Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“On the Move” is a poem about how one defines oneself through actions. Driven by instinct or will, one is able to articulate one’s purpose only en route, through the act itself. This is as true of the motorcyclists as it is for the poet.

“On the Move” is the opening poem of The Sense of Movement (1957), which Gunn said was inspired by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. A major tenet of Sartre’s existentialism is that one derives authentic meaning in one’s lives not from any preconceived notions of what one should be, but from one’s own actions. One cannot know what one is except through what one does. Because one is, as Sartre says, “condemned to be free,” one must take full responsibility for one’s actions and, thus, for one’s existence.

Self-definition through engaged action is the ultimate existentialist act. If one could rely on instinct, as birds do, there would be no question of authenticity. Since the individual has free will, however, he or she must exercise it and take the consequences. The myth of the American motorcyclist is one of Gunn’s favorite figures for the restless, searching, often inarticulate existential hero. His doubt is part of his charm. His restless motion, instinctual or willed, is, consciously or unconsciously, a creation of meaning through “movement in a valueless world.”

The articulation of that meaning is no more the task of the motorcyclist than it...

(The entire section is 563 words.)