You Will Know When You Get There by Allen Curnow

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 upon first glance but when one investigates deeper the emotional nature of the text is emphasized through the free verse style. 

You Will Know When You Get There by Allen Curnow

 

Summary of You Will Know When You Get There

‘You Will Know When You Get There’ by Allen Curnow speaks on the path of life through metaphors of the sun and sea. 

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. 

 

Analysis of You Will Know When You Get There

Lines 1-6

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. 

 

Lines 7-12

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. 

 

Lines 13-18

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. 

 

Lines 19-23

slams, a heavy wave, a door, the sea-floor shudders.
Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black
fissure.

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.” 

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  • Avatar Camille says:

    Which metaphor does the author use to talk about the path of life?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Well, the waves slamming at the end is compared to a door slamming, I think this is a coffin door. So this metaphor helps put across the end of life.

  • Avatar Amy says:

    What are the themes and possible categories for this poem?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      The main themes for this poem are a journey through life. It uses imagery related to the sun and the sea throughout the poem.

  • Avatar Debby says:

    Did the man go to hell or heaven? Is this suicidal or not;is he trying to die while he knows that he could live on earth and not go to catch mussels in sea…

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      This poem is so full of ambiguity that it is really impossible to say for sure. If you search through the text you could make an argument for it being about suicide or for him choosing to visit his favourite place before he dies.

  • Avatar reneeka says:

    so is this poem about accepting death or suicide?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      It’s questionable, but I think probably the former. I think it is a man trying to find his favourite place before he passes.

  • Avatar Nhlanhla Siziba says:

    I find the analysis balanced. May you kindly analyse line
    is a hesitancy of the earth rolling back and away

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I think it is talking about when the sand rolls in the shallows at the seaside.

  • Avatar mareeyaah says:

    I thought its about a man who took his own life..

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      yeah, that is definitely a valid interpretation of the text.

  • Avatar john says:

    thankyou genius

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you! A man of taste!

  • Avatar Aleyzehkhan says:

    I didn’t get what the poet is trying to say in the lines 19-23.Help me out.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I think the poet is trying to compare the last few hours of night and the crashing wave to an argument. With the crashing waves being likened to a slamming door.

  • Avatar Bushra Waqar says:

    *TEXT*
    You will Know When You Will Get There
    Allen Curnow

    1 Nobody comes up from the sea as late as this
    2 in the day and the season, and nobody else goes down

    3 the last steep kilometre, wet metalled where
    4 a shower passed shredding the light which keeps

    5 pouring out of its tank in the sky, through summits,
    6 trees, vapours thickening and thinning. Too

    7 Credibly by half celestial, the dammed
    8 reservoir up there keeps emptying while the light lasts

    9over the sea, where it ‘gathers the gold against
    10 it’. The light is bits of crushed rock randomly

    11 glinting underfoot, wetted by the short
    12 shower, and down you go and so in it’s way does

    13 the sun which gets there first. Boys, two of them,
    14 turn campfirelit faces, a hesitancy to speak

    15 is a hesitancy of earth rolling back and away
    16 behind this man going down to the sea with a bag

    17 to pick mussels, having an arrangement with the tide,
    18 the ocean to be shallowed three point seven metres,

    19 one hour’s light to be left, and there’s the excrescent
    20 moon springing off the last of it. A door

    21 slams, a heavy wave, a door, the sea-floor shudders.
    22 Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black
    23 fissure.

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