Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477
“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 clearly defined. Relating the incident from the point of view of a human put in his place by an unexpected encounter with a strange gull, also reverses the conventional stance of humans as the “highest” form of life. In fact, all the poetic devices serve to establish nature’s supremacy to humankind, a view antithetical to the Genesis account of Adam’s having dominion over nature and closer to the Native American ideal of human cooperation with nature.
However, “The Great Gull” does not preach either cooperation or conquest. It simply acts as a poetic Galileo to a worldview which, like the ancient Church, is still anthropocentric and still confident that humanity’s intellectual, moral powers are competent to deal with whatever arises. The narrative implies humanity’s arrogance by showing how humans’ “miserable regimen” is easily burst by an encounter with the Other, especially when the narrator perceives the bird as disdaining the narrator and, by implication, the burning issues that prevent the poet from sleeping.
Historically, the “The Great Gull” mixes the Romantic tradition with realism. It is an outstanding example of Romanticism in that it glorifies nature and privileges intuitive knowing over rational analytical thought, much like Walt Whitman in “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer.” It differs from nineteenth century Romanticism in that it does not exalt the individual and has no Byronic hero, but instead perceives humans as regular, nonspecial creatures in an intricate, unfathomable order.