Neither Out Far Or In Deep
By Robert Frost
The people along the sand
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?
What watch are we keeping these days? It feels like not being able to look out far or in deep is the curse of the collective human condition. Yet, it’s too easy to say that this is more so today than in the past. Actual facts would say the modern world is continuously improving and our ability to deal with complex problems, like poverty is working and we should be back-slapping each other giving each other credit for the fact things are getting better. We aren’t to the point we can say we are globally great, but we are a darn sight better than we were 40 years ago by nearly every economic and meaningful measure that is vital to the health and well-being of our fellow global citizens. The problem is that optimism doesn’t make headlines. Disasters make headlines, so if you are a consumer of any kind of news, whether that’s on-line, TV, radio or news print, you are bombarded with a daily barrage of murder, mayhem, disaster and stupidity, until you are worn down believing everything is getting worse not better.
The writer Johan Norberg, a Swedish historian, published a book titled Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future in 2016. In it he makes the case that if we look at statistics like number of people living in extreme poverty, number of people with access to education, number of people who are illiterate, number of active global conflicts, number of countries controlled by repressive regimes and dictators, number of woman with access to health care, etc, etc. that by every measure that we can look at that measures our collective global well-being, the statistic has improved since 40 years ago. If you are interested in the topic of optimism, check out the link to the Guardian article on Norberg and check out the podcast that is available.
On the topic of optimism, I believe that poetry, particularly poetry about love, in which sonnets play a central role in the history of poetry, are at their core optimistic. Poetry is about capturing a tiny sliver of the human condition that is timeless and immortal, and by that very definition the poems that stand the test of time and live on in literature are those that hold up the best of what we can be. Poetry’s central role in our lives is to keep optimism’s lamp lit, for generations of readers.
By Edmund Spenser
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
‘Vain man,’ said she, ‘that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.’
‘Not so,’ (quod I); ‘let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.’