When reading a poem, it is tempting to ascribe to it one and only one meaning, but part of the beauty of poetry is that one poem may have several interpretations. However, Carl Sandburg's poem seems to specifically address feelings of loneliness and a search for safety and meaning in life. He uses the metaphors of a drifting boat and a lost child to convey these emotions.
Alive from 1878 to 1967, Sandburg produced a huge body of work in his lifetime. Not only was he a reporter, he wrote many volumes of poetry and an enormous, exhaustive biography of Abraham Lincoln. He worked several different jobs throughout his life, including odd jobs, editorial writing and professorial engagements in the United States and other countries. Although he moved several times, Sandburg spent most of his adult life in Chicago.
Physical Setting of 'Lost'
“Lost” takes place out on a lake, “Where fog trails and mist creeps,” throughout the course of a long and lonely night. Because the poem says that the boat cannot find its harbor, readers must assume the lake is a large one, where the shoreline is long and can be lost in the mist to boats out on the water. Sandburg spent much of his life in Chicago, so it is reasonable to assume that the lake he refers to is Lake Michigan, a huge lake more akin to an inland sea.
Metaphors in 'Lost'
Although it tells the story of a boat, “Lost” uses the metaphor of a child. Little is sadder than the image of a lost child, looking for safety but finding only more loneliness. He evokes this imagery powerfully in the lines “Like some lost child / In tears and trouble,” then goes on to imply that both child and boat are searching for something. In the case of the child, he leaves it up in the air, though the boat is “Hunting the harbor’s breast / And the harbor’s eyes.”
An initial reading of the poem immediately generates feelings of sadness and pity, especially for the lost child to whom Sandburg compares the boat. Interestingly, the poet does not speak to the feelings of the people who are presumably aboard the boat, but rather ascribes all emotion to the boat itself. He refers only to its whistle, which “Calls and cries unendingly,” and it is the boat itself that does the hunting for harbor and home.