Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

Jeffers was as much a philosopher as a poet, and no discussion of his work would be complete without mention of his philosophy of Inhumanism. This perhaps unfortunate term, coined by Jeffers himself, is often misunderstood. It has nothing to do with cruelty or meanness, though those human failings are common in his long narrative poems. Instead, it refers to a detachment that allows the poet to step outside the human condition for a more cosmic viewpoint. The poet’s way of dealing with the suffering and other negative aspects of humanity and modern civilization is to see them in the context of geological or cosmological time and space. From the perspective of billions of years and the infinite distances of the universe, humankind is really a brief and perhaps not very important phenomenon. This cosmic viewpoint is underscored by the images and metaphors used in the descriptive passages in the poem. The phosphorescent fish are described as rockets and comets, and the first scene ends with the walls of night and the stars, which places the small, confined world of the fish in the net in the context of the limitless expanses of space. The city, too, is described as confined and even claustrophobic, yet it is compared to the light not only of stars but also of galaxies.

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Inhumanism is the key to another of Jeffers’s major themes: the beauty of the natural world. The poet is in awe of what he calls in the title of another poem “divinely superfluous beauty.” This is beauty that exists for its own sake, usually unseen by humans, from the starry wheels of the galaxies to the phosphorescent glow of the fish in the sea. He even finds beauty in the violence and apparent cruelty of nature. In other poems, he praises the violence of weather and the sea, and the ferocity of hawks; in “The Purse-Seine,” he praises the seemingly cruel work of catching fish. The fishermen in this poem are not part of the city and civilization; rather, they are making their living close to nature and are not condemned for killing the fish any more than the sea lions would be. They are part of the pattern of life and death and thus contribute to the beauty to be found in the natural world. From this detached, Inhumanist viewpoint, the poet sees the tragedies of civilization and its estrangement from nature, as well as its eventual decline into chaos and darkness, as acceptable or even beautiful. These things all play their small parts in the inevitable evolution of the grand ways of the universe.

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