Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Great Gull” is essentially a religious meditation. It reflects Nemerov’s sense of correspondences, an Emersonian belief that nature teaches metaphysical and moral lessons if one observes closely. Unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nemerov does not perceive moral lessons or judgments in nature. Rather, in this poem, his meeting with the gull teaches him that he is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, that the issues that keep him awake at night mean nothing to the cosmos. Instead of despair, however, the poet’s epiphany about his egocentricity and the ineffability of the universe results in reverence, his thought being “bowed down.”

The poem’s artistic genius resides in its subtlety. Nemerov illustrates the strangeness of the universe by personifying a gull, a being sharing some qualities with humans yet different enough to establish foreignness, thus a symbol of the cosmos itself. Moreover, the bird seems to have some knowledge that the poet does not, a knowledge that allows the gull to disdain the narrator and to fly comfortably into a cosmos that discomforts yet awes the narrator.

The gull, whose color reflects the gray of the sea, descends out of a mist, another symbol of the unknowable, the unclear. Mist metaphorically illustrates the narrator’s whole experience with the gull. Even the bird’s “strange tongue” has a clear tone, illustrative of a misty experience in which a reality can be glimpsed but not...

(The entire section is 477 words.)