of gold—not the clay look-alike, but the actual gold. The shock of finding it in such a common place, one not in need of such a difficult climb, is so unexpected that the narrator repeats "Now this is the strange part" twice in the second stanza. The man had become so fixed on his goal that he had missed the actual "golden" things of value which surrounded him on Earth.

Again, this is intentionally left open for interpretation so that readers can ponder the everyday, commonplace balls of gold in their own lives which are overlooked. Whether it's family, health, peace, good friends, or any number of other things, most readers will be able to identify with this metaphor. Crane begs readers to consider these common yet priceless treasures as he repeats the phrase three times in the second stanza:

Lo, there was the ball of gold.

It was a ball of gold.

Aye, by the heavens, it was a ball of gold.

These overlooked treasures aren't the impostors; instead, they are the things of true value in our lives.

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"A Man Saw a Ball of Gold in the Sky" can be interpreted as a Naturalistic poem.  The movement called Naturalism, a movement which includes Stephen Crane, reveals the humanity of experiences and emotional states of common lowly characters.  With this definition in mind, the reader of Crane's poem may be able to infer that when the man "achieves the ball of gold" and "It was clay," the man's experiences and commonness only allow him to perceive clay, rather than gold.  For the forces such as heredity and environment have kept his thinking downward: When he is in the sky and looks down upon the ball, he sees clay since it is no longer unattainable ("in the sky").

But, when he returns to the earth, the ball, now gazed at from  the dark harshness of life that the Naturalists perceive,  appears gold, for again it is unattainable. Crane goes on to write,

Now this is the strange part:/It was a ball of gold/Aye, by the heavens, it was a ball of gold.

This last line, "by the heavens," carries two possible meanings:  (1) It is an expression and (2) it means that perceived by the heavens--not the common, lowly man--the ball is gold. Afterall, for many "perception is reality" as Dean Kuntz wrote in one of his novels.  Certainly, the Naturalists have a dark, skeptical, and at times pessimistic view of things.

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