Featured Poem: I Saw a Man Pursuing the Horizon by Stephen Crane

This week’s Featured Poem is the choice of Liverpool Hope University Reader in Residence Dave Cookson – a concise but challenging poem courtesy of Stephen Crane.

I first encountered Stephen Crane during my first year of university. There was a text on my reading list: The Red Badge of Courage. The problem was my tutor had listed it in inverted commas, implying it was a poem or short story I could quickly read the night before my seminar. Imagine my annoyance when I realized it was a full-blown novel. I loaned it from the library and being a conscientious 18 year old I read it cover to cover in one night, made possible because it was an excellent book. I have not encountered a more deliciously poetic term than ‘The red badge of courage’ meaning a war wound the protagonist strives for as a soldier in the American Civil War, so I decided to move beyond Crane’s prose and into poetry.

A seemingly strange desire is the obvious theme of I Saw a Man Pursuing the Horizon, a simple, short and disjointed poem by Crane. The poem packs a rapid punch that as a reader you can relate to and understand. At some stage in life we have all wanted something more, chased a dream, and hopefully we all still do.

The real challenge of this poem is that ‘a man’ is not pursuing a highly unlikely goal, he is pursuing the horizon, something that is constant and cannot be reached. The man is chasing an impossible dream.

If you were to withdraw from the poem and were told of an individual going after something that is actually impossible (e.g. if I was trying to fly around the solar system by flapping my arms), then you would understandably think this ludicrous. However, when I read this poem I support the man pursuing the horizon, and implore him to carry on regardless.

I have used this poem in Get Into Reading at Liverpool Hope University and there has been a variety of responses. Many students, but not all, are wholeheartedly behind the man. One student said that you cannot be told you are unable to do something, it makes you more determined and the man is on a journey with value in itself, much like life. Some have related it to deluded TV talent show contestants who simply refuse to accept they cannot sing.

Another observed that the poem is told from the perspective of a naysayer, and said we do not know what this person does themselves. It just seems like they sit there, not pursuing their own dreams and pouring scorn on others, the man’s pursuit may be fruitless, but at least he’s chasing something.

Plato and Aristotle argued we should strive towards a telos, or end purpose, and this has informed a lot of study on morality and ethics. However, Einstein defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ Let’s get them in a Get Into Reading group together and watch them fight it out.

I Saw a Man Pursuing the Horizon

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never —”

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

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