Monday, May 3, 2010

SWIMMERS by Louis Untermeyer

I took the crazy short-cut to the bay;
Over a fence or two and through a hedge,
Jumping a private road, along the edge
Of backyards full of drying wash it lay.
And now, the last set being played and over,
I hurried past the ruddy lakes of clover;
I swung my racket at astonished oaks,
My arm still tingling from aggressive strokes.
Tennis was over for the day -
I took the leaping short-cut to the bay.

Then the quick plunge into the cool, green dark,
The windy waters rushing past me, through me;
Filled with a sense of some heroic lark
Existing n a vigour clean and roomy.
Swiftly I rose to meet the cat-like sea
That sprang upon me with a hundred claws,
And grappled, pulled me down and played with me.
Then, held suspended in the tightening pause
When one wave grows into a toppling acre,
I dived headlong into the foremost breaker,
Pitting against a cold and turbulent strife
The feverish intensity of life.

Out of the foam I lurched and rode the wave,
Swimming, hand over hand, against the wind;
I felt the sea's vain pounding, and I grinned
Knowing I was its master, not its slave.
Back on the curving beach I stood again,
Facing the bath-house, when a group of men,
Stumbling beneath some sort of weight, went by.
I could not see the heavy thing they carried;
I only heard : 'He never gave a cry-
'Who's going to tell her?' 'Yes, and they just married-'
'Such a good swimmer, too... And then they passed,
Leaving the silence throbbing and aghast.

A moment there my frightened heart hung slack,
And then the rich, retarded blood came back
Singing a livelier tune; and in my pulse
Beat the great wave that endlessly exults.
Why I was there and whither I must go,
I did not care. Enough for me to know
The same persistent struggle and the glowing
Waste of all spendthrift hours, bravely showing
Life, an adventure perilous and gay,
And death, a long and vivid holiday.

Louis Untermeyer was born in New York. Instead of going to school, he preferred to stay home and listen to his mother read him stories from various literatures of the world. His regular absence from school affected his performance and he left high school without completing it. At this point, he joined his father's jewelery store. Along with designing jewelry, Untermeyer never forgot his passion for poetry and literature and in 1911 he published his first book. He then decided to concentrate entirely on writing. Over the next fifty years, he wrote, edited and translated over a hundred books. In 1956 he was awarded a gold medal by the Poetry Society of America. Untermeyer died on 18th December, 1977.

'Swimmers' by Louis Untermeyer is an allegorical poem which focuses on life and death and discusses the closeness of the two. It shows that the fact of death cannot diminish life and that we must live life to the fullest. At one level, the poem also shows the conflict between man and nature. It brings out the poet's extreme optimism and energy.

The poet persona is not worried about deep, philosophical questions such as why he was born and where he must go when he dies as he is focused on the battles of life. The poem shows us that just as the sea is endless, the hardships in life are also infinite. Life is a perilous adventure. It stands for battles, thrill and pushing oneself to the limit. People who realize this know that there is no easy way out. Like Ayn Rand says, "There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence - and it pertains to living organisms. The existence or non-existence of inanimate matter is unconditional - the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death."
The soul is timeless and death is only a parting with one's body. In life, people become attached to their comforts, identities and beliefs and take them for granted. They live in the belief that these materialistic things will last forever and are afraid to let go of them. People invariably dread dying because they know that these comforts which make them feel secure cannot be taken into the afterlife. On the other hand, those who stand up and face hardships, who "dive headlong into the foremost breaker" have nothing to lose when they die.

The sea is a symbol of all the battles of life. The poet doesn't care if he wins because in facing a stronger opponent he becomes stronger himself. His aim is the struggle and not the reward. He is so optimistic that for him, death itself is the reward for "the feverish intensity of life," for him Death is a long and vivid holiday. This poem reminds us that life is transient and death is eternal. Everything in life is uncertain except death. Nobody can tell what the future holds but everyone knows that if one is born, one must eventually die. Death is the necessary salvation and release from the endless circles of life.

Thus death is not the end but the beginning of a new existence, the rest that comes after one had breathed one's last and a vivid holiday only if one has struggled in life.

The 'Swimmers' are the people who do not get washed away by life's challenges. They, like the poet persona, treat death as a shore of the ocean that they must reach after the long, hard swim of life. They live Life to the hilt and hence don't cringe from Death. Imagine for a moment that you are immortal, you would live forever but one by one everyone around you would die. The world would change through the ages while you remain caged in the same body for eternity. The poet makes us see that just as Life is a gift, Death is not doom, but a gift that breaks the spirit free from the shackles of life.


  1. Suddenly this post seems to have become very popular

  2. Awesome.. I read this poem for Class 10th ICSE exam.. and couldn't get over it.. i just loved the entire message the poet gives.. I had been searching for this poem since a long time.. thanks for posting it and the explanation in tow.. :)

  3. yes .. it was in class 9 - 10 of icse board .... lovely poem !

  4. I had been searching for this poem and i finally found it on your blog. Thanks a ton for posting it. i read it in class 10 for ICSE exams.

  5. Thank you for taking the time out to comment. It's one of my favourite poems

  6. I read this in class 10 and am in search of the book named Wings of Poesy , it had such beautiful poems..