I saw a man pursuing the horizon

Stephen Crane

‘I saw a man pursuing the horizon’ by Stephen Crane is a short but incredibly moving poem about chasing impossibilities with multiple interpretations.


Stephen Crane

Nationality: American

Stephen Crane was a 19th-century American poet and novelist.

He passed away at only 29 years old.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: It is human nature to chase the impossible but we are also reflexively disapproving of the inclination in anyone but ourselves

Themes: Dreams, Failure, Journey

Speaker: A naysayer

Emotions Evoked: Empathy, Frustration, Resilience

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 19th Century

Stephen Crane's poem is incredibly insightful and thought provoking, one that uses an unvarnished parable-like story to reveal a perceptive if not somewhat grim understanding of human nature.

‘I saw a man pursuing the horizon’ is a short poem by Stephen Crane that possesses an abundance of possible interpretations. To some, it is a poem that cautions against chasing pipe dreams and the inherent stubbornness of human nature. Others might glean optimistically from the poem a solemn celebration of the dreamers and visionaries who are waylaid by people who do not possess their audacious spirit.

I saw a man pursuing the horizon
Stephen Crane

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.


‘I saw a man pursuing the horizon’ by Stephen Crane tells the story of a man with an impossible goal.

‘I saw a man pursuing the horizon’ unfolds from the perspective of a speaker who observes — as the title itself illustrates — a man chasing after the horizon. They watch as they go in circles, presumably around the globe. The speaker describes being unnerved by this sight and attempts to stop the man by dissuading them from their pursuit. “It is futile,” they tell them. But before the speaker can finish explaining to this stranger why their quest is impossible, they brashly interrupt them. “You lie,” the man yells at the speaker before resuming his defiant sprint toward the horizon.

Structure and Form

‘I saw a man pursuing the horizon’ is comprised of two stanzas; the first is composed of six lines, while the second is a couplet. The poem is written in free verse and lacks a formal meter or rhyme scheme. The first stanza sets the scene of Crane’s poem, describing the man’s inane endeavor and the speaker’s desire to stop him. The brevity of the second stanza is owed to the man’s curt response and mirrors the intensity of his refusal to listen or have their mind changed.

Literary Devices

‘I saw a man pursuing the horizon’ employs the use of a variety of literary devices, including but not limited to the following:

  • Visual Imagery: “I saw a man pursuing the horizon” (1)
  • Kinesthetic Imagery: “Round and round they sped” (2) “And ran on” (8)
  • Dialogue: “‘It is futile,’ I said, / ‘You can never —’ // ‘You lie,’ he cried” (5-7)

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

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 —”

The first stanza of ‘I saw a man pursuing the horizon’ envisions a bizarre scene through the eyes of the speaker. One in which an unknown man appears to chase after the horizon in an attempt to reach it. The speaker immediately sees the folly in this strange and illogical goal.

Crane emphasizes the foolhardiness of the man’s pursuit through both kinesthetic imagery and hyperbole: “Round and round they sped” (2). Implying that the man is literally going in circles around the globe but also illustrating he is caught in a never-ending loop.

The speaker says they are “disturbed” (3) by the man’s behavior, which explains why they feel the need to accost them. Crane’s diction here is telling, as “accosted” (4) tends to carry a negative connotation. This insinuates that the speaker is acting in a manner that is either presumptively bold or arrogantly aggressive (perhaps even both).

The stanza ends with the speaker voicing their thoughts to the man. The first thing they do is label the man’s actions as “futile” (5) before attempting to seemingly explain why it is vain. We never do find out what exactly they were going to say, though, as the speaker is suddenly interrupted by the man himself.

Stanza Two

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

The second stanza of ‘I saw a man pursuing the horizon’ reveals the man’s response to the speaker in the form of a couplet. His interjection is both irascible and terse. “You lie” (7) the speaker tells us he cries out. This auditory image is followed swiftly by a kinesthetic one as the man is described as running onward. Like many elements in the poem, Crane leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not the man stopped running at all to reply to the speaker. Leaving it to the reader’s own imagination to fill in the blanks.

Another area open to interpretation is the message of the parable-like story. On the one hand, the man might be perceived as a mad fool, chasing an illogical goal and recklessly unheeding sagacious advice that might otherwise correct their course. But there is also a stoic quality to their quest that inspires empathy for the man’s tenacious spirit.

Much also hinges on the narrative reliability of the speaker as well. Crane’s diction makes it clear that the speaker is moved solely for selfless reasons in approaching the man. They do it because they are personally “disturbed” (3) by the man’s actions. Nor do they intervene in a gentle manner, which might demonstrate their goodwill or a gracious desire to share knowledge. Instead, they accost the man and are dismissive of their perseverent spirit, indelicately declaring all that they do as misguided and fruitless.


What is the theme of ‘I saw a man pursuing the horizon?

The poem’s theme is open to interpretation. One understanding of it might view it as an illustration of two human dispositions: the first is our capacity for lofty passions, and the other is our tendency to fear and curtail those same sentiments when they’re expressed through others.

Why did Stephen Crane write ‘I saw a man pursuing the horizon?

Crane’s poems often explore human nature, and the poet doesn’t shy away from presenting us in all our disquieting imperfections. This poem appears to have been written to spotlight some of those faults, as it is critical of both characters’ sentiments and beliefs.

What does the horizon symbolize?

The horizon symbolizes an unattainable goal or dream. Thanks to the ambiguity in the poem, it’s up to the reader to decide whether or not the man’s pursuit is truly pointless. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time someone achieved that which was believed impossible.

What is the significance of the man’s response to the speaker?

What’s interesting about the man’s response to the speaker is he’s not just utterly defiant — he also labels their words as outright lies. This mirrors the speaker’s own hubris as clearly neither of them knows how to effectively communicate their thoughts to the other, let alone a remote desire to listen.

Similar Poems

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I saw a man pursuing the horizon

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Stephen Crane (poems)

Stephen Crane

This poem by Stephen Crane is indicative of a crucial element of the poet's style. As they often appear to adopt and resemble the narrative voice of a parable. This short two-stanza poem says just as much through what it withholds as it does with what is plainly stated, making it open to a variety of interpretations.
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19th Century

Stephen Crane was a 19th century writer renowned for his ability to conjure up through the imagination uncannily realistic impressions of war. His poetry might have been much less renowned when he was alive, but today it is recognized as being just as inspired as his prose works. Poems like this one reveal his ability to impart such eloquent and vivid emotion through such a short narrative.
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Although he only wrote a single poetry collection, which was published in 1895 as "The Black Riders, and Other Lines," Stephen Crane's lines of verse touch on a variety of timelessly American and human experiences. Poems such as this one reveal his compellingly nuanced understanding of people's contradictory natures, displaying both a capacity for ironic observation and hopeful earnestness.
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Depending on how you interpret Stephen Crane's poem, one of its themes centers on a rather cynical view of one's personal pipe dreams. The pursuit of a goal is a noble thing until it's mired by irascible delusion or a refusal to acknowledge any kind of failure. But the poem also seems just as critical of those like the speaker who selfishly seeks to disenchant dreamers.
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A theme found in Stephen Crane's poem is a commentary on human reactions to failure. The man in the poem does not realize every second they spend pursuing the horizon is a moment of failure because the entire task is impossible. However, such logic feels inevitably cold and dismissive, which is why the reader is stirred to empathy over the man's perseverance.
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Stephen Crane's poem also touches on a person's journey toward achieving the impossible. Depending on how you interpret the events narrated in the poem, that journey is characterized as either a foolhardy scramble in circles or the rousing quest of a visionary. Both readings find support in the poem and hinge on the reader's attitudes toward the speaker and man.
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The emotions that Stephen Crane's poem inspires also might be different depending on how you interpret the poem's narrative. One of those is a sense of empathy toward the man who is observed chasing the horizon. Even though his quest (if taken literally) is impossible, his perseverance is still somewhat admirable. No one wants to be told their dreams are futile.
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An emotion that the poem can inspire is frustration, which stems from the speaker's own biased perspective. To them, the man's seemingly futile goal bothers them on a personal level. This indicates that their motivations are somewhat selfish, though it does tap into this indignation toward the ignorant. The man also expresses his own frustration at being told what he's doing is pointless.
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The man who is the subject of Stephen Crane's poem inspires a certain resilience. His journey might be impossible to attain, and his relentlessness is also somewhat myopic, but he also apparently cannot be stopped. He doesn't even recognize failure as a deterrent, so it's not surprising he completely denies the speaker.
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One interpretation of the man in the poem could view him as a kind of resilient fighter. Someone who doesn't let naysayers deter or distract them from their pursuits. But this interpretation casts both a positive and negative light on the man, as he can also come off as belligerent and unheeding to the point of blind arrogance.
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A topic that Stephen Crane's poem explores is the imparting of knowledge. The speaker knows that the horizon is not a location that can be reached by a man running around the earth, so they try to elucidate this to the man. Yet the reasons they do this are not motivated entirely by an altruistic spirit.
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The man's refusal to be swayed by any kind of logic might be interpreted as a particular kind of madness or narcissism. The parable unfolds as an intervention by the speaker on behalf of a man caught in a loop of his own misguided ambitions. This also explains the vehemence with which the man rejects the speaker's advances.
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The poem can also be read as a comment on perseverance. Despite whether or not it is logical or even healthy to pursue such pipe dreams, the man does so with relentless perseverance. To the reader, this is either inspiring or incredibly frustrating, but that depends on one's interpretation of the events.
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Free Verse

Stephen Crane's poetry was defined by its unconventionality, as it was written in free verse and oftentimes even lacked titles. Like this one, they were also typically very short and did not make use of multiple stanzas. But the poet makes the most of such brevity, offering a parable-like narrative about human nature that is poetic because of its mercurial effect rather than its cadence.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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