‘You Will Know When You Get There’ by Allen Curnow is a twenty-three line poem and the title piece of Curnow’s collection, You Will Know When You Get There: Poems. The piece is separated into ten couplets, or sets of two lines, and one final tercet, or set of three lines.
Curnow has not chosen to structure the poem with a consistent pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The lines are all very similar in length though. This lends the piece a feeling of physical unity on the page. It appears to be very structured at first glance but when one investigates deeper the emotional nature of the text is emphasized through the free verse style.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how no one, no matter who they are, goes to the sea before or after their time. The vague language of the poem lends a dark and foreboding feeling to the sea. This is contrasted by the warmth of the sun. The two elements come to represent life and death.
In the following lines the sun funnels its light into the sea without seeming to know it is emptying. Three characters are introduced to the narrative. A man wading into the sea and two young boys. The boys represent life, and the man, impending death.
The poem concludes with the inevitable ending that the first lines alluded to. The listener referred to as “you” progresses deep into the ocean, alone.
Nobody comes up from the sea as late as this
in the day and the season, and nobody else goes down
pouring out of its tank in the sky, through summits,
trees, vapours thickening and thinning. Too
In the first couplet, the speaker begins by describing a “sea’ which from “Nobody comes up from” late. It immediately appears as if there is some kind of deadline the speaker is very aware of. The line that no one ever passes is represented by the sea. It is a place that no one goes to or comes back from late.
These lines and those that follow are vague. It is not entirely clear what exactly the speaker is referring to. There is though a sense of foreboding. The sea does not seem like a place one wants to venture to, especially if it is “late.” In the following couplets, the speaker goes on to describe the path that leads to the sea.
The description is also very dark, adding to the depressing mood of the lines. If one was to travel down this path they not want to go down the “last steep kilometre.” It appears to be the most dangerous part of the walk. This is due to the wet areas that have been pummelled by a “shower.” The shower of rain was, and is, so powerful that it “shred[s]” the light coming from the sky.
Curnow’s speaker is now describing a path that seems quite dangerous. One is liable to fall as the ground is wet, and there is no clear light coming from the sky. Although it continues to pour from its “tank,” the sun, it is obscured by the rain. Whatever dark forces are in this area, they are able to block out the light of the sun.
From these sections, one should be able to infer that some aspect of this piece is going to be about death. It is likely the force that takes light, and from which no one goes to late or early. One goes to “death” exactly when they are meant to. It is embodied by the sea in the first lines.
credibly by half celestial, the dammed
shower, and down you go and so in its way does
The following lines of ‘You Will Know When You Get There’ are not any clearer than those which preceded them. At this point, the speaker references the “celestial.” One must trace the mention of the sun into these new couplets to understand that the “Reservoir” spoken of in line eight is the sun. The sun, and the light it emits, is “celestial.” It continues to pour out, unaware that it is “emptying.” This is due to the fact that the “light” is still there. The speaker has put a finishing point on the sun’s ability to produce light. At some unknown point, it is going to end.
This can be considered as an allusion to the death that awaits everyone. One continues to live, emptying their reserve of light until there is nothing left. In the following lines, Curnow makes a direct reference to Ezra Pound’s Canto VII with the line, “‘gathers the gold against it.’” In this line Pound was referencing how gold is able to attract light even in the gloom.
This line fits into Curnow’s poem as the sun sets over the sea like gold. It attracts all the good and fine things in life. Some of the light that becomes a part of the sun, and which shines under its influence, is the “crushed rock.” It is not something one immediately notices on a beach. It is often simple “underfoot.”
The next couplet introduces “you” into the poem. There is a speaker the speaker is addressing this work to, although it is unclear who this person is. The listener is said to “go” alongside the sun. It is likely the metal destination is death, or as represented in this piece, the sea.
the sun which gets there first. Boys, two of them,
the ocean to be shallowed three point seven meters,
In the path towards death, the “sun gets there first.” In its way, this line is depressing but also somewhat comforting. If the sea is death, one should not be as fearful of it as the sun and all its light as entered there as well.
In the next stanzas, two characters are introduced. These “Boys” are pure embodiments of life. They have faces lit by the “campfire light.” They sit on the beach and watch as a man travels towards its waters. After the previous descriptions of the ocean, the reader should also be alarmed by this fact.
The speaker states that the man has an arrangement with the ocean that it “be shallowed three-point seven metres.” This way the man can reach the mussels he is seeking more easily.
slams, a heavy wave, a door, the sea-floor shudders.
Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black
In the final five lines of ‘You Will Know When You Get There’ the day is coming to an end. One’s life is dating to a close just as the sun is setting. There is only “One hour’s light..left.” Although this last hour should be precious and important there is the moon to contend with. It is acting like an excrescence or growth. The moon feeds off the sun’s last light.
The concluding lines describe the slamming of a door. Its force is so strong that it makes the “sea-floor shudder.” With the door’s final closing, one has entered into the last moments of their life. It is time to proceed down the dangerous path, into the ocean. The listener is described as doing just this. They travel “alone…into the surge-black / fissure.”