Neither Out Far nor In Deep

by Robert Frost

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 261

“Neither Out Far nor In Deep” is a lyric poem consisting of four four-line stanzas, making use of a regular rhyme scheme (abab). The meter is for the most part regular iambic trimeter, although several lines include one or two extra syllables. Only in the second stanza does Robert Frost provide precise imagery; for the most part, he relies on general description.

The setting of the poem is the seaside. The poet’s original observation is that the people, out for a day’s recreation at the beach, always look toward the water; “They turn their back on the land.” What they can see are a ship out on the ocean, passing to an unknown destination, and a gull standing on the wet sand near the water.

This is apparently a puzzle, since there is more variety and presumably more of interest on the land than on the ocean, which does nothing but come to the beach and then retreat. The Line “Wherever the truth may be” in the third stanza suggests that the people are searching for the truth and hope to find it by watching the unchanging ocean, with its endless repetitions of the same movements, rather than on the land, which presumably is more subject to change.

The people being described, like everyone else, have limited vision: “They cannot look out far./ They cannot look in deep.” Yet they keep on looking, presumably because there is nothing else for them to do. They cannot help searching for answers, even from such an unlikely source as the inscrutable ocean.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

The regularity of the form and the abruptness of the lines reinforce the ironic tone of “Neither Out Far nor In Deep.” The form implies a rigidity in the minds of the people being described, a lack of imagination which leads them always to look in one direction, however unrewarding their study may be. The poet distances himself from them with the occasional extra syllables which prevent the rhythm of the poem from taking on a sing-song quality.

The language and imagery are unusually generalized for Frost, who preferred to employ specific imagery. The poet does use the word “sand” to represent the entire shoreline, and the second stanza does contain relatively precise visual images of the ship, hull down out at sea, and the “standing gull,” but all the other imagery in the poem is deliberately general. Those being described are not individualized in any way; they are simply “The people.” That they lack individuality is emphasized by the fact that they turn a singular “back” to the land, instead of individual “backs.” They all behave in the same way.

This generalized imagery continues in the third stanza. “The land” is given no specific qualities or dimensions; it only “may vary more.” The ocean reaching the shore is not described in terms of breaking waves, foam, or swirling surf; it is only “the water.” This seems to suggest that the people in their looking fail to see anything in detail, which can only be one more obstacle to their understanding.

What has seemed to be simple and general description of a common scene has become increasingly ironic through the first three stanzas, and the ironic tone becomes even more forceful in the final stanza, where the poet’s scorn for those he describes becomes almost overwhelming. His scorn is not for the question they seem to ask, but for their approach to it. Their vision is extremely limited; they are neither farsighted nor able to look deeply into the questions of existence. They hope that the ocean will give...

(This entire section contains 428 words.)

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them answers to the ultimate questions, but they are looking at an aspect of the world which is simply there, unchanging in its nature, providing no answers at all. They continue to look, however, since the limitations on their ability to see have never prevented them from continuing their search. The heavy emphasis on the three final words accents the irony. The final irony, available to the reader, is that the poet is no better than they are; he cannot see any deeper or farther than they can.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136

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