The Lifeguard by James Dickey: Summary and Critical Analysis

The Lifeguard by James Dickey is a poem that explores the burden of responsibility that every man carries within his mind. On a literal level of the poem, we find a life-guard (a man who is there to save people from drowning in swimming pools) who has failed to rescue a child, even after attempting the whole day long, and are now thinking of his failure with a sense of guilt and tragedy of his failure.

James Dickey (1923-1997)

Symbolically, however, the poem can be read as a Christian allegory, as a psycho-philosophical episode or a symbolic account of Everyman’s sense of responsibility, failure, and guilt.

The poem is in ten stanzas of six lines each. It begins with a meditative description of the persona’s present situation. In the first stanza, the speaker describes how he is presently lying in a boat, turning towards the sky. He is startled by the mere movement of the surface of the water. The expression: "I feel the moon outside/ Take on the utmost of its power" suggests the poetic allegory of the poem, for the moon is usually taken as the symbol of creativity. In the second stanza, the tone becomes more meditative and the poem becomes more abstract and symbolic: "I set my broad sole upon silver/ On the skin of the sky, on the moonlight/ Stepping outward from earth onto water! In quest of the miracle". We see that the imagery also becomes cosmic in its dimensions. This abstraction must be accounted for in terms of the broader philosophic themes mentioned above. In the third stanza, the lifeguard remembers how the "village of children believed/ that I could perform as I dived/ for the one who had sunk from my sight." But it is clear from the language that he was unable to rescue the drowned child.  

In line 20, there is a hint of the theme of death and mortality also. As the man dived into the water, he compared himself with a man "who explores his death". Thus the poem is also about a man's attempt to delve into the meaning of life, death and mortality also. But since he never found the child, the poor man leapt into the cold water "time after time" but to no avail. As he popped up for breath, the children would change the expression of their (tragic) faces, and he would be forced to jump back! He thought that the children's facial expression was reflecting his 'defeat'.

From stanza five the speaker begins to tell us of the incident the night before. The children had probably gone home, and the "risen moon" gave the man some impetus to go search the child once more. Shifting the tense (once) into the present — as if the incident has a timeless importance and effect, he says that there "is nothing but brightness/ like the ghost of a snowfield in summer." And as he 'moves' toward the center of the lake, "which is also the center of the moon", he is thinking of how he might be "the savior of one// who has died in my care". In a simple (though serious) sense, it may be said that the child is the savior of the man in the sense that the lifeguard's life is saved (sustained) by the children. But it is also clear that this is a hint about the Christian theme in the poem: he feels that he was not able of saving the Christ, who died in his care.

 He softly calls out and the child voice answers "through the blinding water". Then the man feels that- the child rises from the bottom of the surface of the water. The speaker says, to our surprise, that "he is the one I do not remember having seen in his life": this is no normal child. The young man who has failed at his job feels guilt which is heightened by his own approximation to death. The child comes to the lifeguard alone after dark, in the moonlight, after all have gone to bed; and even though the lifeguard has for a moment the bright moonchild from the heart of the forest in his arms, the final despair devastating the illusion is insistently illusory. The lifeguard's own survival comes to the terrible futility of water, spilling through his helpless fingers.

In the last stanza, the narrator tells us that he came up with a lump of clay in his hand and washed it off his hand on the light given off by the grave. Here are hints of the issue of the immortality and spirituality (light/enlightenment, grave/mortality, black mud/physical body). At the end, the speaker tells us that he "kneel (s) at the heart of a distant forest/ and hold the in my arms a child/ of water, water, water." This child of water is, obviously, in the symbolic sense, a child of creativity, the poem is conventionally called the child or product of the poet.

 A child is found in the depth of the feeling. The lake is the symbol of deep thoughts and emotions. Plunging deeply into the depth of the feeling begins the process of writing. The child the persona finds is in a sense his brainchild, a thought which becomes concrete, as in the creation of poetry. The object that he finds in the depth of his thought can be identified with a poem. The moon is one of the central images of the poem, and that also supports the theme of the poetic allegory. The persona lies still in the boat. The leap of the fish is the leap of his emotions which creates a vibration upon the poet's spirit. Now he wants to centralize the moon in the core of his heart so as to illuminate his thoughts. The persona quests for the miracle that can give him power to mobilize his emotions. He wants to plunge into the lake of his emotions and feeling for he had seen somebody sunk inside it. However, it becomes quite hard at the first go as there occurs only the darkness. This attempt of the persona is also compared to a man's attempt to explore his death. In fact, the poetic quest is itself a much more general symbol of the different kinds of quests that make up life. It is also the symbol of exploring the depth of a feeling, a profession, an experience, and life and knowledge themselves. Being a lifeguard it is his duty to rescue the drowned person. But, his efforts remain futile. He is able to rescue himself, but not the victim, but he doesn't lose his courage. He hopes for the light to come back on his path. Now and again he plunges into the lake of emotions and feelings. There, at the center he visualizes his spirit illuminated by the wisdom and ideas. He wants to save those who drown in the lake of feelings, problems and experiences of life. What he achieves is usually far less than what he aims to, for no one can express (or achieve) anything absolutely. Finally, he finds himself in the wilderness of thoughts. He is successful in rescuing the immature soul from drowning. The poem reflects the persona's inner feeling by the use of similes and metaphor. The poem is rich in imagery and good member of meaningful sound patterns.

Cite this Page!

Shrestha, Roma. "The Lifeguard by James Dickey: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 10 Nov. 2013,

Related Topic

James Dickey: Biography