Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550

Frost’s poems describing relatively ordinary scenes or events often conclude by raising much larger issues about the meaning of life and death and the nature of reality. Some of these poems, including the popular early poems “The Tuft of Flowers,” “Two Look at Two,” “The Onset,” or the excellent but...

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Frost’s poems describing relatively ordinary scenes or events often conclude by raising much larger issues about the meaning of life and death and the nature of reality. Some of these poems, including the popular early poems “The Tuft of Flowers,” “Two Look at Two,” “The Onset,” or the excellent but little-known late lyric, “On the Heart’s Beginning to Cloud the Mind,” conclude by suggesting a positive answer—that all will somehow be well, and that man’s deepest fears are unjustified.

Yet as the critic Lionel Trilling pointed out in a famous speech, given at a dinner celebrating Frost’s eighty-fifth birthday, there is another side to Frost’s work which belies the easy confidence of those poems in which he assumes the guise of a kindly, reassuring old Yankee. “Neither Out Far nor In Deep,” like such other poems as “Design,” “Once by the Pacific,” “Home Burial,” and “Desert Places,” evokes the grimness and eventual emptiness of human existence without offering any consolation or grounds for hope. This kind of poem represents an entirely different side of Frost, an entirely different way of responding to those ultimate questions.

“Neither Out Far nor In Deep” was one of the poems cited by Trilling. At first glance its inclusion among the author’s grimmer works seems questionable. On the surface, the poem is little more than an amusing observation about an ordinary scene—people at beaches, after all, do always look toward the ocean, and what they see might well include a ship passing out at sea and at least one gull standing where a wave has left water on the sand.

The poem turns around with the second line of stanza 3, “But wherever the truth may be—.” Frost here introduces the idea that the people looking toward the ocean are (or ought to be) doing more than casually staring; they hope that the ocean can somehow bring them the truth. As the final line makes clear, their looking is not casual, for they are keeping “watch.” This suggests both alertness and danger, since those who keep watch, like soldiers, ordinarily do so because they fear what might be out there.

As the poem clearly suggests, however, their watch is futile. On the one hand, the ocean does not divulge its secrets; nothing happens except that “The water comes ashore” ceaselessly, an endless repetition of wave on wave, the ebb and flow of the tides, reflected in the rhythm of the short, insistent lines. On the other hand, their watch is futile because of the limitations imposed on human vision—these anonymous people are simply not equipped for the task of finding answers to the deeper questions of life.

Frost seems to have been unable to ignore questions of final meaning. Such questions crop up in a high percentage of his poems. The closest he came to resolving them was to say, in “On the Heart’s Beginning to Cloud the Mind,” “I knew a tale of a better kind” and to choose to believe that tale. In “Neither Out Far nor In Deep,” however, he makes no such choice. Rather, he is both observer and participant in a search for meaning in which the searchers fear what they cannot see; the search for meaning is doomed to fail.

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