Sag Harbor, mentioned in the first line of "View," is a town at the end of Long Island, New York, not far from where Bell grew up. It has a long history as a seaport, primarily for whaling vessels, with European settlers arriving in the late 1600s. The village is a well-known tourist destination. In the beginning lines of this poem, the speaker presents a character (referred to as "you") who is interested, like many tourists, in a view of the water. The narrator explains that the trees that come between "you" and the harbor are not actually blocking the view, because they are made of water themselves. In fact, both the leaves of the trees and the air are said to be composed mainly of water. Even "the distance, as the bird flies or the squirrel scampers," is identified as something composed of water.
In the eighth line, the poem turns more personal, noting that even the person being addressed is composed of water, specifically, "a kind of flooded hollow hull," such as that of a capsized boat. This draws a connection between the physical nature of humans and the rest of the physical world. The poem then mentions other places where water can be found. It refers to bays and to "land that was water," continuing with the conceit that everything, no matter how apparently solid, is made of water; this latter reference may be to bodies of water that have dried up. The wandering human being, meanwhile, is compared to "a log separated from its boom," where a boom is a barrier of logs chained in place to prevent other logs cut by foresters from floating away. An implication may be that when individuals are disconnected from their community, the community can no longer adequately serve its function, as a disjointed boom might allow other logs to float away.
In these lines, Bell drastically shifts focus, conjuring images of people being killed during wartime. The poem mentions death by "shrapnel" as well as by "direct hit," perhaps to highlight the fact that, despite the inclination to examine the sublime distinctions, any cause of death ends with the same result. The process of dying is presented as an exceptionally long fall, and the process of human decay is presented as "dissolving," as objects do in water. When the fleshy, or watery, parts of the body dissolve and "become air," all that is left is the bone structure, which line 13 refers to as a "chart."
Line 14, which reintroduces the person whom the poem is addressing, mentions "the current war," accusing the addressee of not wanting to see the war and of believing that he indeed cannot. Whether this person does not wish to see the war because he is indifferent or because he would be overwhelmed by the enormity and sorrow of war news is unclear. Likewise, whether the person believes he cannot see the war because it is too far away or because it in no way affects him is also unclear. The narrator then asserts that the poem's addressee is deceived, as "the war is in the trees." Given that the narrator earlier equated trees with water and water with everything, the inference here may be that the war, also, is like water, perhaps in its unseen ubiquity. Line 16, "The leaves fall, and there it is," likely conjures in the reader's mind an image of the leaves of the trees that otherwise obscure the sight of the water falling; thus, one sees the water; given line...
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15, the "it" in question would seem to be "the war." Line 17 mentions swaying evergreen trees, which likewise, in moving aside, reveal the water behind. Line 18 refers to the expanse of water—and perhaps of war—as an "ocean between us" that serves to make all others seem especially distant.
In coastal locations like Sag Harbor, the humidity-laden air often feels colder than dry air of the same temperature would feel. A breeze intensifies this coldness, making the sting of the air even more bitter, an effect that the poem refers to as shaving one's skin. The narrator points out how the human fascination with water brings onlookers to the shore even when the air is too uncomfortably cold for them to stand outside; thus, they park their cars and stay inside them, separated from the natural world by the car's windshield. One might imagine that a person who has the time to go to the harbor and park for a few minutes, watching the water, has ample time on his hands; yet the narrator remarks, "It's a busy day" when watching the water is the one thing to be done in the dark before bedtime. This may be a sarcastic statement, or it may be forthright, if the person in question does not have the time to watch the water during the day.
The poem next addresses the concept of distance, specifically in the minds of Americans who "never travel otherwise," with reference to the effect that looking out at the wide open water has on the human imagination. That is, people imagine that "they can see England." Line 27 reads, "Their idea of Europe extends beyond their line of sight." Perhaps noteworthy is the fact that the place people imagine they see is another segment of the Western world, with which they conceive of some connection even over the vast ocean.
The narrator next returns to discussion regarding the ongoing war. He refers to "gossip," which can be considered commonly accepted but insubstantial truth, such as, perhaps, the distinction between solid objects and water, or the concept of distance itself. The enemy has supposedly "melted away," acting as water, but the reader may understand that this "gossip" is in effect untrue; the water, or war, that has melted or even evaporated is still present, only in an altered physical state, such as that of vapor. The "eyes in the sky" of line 31 would, during an actual war, indicate government surveillance tools, such as satellite cameras; here, they may also indicate the version of reality that is most widely accepted. The fact that these means of observation do not see enemies, only "civilians," means that the conflict, between America and the enemy or between existence and dissolution, has not actually ended but has shifted form. Line 32 reads, "We want justice, not just a momentary view of justice." Thus, perhaps, people understand that the change in the form of the conflict does not indicate that it has actually ended; in the same way in which they know what is beyond the harbor, they know what justice in a universal sense must be like, and they know that it has not yet been established.
In the closing lines, water imagery is reintroduced. A "black cloud," which is of course made of water, is mentioned; just as the trees supposedly blocked the sight of the harbor, so the cloud blocks the view of the dawn. The narrator then asserts that only the dew and frost, which are both the condensation of water out of the air, indicate the presence of a new morning. Though "frost on the windowpanes" indicates an unpleasant coldness, the coming of a new day may be understood as a universal sign of hope.