The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“On the Move” is composed in five eight-line stanzas, with the rhyme scheme abaccddb. The poem begins by observing the movement of birds in their natural surroundings and comparing their movement to human action. Whether driven by natural “instinct,” acquired “poise,” or some combination of the two, the birds seem to have some “hidden purpose” to give meaning to their motion. The “One” of the poem who observes them wonders whether his own “uncertain violence” of motion is driven by the same forces. Until now he has been bewildered equally by both the instincts of “baffled sense” and “the dull thunder of approximate words.” The rest of the poem tries to make words yield their precise meaning in relation to the experience of motion.

In the second stanza, the motorcyclists are introduced. They mediate between birds and man, their movement seeming half instinctual, half pilgrimage. First the reader sees the machines on the road, then, from a distance, “the Boys,” who look “Small, black, as flies” in their leather jackets and goggles. Suddenly, “the distance throws them forth” and they look and sound huge and heroic. Like knights in armor with visors, they wear impersonal goggles and “gleaming jackets trophied with dust.” The observer questions their attitude of confidence, however, suggesting that goggles and jackets not only protect them from the elements but also “strap in doubt” to make them...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“On the Move” can be compared to Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957), published the same year. Both titles suggest a restless detachment from society typical of the Beat generation of the 1950’s. Early versions of the poem included the dateline “California” and an epigraph, “Man, you gotta Go” (both later dropped). The epigraph’s colloquial address, hip informality, imperative urgency, and capitalized verb emphasize the poem’s relation to the contemporary scene.

In contrast to the urgency of the title and epigraph, the tone of the poem is meditative. The narrator is an observer, his voice detached and philosophical; it is the still voice within that asks questions in the midst of action, though the questions about the “hidden purpose” of movement are implicit.

In this poem about “the sense of movement,” Thom Gunn suitably exploits the flexibility of verbs. Action words become nouns and adjectives. A “gust of birds,” for example, “spurts” across a field, and there is “scuffling” and “wheeling.” When the motorcyclists arrive, these images yield another set of meanings, having to do with wind resistance, acceleration, roughhousing, and tires on the tarmac. In the same way, “baffled sense” can mean that the senses are bewildered or that the forward progress of meaning is thwarted. (A baffle is also a motorcycle muffler.)

Through a series of analogies, Gunn...

(The entire section is 453 words.)