The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

“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.

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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 appear “robust.”

The third stanza continues this line of thought. Their “hardiness/ Has no shape yet.” They are undefined, their course unknown. Like Don Quixote following his horse’s steps, the motorcyclists go “where the tires press.” They are different from the birds that they “scare across a field,” whose instinct gives them direction. They have only the manufactured “machine and soul,” which they “imperfectly control/ To dare a future from the taken routes.” Yet the will “is a part solution, after all.” They are not damned because they are only “half animal” and lack “direct instinct.” By joining “movement in a valueless world” one can approach one’s goal, even if it is only “toward, toward.”

The final stanza invokes the brevity of the interval one has to define oneself. “A minute holds them, who have come to go: The self-defined, astride the created will.” Like birds and saints, the motorcyclists cannot stop in “the towns they travel through”; they must “complete their purposes,” whatever they may be. Even if they do not reach the “absolute, in which to rest,/ One is always nearer by not keeping still.” The worst that can happen is that “one is in motion.” The physical engagement in the activity for its own sake is its own excuse.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

“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 sustains the epic simile of the motorcyclists as existential heroes on the road of life, daring “a future from the taken routes.” Like gods, they control the “thunder held by calf and thigh.” Like knights in lowered visor and armor, they wear goggles and “gleaming jackets trophied with the dust” as they ride “Astride the created will.” Unlike the inhabitants of the towns they travel through, they are never at home. They are rebels without a cause, heroes without a purpose, except the purpose of “not keeping still.”

The poet and the motorcyclist undertake a similar action. Both must balance the reckless power of their vehicle. Gunn’s technical control over the machinery of traditional verse is necessary to get him to his destination, but it is also satisfying in itself. Unable to rely on “direct instinct,” the poet rides “the created will” to “complete [his] purpose.” On a purely technical level, this purpose is to find the “poise” of the “noise” in “the dull thunder of approximate words.”

The authority of the narrator’s speculations on “the sense of movement” depends upon the similarity of his action to that of the motorcyclists. Speaking from an interested objectivity, he is not speaking for an egotistical “I” but for an indefinite “One.” This raises the poem from the specific and personal to the general and universal experience of thought and emotion.

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Themes