In Fenn’s Poem: What Does “it” Mean?

And take it in the canyon down...

And take it in the canyon down…

I am reminded of the 1998 impeachment trial of President William Jefferson Clinton, when in his grand jury testimony he was asked to explain how he responded to his aides asking him if he was having an affair with Monica Lewinski. He told his aides, straight-faced, “There IS nothing going on between us.”

Attempting to explain the above response, Clinton told the grand jury, again, straight faced, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the..if he…if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.”

He confused everyone enough with that answer, that the impeachment failed.

The question for today is: In Fenn’s Poem, what does “it” mean?

(I’ve added the complete definition of the word “it” at the bottom of this post.)

It (the pronoun “it”) is used five times in Fenn’s treasure poem in five different lines:

  1. Begin it where warm waters halt
  2. And take it in the canyon down,
  3. From there it’s no place for the meek,
  4. So why is it that I must go
  5. I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak.

The easiest and safest assumption we can make is Fenn used the single syllable word as a substitute for multiple syllable words (or phrases) that would not sustain the rhythm of the poem.

For example,

Begin your journey where warm waters halt
And take the narrow pathway in the canyon down,
Not far, but too far to walk.
Put in below the home of Brown.

…while more descriptive, has lost all it’s rhythm be the middle of the second line.

Two of the its (of the five) are relatively easy to work out with confidence:

3. From there (the location you find yourself) is no place for the meek,


4. So why is (this point in my life important enough) that I must go
[And leave my trove for all to seek?]

The conundrums are its 1., 2., and 5. But, I feel like the three are intimately related. What makes 1., 2., and 5. so difficult, is that there’s no reference point, before or after them. For the word “it” to be effective as a subject or an object, there has to be a reference before or after. See the examples below in the definition of it at the bottom of this post.

Let’s start with the obvious (at least to me).

1. Begin (your adventure) where warm waters halt
2. And take (your adventure) in the canyon down,

5. I’ve done (my adventure) tired, and now I’m weak.

I have a hard time buying into varying the three, such as:

1. Begin (your hunt for the treasure) where warm waters halt
2. And take (your excitement at being outdoors) in the canyon down,

5. I’ve done (all this writing) tired, and now I’m weak.

I’m not saying that the reference to my and his adventure are correct. You can replace them with any word or phrase you think is appropriate for your search solutions.

But, I AM suggesting that it’s the same word or phrase in all three lines.

it (pronoun)

1. used to refer to a thing previously mentioned or easily identified (a room with two beds in it), referring to an animal or child of unspecified sex (she was holding the baby, cradling it and smiling into its face), referring to a fact or situation previously mentioned, known or happening (stop it, you’re hurting me)

2. used to identify a person (it is me)

3. used in the normal subject position in statements about time, distance or weather (it is half past five)

4. used in the normal subject or object position when a more specific subject or object is given later in the sentence (it is impossible to assess the problem)

5. used to emphasize a following part of a sentence (it is the child who is the victim)

6. the situation or circumstances; things in general (no one can stay here – it’s too dangerous now)

7. exactly what is needed or desired (they thought they were it)

8. informal, sex appeal (he’s still got it) sexual intercourse (they were doing it)

9. informal, denoting a person or thing that is exceptionally fashionable, popular or successful at a particular time (they were Hollywood’s it couple)

10. (in children’s games) the player who has to catch the others

11 thoughts on “In Fenn’s Poem: What Does “it” Mean?

  1. Like I said earlier, this is an interesting subject. I’ve been trying to come up with more specific things that fit the “it”s and still make sense. For example if “it” is “the Santa Fe Trail” the poem would read:

    •Begin the Santa Fe Trail where warm waters halt
    •And take the Santa Fe Trail in the canyon down,
    •From there the Santa Fe Trail is no place for the meek,
    So why is it that I must go
    •I’ve done the Santa Fe Trail tired, and now I’m weak.

    In this case I got “the Santa Fe Trail” to fit 4 of the “its” vs. just 3. Is this what you are talking about?

    Along this line of thinking would “there” also need to be the same place as the “it”s? As I have gone alone in there……..

    As I have gone alone in the Santa Fe Trail……..It doesn’t fit too well here; but do you see what I mean?

  2. Well I agree with everyone here in reguards to the “it”. Along with IT, I’ve been looking at the semicolon after “The end is drawing ever nigh;” because the next sentance that goes with this is “Just heavy loads and water high.” I’m wondering if these two lines have something more in comon than just rhyming. Here are some rules to the semicolon:

    Rule 1
    Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out.
    Call me tomorrow; I will give you my answer then.
    I have paid my dues; therefore, I expect all the privileges listed in the contract.

    Rule 2
    It is preferable to use a semicolon before introductory words such as namely, however, therefore, that is, i.e., for example, e.g., or for instance when they introduce a complete sentence. It is also preferable to use a comma after the introductory word.
    You will want to bring many backpacking items; for example, sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing will make the trip better.
    As we discussed, you will bring two items; i.e., a sleeping bag and a tent are not optional.

    Rule 3
    Use either a semicolon or a comma before introductory words such as namely, however, therefore, that is, i.e., for example, e.g., or for instance when they introduce a list following a complete sentence. Use a comma after the introductory word.
    You will want to bring many backpacking items; for example, sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing.
    You will want to bring many backpacking items, for example, sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing.

    Rule 4
    Use the semicolon to separate units of a series when one or more of the units contain commas.
    This conference has people who have come from Boise, Idaho; Los Angeles, California; and Nashville, Tennessee.

    Rule 5
    Use the semicolon between two sentences joined by a coordinating conjunction when one or more commas appear in the first sentence.
    When I finish here, I will be glad to help you; and that is a promise I will keep.
    If she can, she will attempt that feat; and if her husband is able, he will be there to see her.
    I could be way off base here, but you know; I can’t leave one stone unturned.

  3. This is my first time posting on your blog Toby. I like to say, you’ve done very well in the set up of it. Tip of the hat. In regards to ‘ it ‘ I have put my thoughts out there couple times before, To me IT seems to reference a time period. This may not make much sense when you read the poem, so let me try and explain. Begin it during this age of history… and take it in the canyon down or travel the same path as others. from there it’s no place… again, thinking of a time period and how difficult it must have been for ‘us’ to see it thru an others eye.

    I know most will not agree. But the places in the poem may not be place one can go to. Not WWWH, Not the canyon, Not HOB, etc. To me IT is more like a journey, telling a story, thru a poem.

    Maybe this is why when FF said, ” useless clues” , the clues only make sense once one has understood the meaning of the poem. by then it is just confirmation.

    • Unique perspective. The test for me is whether I can fit my definition of “it” into the particular line of the poem and still have it make sense. What you’re suggesting is thoughtful and reasonable, but doesn’t resolve it. For example, if I “Begin it during this age of history…” What am I beginning? A venture, a trip, a research project? I think the combination of the two, resolving it, and looking at the “location” (in the case of where warm waters halt) “direction” (in the case of canyon down) in temporal terms is intriguing. Well done.

      • Toby, without a heavy amount of details, it works like this…
        WWWH is the Ice age or glacial period. Canyon down, will be the Ice free corridor.
        Not far, but too far to walk, Time = distance, or travel in time, and where ‘ it ‘ ends.

        This theory tells only one WWWH, One Canyon, and even though I did not explain HOB, it would lead to only one possibility. At least this is my method of see the poem. I hope that explains what I mean by ‘ it ‘ a little better and not giving to much away.

        The best part of the blogs and forums is, there is always someone who has an idea, theory, method… that shakes up my last brain cell and helps me look at the poem in a way I may missed or not thought of.

  4. For my solve, identifying what “it ” is, is definitely one of the keys. Having done so has brought into play another aspect that has evaded me for some time. Very well said SnC !

  5. Years ago when I first read the poem one of the first questions I asked myself was–what is “it”.

    Since “it” is subjective I’ve always let my solution define “it”…….Perhaps this is why I don’t have the chest.

    That’s interesting about #1, #2, and #5 all being the same thing. To me for that to happen “it” would have to be a general term; the search, your quest, the adventure etc. I can’t think of anything more specific and have it fit “it”. I would really like to hear any other examples if you can do it without revealing your solution.

    For example, some have thought WWWH was a train station, so “it” would be a train that is taken in the canyon down. Way back in the beginning when folks still thought it could be in Santa Fe an obvious solve is WWWH is Agua Fria, N.M…….In this case “it” would be Agua Fria Rd. that goes into downtown Santa Fe…….A Wyoming solve would be the Firehole river is WWWH, so take the river down the canyon.

    So “it” could be a road, a trail, a river, a train etc. that is to be taken from WWWH. Another rather far fetched idea is that “it” is actually something that must be found at WWWH and taken in the canyon down…..a key for example.

    Of course “it” could simply be “the search” like you say……..I think this is a very interesting subject but I can’t think of anything that I could specify “it” to be other than a general term and have “it” fit 1, 2, & 5. Maybe I should change my name to “Dumb Old Guy”. 🙂

    • Hey, buddy…those are just my thoughts on the matter and I’m about as right as everybody else when it comes to this search. There’s nothing dumb about you.

  6. Seeing as how there seems to be a more “intimate” following here, I don’t mind going out on a limb without much fear of reprisal. If I may be so bold, it’s my opinion that correctly identifying IT will be critical in ascertaining the correct solution. While this may not be the most important piece of the puzzle or even the most difficult to put together, I believe it holds “the key” to unlocking the rest of the poem. I realize that may sound overly dramatic, but I really don’t think so. Finding IT is the beginning of the solve, albeit not the starting point of the journey.

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