Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“On All That Glides in the Air” is a poem in the Romantic tradition that considers the immediate, emotional impact of an experience to be closer to a real understanding of truth than the logical, reasoned reaction to the same experience. For a Romantic writer, the images of floating, gliding, and soaring represent a release from the natural, pragmatic world and are therefore closer to nature, to God, or to previously unknowable truths. The Romantic sensibility is further reinforced by Gustafsson’s reference to the super-analytical Renaissance painters’ re-creation of the visual world not as a work of beauty but as a “childish trick.” However, “All That Glides in the Air” is far from a Romantic poem because the predominant images are not positive and optimistic but neutral and unsettling, particularly at the end of stanzas 1 and 2 where the physical freedom of open spaces turns inward to subjugate the human psyche.

In the passage comparing swimming and gliding, the feeling of uncertainty is reinforced by the recognition of the close relationship between life and death. One false step on the diving board could cause a fatal fall, but even that free fall might change to a glide “by something invisible.” The suggestion that free-falling and gliding are intertwined is strengthened by the image of the painted birds that are frozen in their landscapes between the juxtaposed “earth and air,” “light and shade,” and “water and land.”...

(The entire section is 486 words.)