‘The Widening Sky’ by Edward Hirsch is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. The poem originally appeared in Hirsch’s collection, Lay Back The Darkness, published in 2003. Hirsch did not choose to structure this piece with a specific pattern of rhyme. Instead, the lines are unified by their common imagery and length. It is clear from the beginning that the speaker is on a journey that does not have a specific destination in mind. A reader follows along as he realizes the power of a dark seaside landscape and the emotional and spiritual necessity of solitude.
The poem begins with the speaker introducing the landscape he is walking into. His steps are talking him farther away from civilization and deeper into ever-growing darkness. Once he is truly distant from the boardwalk and hotels he is able to let his emotions loose and allow the sea to change him. He feels a great love for everything around him. It is undefined, spreading outwards and growing like the widening sky.
You can read the full poem here.
The most important themes of this piece are insignificance and wonder at the grandeur of the world. Hirsch’s speaker begins the poem with a statement describing the way the “wide” sky and night which makes him feel “small.” A reader is immediately cast into an overwhelming world, filled with elements that are incomprehensible to a single human being. These feelings of insignificance are not unpleasant though. By the end of the poem the speaker reveals that despite all the sights he has seen (and has yet to see) he is “filled with…a vast love.”
This is the second theme which is worth noting. The word “love” is not introduced until the end of the poem but that only increases its significance. Upon a closer reading, the “love” the speaker feels is palpable in every line leading up to and including the fourth stanza. He analyzes the world around him with pleasure, taking his own existence as nothing more than a “tiny seashell” and feeling the “wind sigh…for hundreds of miles”.
Analysis of The Widening Sky
I am so small walking on the beach(…)and the waves thunder against the shore.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by introducing the setting and how it impacts his emotional being. This initial state of mind lasts throughout the entire poem. In fact, the first line is helpful to return to as a reminder of the larger themes of this piece as described in the introduction.
He speaks first on the fact that he is taking a walk on the beach. It is nighttime and the sky seems to stretch “wide” above him. To the speaker, it appears that as he moves and time progresses, the sky is only getting wider. It’s growing at a noticeable rate in the same way that the “wet sand” is “quicken[ing]” under his feet.
Lastly, he speaks of the power of the waves. They pummel the shore like claps of thunder. The entire world is moving around him with each element acting in its own particular way. The solitude of the moment is important to note. If the speaker had been in a social situation, or even at a closer distance to the “boardwalk” mentioned in the next stanza, the sky, wind, and waves would not have seemed so important. Usually, these aspects of the world happen in the background. They are the backdrop to everyday life, not the centerpiece. At this moment though, his solitude allows him to truly experience the wonder of the earth.
I am moving away from the boardwalk(…)The wind sighs for hundreds of miles.
In the second quatrain, the speaker goes on to add details to his surroundings. The walk he is taking is leading him away from the “boardwalk” on which there are “colourful streamers of people.” These groups appear to him as flashes of color, moving, or streaming about their lives. In their speed and brightness, they are a perfect contrast to the slow-moving narrator. They also add to the general speed of his surroundings. He has already noted that the waves are moving powerfully and the sand is flowing quickly under his feet.
These details also help to flush out the setting in greater detail. A reader learns that the narrator is not completely alone. He could decide to go back to the boardwalk or to one of the hotels with “their blinking lights,” offering protection and company, but instead is moving forward. He is more drawn to the distance spreading out before him. The wind, through its endless gusts, reminds him of the “hundred of miles” that could be before him, if he wanted.
I am disappearing so far into the dark(…)that has secretly drifted ashore
The third stanza turns away from the setting and instead begins to address the speaker’s own internal situation. Now that he has entered into this new world, distant from the company of others, he feels himself “disappearing so far into the dark.” It is as if the structures of society are there to keep humanity from being sucked out into the “hundreds of miles” from which one might not find their way back.
It is important to note that it is not just the physical distance before the speaker that makes him feel insignificant, it is the massive size of the space around him. Now that the buildings have fallen away there is nothing to mark his location. His entrance into the darkness means he has “vanished from sight.” He is invisible to the rest of the world and to himself.
He sees himself as part of the landscape. Now he can’t see and understand his own body or be seen and understood by others. The speaker is more like a “tiny seashell” than a person. He has “secretly drifted ashore” out of the ocean or away from the confines of civilization and his own humanity.
and carries the sound of the ocean(…)How can I be filled with such a vast love?
In the last four lines the speaker concludes the poem with a revelation. This journey out into the darkness of the landscape is not a terrifying one. He might be overwhelmed by what he is feeling but in this case it is a good thing. Its exactly what he needed.
He can feel the “sound of the ocean” enter into and out of his body. It is empowering him in a way he never could have experienced back on the boardwalk or at a hotel.
In the last two lines, he states that he is “so small now no one can see [him]” and that he is “filled with such a vast love.” These two things initially seem to contrast, but when they occur out in the dark, away from the demands of others, they are one and the same. It is only at a great distance from everyday life that the speaker is able to truly feel. His emotions are no longer controlled. They have been set free to explore this new landscape that has no boundaries.