‘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 CraneI 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.
Explore I saw a man pursuing the horizon
‘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.
‘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)
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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’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.
- ‘Don’t Quit’ by Edgar Guest – this poem is slightly more optimistic in its presentation of perseverance.
- ‘What Work Is’ by Philip Levine – this poem also explores how life is an entanglement of hope and futility.
- ‘I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl’ by Emily Dickinson – this devastating poem searches for a way to keep moving forward when a love of life has faded.