The Purse Seine Robinson Jeffers

(1937) The poetry of Robinson jeffers is best described not as part of a movement but as a search for solitude and a rejection of human-created movements. "The Purse Seine" represents the poet's antimodernist disavowal of civilization. While the modernists saw the height of humanity in civilization, but felt that the golden age was long past and unrecoverable (see modernism), Jeffers felt that civilization had sustained itself, but at the expense of humanity. He believed that the modern world was declining in its relentless pursuit of progress. He also rejected the modernists' break with traditional forms, using instead blank verse in long, narrative poems, and a Whitmanesque free verse in his shorter lyric poems (see prosody and free verse).

"The Purse Seine" was published in the collection Such Counsels You Gave Me at a time when Jeffers was beginning to lose his audience, which had grown weary of his pessimism and seeming misanthropy. Still it captures the main thrust of Jeffers's world view: We are doomed, because we seek comfort and answers in civilization. William H. Nolte describes the poem as "one of his most striking commentaries on the inevitability of the disasters that must follow the separation of man from the earth" (121-122).

The poem is simple and direct, reflecting the poet's typical style. Aside from a single extended metaphor of a fish, it is devoid of symbols. The speaker presents first a scene of sardine fishing boats (the poem is named for a type of fishing net). Because of the natural phosporescence of the schools of fish, the fishermen must work at night during the dark phase of the Moon. Guided by the glowing of the fish, they place their nets, then haul in their catch. As he watches the trapped fish being drawn closer and tighter together within the net, the speaker describes the scene as both "beautiful" and "a little terrible." The silver glints of the masses of sardines contrast their terror and imminent deaths.

Later, as the speaker looks from a promontory over the lights of the city, he is reminded of the trapped sardines flickering within the net. Humanity has created its own net, called progress, and has become trapped in cities. The net has not closed yet, but it is being drawn tighter. Finally, in a direct address to the reader, the speaker confronts his contemporaries who take exception to what they perceive as mere pessimism in his verse. His is no prophecy of doom; it is simply an observation of the inevitable. The poem states that any enterprise conducted by the mass of flawed humanity will eventually bring about destruction, though the earth will live on.

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