The poem ‘Enterprise’ looks deceptively simple and direct and yet becomes complex as one tries to peel its many layered meanings. The poet speaks about a bold and difficult journey as the enterprise that a group of people are undertaking. The journey seems to have ‘started as a pilgrimage’, for the purpose of ennobling minds and ‘making all the burdens light’, giving it a spiritual connotation. As the poem progresses one gets the impression that the journey is made by a group of people, possibly poets or writers. Yet again one gets the feeling that the journey seems to stand for the poets or writers’ own journey of life, of how they initially start their literary lives with verve and daring. In course of time the initial euphoria rubs off.
The poet says that the second stage of their journey was primarily exploration without being severely tested and the word ‘rage’ in the line ‘the sun beat down to match our rage’ seems to suggest the vigour, passion and enthusiasm with which the young group of writers took up the challenge of writing something revolutionary and inspirational. ‘The sun beat down’ could refer metaphorically to the obstacles that stood in their way. However, it was a successful stage where they ‘observed’, made ‘copious notes’ of everyday life, the way of the cunning people (serpents) and the simple people (goats) and the life in the cities where the ‘sage’ taught. The word ‘sage’ could refer to ancient wisdom found in ancient texts.
Differences arose when they met with contentious issues or when inspiration ran dry (desert patch) in their journey and they lost one from their group who was the best prose writer. The ‘shadow’ of differences grew. The journey got tougher when they were twice attacked by critics and ‘lost’ their perspective. A section of their group decided to part ways due to the onslaught. The leader of the group seemed to provide consolation and encouragement when he said that he ‘smelt the sea’, that is, the end of the journey.
The irony of the end stages of the journey was that they as writers ‘noticed nothing as they went’. They no longer observed and took copious notes. They were a ‘struggling crowd of little hope’ treading on, ignoring warnings and personal discomfort. At the end of the journey they were ‘broken’ or ‘bent’ hardly knowing why they were there. The words ‘broken’ and ‘bent’ are apt and powerful words that depict graphically the decline, confusion and disillusionment in the lives of writers. They had forgotten what they had started out with. The trip had exhausted them and they had not done anything great or rare.
The last line of the poem can be understood in so many ways and provides the punch line for the whole poem. Two meanings stand out. The journey of the group ends at home. They have to return to the original zealous ideas and thoughts that they had started out with. The second meaning could mean something entirely different. ‘Home’ could refer to the poet’s own consciousness – experiences, feelings and emotions – that acts as raw material to write authentically and without disillusionment. The poet’s own mind is the storehouse welling with material for writing. So the enterprise or journey is a metaphor for an artist’s life.