The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

Howard Nemerov’s “The Great Gull” is a twenty-seven-line narrative poem of irregular tetrameter, punctuated with tense trimeter lines. The poem relates the narrator’s dawn encounter with a gull who flies in for a brief stop on his lawn. The convergence of human and gull evokes the narrator’s reflection upon the relationship of humanity to nature and ends with his sense that humans and their concerns are puny things in contrast to the stern mystery of nature, and by extension, the cosmos.

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The opening six lines of “The Great Gull” reveal that the narrator is restless and so gets up at dawn, where he sees the great gull fly in and rest upon the lawn, a sight he would not ordinarily see. The gull’s wing is “savage,” and the bird must shake it to quiet, a sign of restlessness and power. The bird’s stance is authoritative, priestly. Its grey feathers evoke a mantle; his head a mask, a bird mask, like those worn by pagan priests. The gull’s “fierce austerity” causes the narrator to bow in humility and wonder, to speculate on the sea-lanes and wild waters the bird not only traveled by but also slept in, “still as a candle in the crypt.”

The next two lines focus on the gull’s response to the narrator. The bird’s stare is noble, not polite or obsequious, indicating he needs no permission to stand on the narrator’s territory. The following lines compare the gull to a merchant prince exploring a poor province. The bird surveys the narrator and, presumably, the lawn, the house, and its accoutrements, but finds “no treasure house,” nothing that can be made “Delightful to his haughty trade”—nothing worth staying around for. The gull readies himself to fly away, leaving “savage men” to “Their miserable regimen,” words indicating its scorn of humanty and its “green concerns.”

It takes effort for the bird to hoist his wings like a sail and his body into the air. When he does so, his mighty wings create a wind. As the gull flies away, he lets out an eerie cry. The narrator does not understand the language but comprehends that the bird disdains the narrator’s concerns and flies into a cosmos more interesting, mysterious, and profound than any human issues. The cry’s tone tells the narrator that he will never understand the universe except to comprehend that it is beyond him and human analysis. The experience leaves the narrator humbled and aware of a strange yet majestic universe in which he plays a tiny part and of which his understanding is fragmentary and myopic.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

Nemerov uses half irregular iambic tetrameter and half iambic trimeter in this poem. The rhymes are approximate, with the exception of three couplets and two alternating rhymes—the rhyming end words occurring after one or two intervening lines at the beginning and near the close of the poem. The iambic tetrameter lines interspersed with clipped iambic trimeter create the effect of a leisurely story being punctuated by important points or actions. For example, “Restless, rising at dawn” is an abrupt opening line. “Still as a candle in the crypt” is a terse yet powerful line. The longer lines, such as “I saw the great gull come from the mist” and “And vanished seaward with a cry—,” have a slowing effect, appropriate to the time it would take to watch a gull sail in and perch upon one’s lawn, then fly so far into the horizon that it appears to vanish. The shorter, staccato lines, which include “bird mask,” “mantled,” and “fierce austerity,” convey undisputed authority in their terseness.

Alliteration and assonance substituting for more conventional rhyme schemes follow the alliterative verse tradition of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Alliterative consonants such as “Restless, rising,” “great gull,” “masked, mantled,” “wild waters” “candlecrypt,” “poor province,” “spreadsail,” “foughtfreight,” and “tonguetongue” create immediacy in the poem. These hard consonant sounds are softened by assonance in almost every line; “standlawn,” “shookstood,” “thought bowed down,” “wanderedwaterscandle,” “downcourteousuponconcerns,” “comesomepoor,” “wholooking,” “gull come from,” “canmade,” “miserable regimen,” “makinggale,” “vanished seaward,” and “tonguetone.” The abundant assonance juxtaposed with hard alliterative beats creates a rhythm suggestive of heavy wings flapping or a bell tolling, an evocation in keeping with the metaphysical simile of priest and crypt.

The imagery and tone of “The Great Gull” also suggest the mournful tone of Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as “The Seafarer.” Words such as “sea-lanes” and “wild waters” evoke Anglo-Saxon kennings, such as “whale’s road” or “water way.” The sea, long a symbol of infinity, contrasts with known “green concerns.” The addition of “my” to “green concerns” implies the narrator’s naïveté, his being “green,” as well as the mundane, earthly issues specified in a “lawn,” a tended piece of grass in contrast to a field.

The personification of the gull as priest and merchant prince does more than establish the bird’s commanding position. Personifying a bird creates an “Other” that is easier to invest with human qualities than a fish, for example. The story, because it is told from a human point of view, dodges the problem of presenting a gull’s consciousness and evokes reader empathy for the narrator.

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