What are the "occasion" and "purpose" for the poem "He Never Tried Again," by Jack London?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Little information seems to be available about Jack London’s poem “He Never Tried Again.” Until recently the poem was unpublished, and the most recent editor of London’s poetry, Dan Wichlan, has little to say about it. On his web site, Wichlan indicates that the poem was written in the Spring of 1897, and in his printed edition of London’s poetry, Wichlan indicates that the poem was submitted for publication in October 1899.

The poem seems typical of London’s writings in various ways, including the following:

  • Its emphasis on adventurous but disappointing experiences in Alaska.
  • Its apparent sympathy with the young men who fight wars and soon become disillusioned by them.
  • Its depiction of the frustrations of the search for love.
  • Its generally gloomy tone and attitude, although London would have considered it a realistic work rather than a pessimistic one.
  • Its final depiction of the young man: even though he has decided to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, when he actually hits the water he struggles to survive:

The water cold, he called for aid,

And struggled might and main . . . .

For London, life was all about the struggle to survive. But of course this young man does not survive – an ending typical of London’s often dark writings (such as the story “To Build a Fire,” in which another desperate struggle to survive finally ends in death). “He Never Tried Again” seems to be a poem in this mode. Perhaps it is a kind of implicit rebuke to the kinds of stories we associate with Horatio Alger, in which young men triumph if they are only willing to work long and hard enough. It is always possible, of course, that London is satirizing the young man in this poem for not showing persistence and for giving up too easily.

The subtitle of the poem – “(With apologies to Henry of England)” – may perhaps allude to the story of Henry, Earl of Derby, who had been described in a book published in 1897, written by Henry Hartwright and titled The Story of the House of Lancaster. Hartwright writes of one episode in Henry’s life in which he intended to embark on a crusade and was driven back by a storm. Hartwright remarks that “his courage failed him . . . and he never tried again.”

London saw himself as the kind of writer who would present the truth even if the truth seemed grim and depressing. However one interprets this poem – as sympathetic toward the young man or as satirical of him – “grim and depressing” seem appropriate adjectives to describe this lyric.