Summary

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Last Updated May 8, 2024.

Introduction

"On the Move" is a poem by Thom Gunn (born Gravesend, Kent, 1929, died San Francisco, 2004), which was published in his second volume of poems, The Sense of Movement (1957). The poem is written in iambic pentameter and divided into five eight-line stanzas. 

"On the Move" depicts the motorcycle culture that Gunn encountered after moving from California to England in 1954. This culture was immortalized in films such as The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando (1953). One of Gunn's most famous poems, "On the Move," reflects the poet's interest in the existential philosophy of Camus and Sartre.

Summary

The first four lines of the first stanza refer to the free flight of birds, spontaneous and driven by natural instinct. The second half of the stanza describes how humans aspire to this spontaneity and freedom of birds. Human movements are clumsy and violent and lack the natural grace of the animal kingdom. While birds are in harmony with their senses and the surrounding world, humans are "baffled" by their own senses and navigate the world as if moving through a cloud of "dust." The limitations of language mean we can only partly understand or connect with our surroundings. We understand the world vaguely, indistinctly, like the ill-defined rumblings of "dull thunder."

The second stanza introduces the motorcycle gang ("the Boys"). They are compared to "flies" rising up from the dusty road. They are described in highly physical, almost erotic terms (their motorcycles are "held by calf and thigh"). Their matching outfits eliminate their individual identities, making them seem a single, collective entity. Their aggressive, uniform, high-speed movement obscures any existential doubts ("They strap in doubt – by hiding it") and renders their progress "almost" meaningful ("almost hear a meaning in their noise").

In the third stanza the gang, who know where they come from but not where they are going, scare off a flock of birds. The gang drives ahead compulsively despite not having any clear idea of their destination. The poet reflects that nature must "yield" to the human will and that humans wilfully manufacture both machines and meanings, which dominate nature and forge partial meaning, albeit imperfectly.

In the fourth stanza, the poet proceeds to conclude that the compulsive movement of the motorcycle gang is a "part solution" to humanity's existential dilemma). "Part animal," we are neither uncomplicatedly nor exclusively instinctual. Interminable movement "toward, toward" an unknown goal is the only thing that can provide some meaning in a "valueless world." The bikers are both passively being carried along by the irresistible movement of time and voluntarily and actively driving their vital movement, "both hurler and the hurled."

The poet opens the concluding stanza by imaginatively framing the gang, holding them still to capture a moment in their frenetic existence before they furiously "burst away." He suggests that the gang's life is defined and validated by its incessant movement toward a mysterious goal. The perpetual motion of the human bikers is compared to the stasis of "birds and saints" which can "complete their purposes"– birds because of their uncomplicated relationship with their physicality and instinct and saints because of the presence of religious certainties which have been denied to the residents of the bikers' modern world. Although, for the bikers, the ultimate meaning to which they aspire is unattainable, movement in itself is meaningful and brings the bikers ever closer to their perennially elusive final end.

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