Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

“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.

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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.” Just as perspective in a painting is more than the technique of drawing straightedge lines directly to a single vanishing point, the truth of existence is more than simply living and dying or motion and stasis. It is in the passage on art that the narrator shifts from the first person “I” to the more inclusive “we,” which suggests that the contrasting experiences are universal; at the same time, however, it is up to all humans to discover “the interior/ of their own picture.” Unfortunately, there are no clear rules or maps for such an exploration.

The most problematic passage occurs in the last stanza in which the narrator comments that “signs glide over the white pages.” At first glance, the word “signs” appears to refer to symbols or letters on a piece of paper. However, “sign” can also mean “emblem,” “mark,” or “omen.” The latter seems to fit best in the light of the next image in which birds of prey glide over white snow. Next, the birds of prey are juxtaposed with another type of flying being: angels. The paradoxical comment that all beings both glide and stand “as the angels stand/ in an unthinkable motion” suggests that all motion, like existence itself, is both contradictory and indescribable. There is “no name” for either mortal existence or for the existence of the world. Gustafsson, then, uses varied images of gliding to suggest the complex, paradoxical nature of existence not only for humankind but also for all living things.

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