Neither Out Far nor In Deep (1936)
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?
A often-anthologized poem, Neither Out Far nor In Deep criticizes “The people along the sand” who “All turn and look one way.” The people described are those who all look only in one direction and therefore wear blinders to keep from seeing anything else. They look out at the sea, turning their backs on the land, and in doing so they turn their backs on something meaningful. But the condition described is not a general human condition. Frost is not criticizing all people. He singles out a particular type of person, a specific group of people for criticism.
The people along the sand are like those in Plato’s (427?–347? B.C.) Allegory of the Cave, where the people chained inside the cave are unable to turn their heads and are therefore unable to see anything but the shadows cast on the wall of the cave. These they take to be reality. The people in Frost’s poem also mistake shadows for reality; the reflection of the standing gull on the “wetter ground like glass” may be an allusion to Plato’s allegory. The reflection may also be the people’s own reflections. What they are seeing could be themselves, only they are unaware.
The people along the sand are fixated on a particular perspective from which they cannot break free. They are narrowly focused. There is variety on the land, but there is safety in looking at the sea, which is strangely constant. It provides security and predictability in a way that the land cannot.
Frost suggests that what we should all be looking for is the truth, wherever that may be. But for these people looking “out far” or “in deep” is not a goal. It never was “a bar / To any watch they [have] ke[pt].” The truth could be anywhere, but they have only been willing to look for it in one direction because of the assumptions of their particular kind of watch. It is comparable to looking toward the sky in the hopes of finding answers when in truth the answers could be right here on Earth.
Robert Pack writes that “On the one hand, the lines can be read in tones of astonishment implying wonder at how dumb the people can be; on the other hand, the lines can be heard to suggest heroic perseverance and determination; the people will not be discouraged from believing in some kind of transcendent truth, like God, even though neither Truth nor God can be known” (186). But implying that Frost presents the two positions equally seems false. Certainly the closing question comes in the form of ridicule. The critique is that the perspective of the people on the sand is narrow and shallow and that they should strive to look far and deep in all directions. They must learn instead to measure what they do according to where the truth lies. It should be noted that Frost avoids capitalizing the word truth, allowing it to be varied and inclusive. He is driving at what is ultimately accurate in any case, however.
Reginald Cook writes, “Just as this is not a cozy poem softening the blow of human inadequacy, neither is it a shrill one exhibiting the plight of man in a scornful way” (289). But there is clear criticism in Frost’s lines. Cook also holds that “. . . this is not a pessimistic poem. It faces the dual facts of human limitations and destiny unblinkingly. No matter how formidable the situation, the poet withholds judgment as to the ultimate outcome. Men may yet make the best of a difficult situation” (287). Cook is hopeful, and perhaps Frost was too. If he had any hope, it was that he would one day have no one to ridicule.
One necessary point is that the people “cannot” look out far nor in deep, it is not simply that they “do not.” There is a limitation, possibly selfimposed, placed on these people along the sand, and Frost never explains what holds them back.
The poem was first published in the spring 1934 issue of the Yale Review and was later collected in A Further Range.
Cook, Reginald. Robert Frost: A Living Voice. Amherst: University of Mass Press, 1974, 286–290. Hines, Edward C., Jr. “ ‘Neither Out Far nor in Deep’: Frost’s Use of a Traditional Metaphor,” West Georgia College Review 21 (May 1991): 7–10. Hoffman, Tyler. Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry. Hanover, N.H.: Middlebury College Press, 2001. Monteiro, George. “Robert Frost’s Liberal Imagination.” In Roads Not Taken: Rereading Robert Frost, edited by Earl J. Wilcox and Jonathan N. Barron, 153–175. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000. Pack, Robert. Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost. Hanover, N.H.: Middlebury College Press, 2003. Pearlman, Daniel. “A Political Satire Unveiled: Frost’s ‘Neither Out Far nor in Deep,’ ” Agenda 17, no. 2 (1979): 41–63. Poland, Peter. D. “Frost’s ‘Neither Out Far nor in Deep,’ ” Explicator 52, no. 2 (Winter 1994): 95–96. Seib, Kenneth. “Robert Frost’s ‘Neither Out Far nor in Deep,’ ” Contemporary Poetry 1, no. 2 (1973): 28–29. Timmerman, John H. Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2002, 75–76.