Neither Out Far nor In Deep by Robert Frost: Summary and Critical Analysis

This short lyric 'Neither Out Far nor In Deep' is a subtle satire on the human nature of neglecting or escaping from the concrete reality before them and obsessively seeking to find the unreal, the unknowable and the inaccessible. This poem is also based on a commonplace situation; a few people are watching at noting far to the sea that symbolizes the abstract and the theoretical aspects of life like the supernatural and the abstract philosophical, turning their backs towards the land that symbolizes reality, the concrete and the inevitable.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The poem 'Neither out Far nor In Deep' is set at a seaside. The poet observes that the people, out for a day’s recreation on the beach, look only towards the water; they ignore the land from which they come, and look at the ocean out of the sense of wonder that some call the source of truth. But the fact is that the real source of truth is the land they have discarded and disregarded. “They turn their back on the land.” What they can see are ships out on the ocean, passing to an unknown destination.

The line ”Wherever the truth may be” in the third stanza suggests that the people are searching for the truth and how to find it by watching the unchanging ocean, with its endless repetition 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, probably 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. In general the poem is a criticism on the obsession for the unknown and the unknowable in human beings.

It is typical of Frost that his poems begin by describing apparently or actually ordinary scenes or event that give rise to serious debate or contemplation and conclude by raising much larger issues about the meaning of love and death and the nature of reality. “Neither out Far nor In Deep,” like many such poems also evokes the eventual emptiness of human existence without offering, and consolation or grounds for hope. On the surface, the poem is little more than an amusing observation about an ordinary scene - people at beaches after all do normally 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 the water on sand. The poem clearly suggests that their watch is futile. On the one hand, the ocean does not simply tell us its secrets. On the other hand, their watch is futile because of the limitations, imposed on human vision. It is typical of Frost, as we have seen in all the poems of his that we have read that an ordinary situation becomes an instance for a deep-going contemplation of a philosophical theme. As this poem suggests, Frost seems to have been unable to ignore question of final meaning. In this poem, he is both the observer and participant in a search for meaning in which the searchers for what they cannot see; the search for meaning is doomed to fail. Such effort is both necessary and noble, adding slowly but inexorably to the storehouse of human knowledge. The people, in literally and symbolically turning their backs on the domain of reality, the land, to stare incessantly seaward (toward the infinity of knowledge, spirituality, etc.) are unnatural. Their efforts are life-denying in the extreme. Frost underscores the life-denying nature of their mindless staring by introducing not a flock of standing gulls, but a single gull. Furthermore, Frost emphasizes not the bird itself but only its reflected image. The people are not even looking at a real bird in the sea but its image. Metaphorically, so absorbed are they in their quest for “truth” that they have become oblivious of all else but their own simplistic pursuit. They have cut themselves off from the land and from one another as well. They have become isolates. In an ironic version of Plato’s parable of the cave, these relentless pursuers of truth have willfully turned their backs on the only “reality” and in so doing, have been reduced to insubstantial images, shadowy reflections of true human beings engaged in a genuinely fruitful human endeavor.

As the final stanzas make dramatically clear, they are wasting away their lives in meaningless quest; for whatever it is and wherever it might be, “the truth” is surely not here. In short, they can look “neither Our Far nor In Deep”. There is an implicit allegory expressing Frost’s anger against the poets and philosophers who have wasted life in all times and places in futile searches of the ultimate reality.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Neither Out Far nor In Deep by Robert Frost: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 27 Nov. 2013,