The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

“The Purse-Seine” is typical of many of Robinson Jeffers’s short poems. As is characteristic of lyric poems, the poet shares his personal experiences, thoughts, and opinions directly with the reader, using beautifully rendered scenes of nature to illustrate his point. It is written in Jeffers’s unique verse form: a type of free verse with very long lines. The poem’s twenty-four lines are divided into four unequal stanzas. The first stanza presents a scene of commercial sardine fishermen working with a particular kind of net known as a purse seine. The reader is told that this kind of fishing must be done at night when there is no moon so that the schools of fish can be located by their phosphorescent glow. Thus readers are presented with the image of a small boat at sea in nearly total darkness. The narrator then focuses in more closely with a description of the lookout man pointing out a group of fish. The helmsman circles the boat around the fish, setting the net. The bottom of the net is pulled closed, or pursed, and the trapped fish are hauled aboard.

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The second stanza is a more artistic interpretation of the same event. The poet begins with a disclaimer, “I cannot tell you/ how beautiful the scene is” and then proceeds to describe it. He says it is a “little terrible” as well as beautiful because of the panic of the trapped fish as the net tightens. The beauty is in the phosphorescent glow that the fish make as they swim and thrash, churning the water into a “pool of flame.” Then, in contrast, sea lions slowly rise from the darkness of the sea, separated from the sardines, their normal prey, by the net. A mention of the night studded with stars closes the scene, locating the activities described within the context of the entire universe.

The third stanza shifts to a new scene in which the narrator describes the view of a city from a hill at night. He tells the reader that the lights of the city remind him of the fish in the net. He explains that because humanity has become cut off from nature and has become dependent on the artificialities of the cities, each individual is helplessly trapped by whatever future civilization has to offer. According to the narrator, the shine of the city is the same as the glow of the fish, indicating that the net of doom is tightening around it. He predicts that “inevitable mass-disasters” will come in a few generations: Civilization will decline through political repression, revolution, or anarchy. In the final short stanza, the narrator, now identified as the poet by speaking of “our verse,” asks if the reader can blame him for writing poems that are “troubled or frowning.” He claims that his poem “keeps its reason” instead of becoming hysterical about such predictions of doom by accepting the fact that “cultures decay, and life’s end is death.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is the verse form. Jeffers has been praised and criticized for his unusual verse form consisting of long lines that seem to be divided arbitrarily. Some lines in this poem are twenty-two words long and take up three lines on the printed page. The lines are without rhyme, and often the rhythm is not immediately apparent. It is not quite free verse, however, and the poet himself claimed to use a system of meter and stress suggestive of the rhythms of the tides and the blood, and the patterns of everyday speech. Many critics have attempted to discover the key to this system by counting accents and lines; however, the structure of the poem seems to be driven by its meaning and the sound of its words rather than by an arbitrary, mathematical arrangement of syllables and stresses.

Jeffers’s short poems usually involve the description and interpretation of a particular experience. From this basis, he goes on to comment on the experience and use it as a symbol or an analogy for some aspect of the human condition. “The Purse-Seine” follows this pattern, describing the capture of the fish and comparing it to humanity’s entrapment by civilization. Jeffers’s lessons are rarely left hidden: The messages are stated quite clearly. The instructional or moralistic nature of the poem is achieved through the unique narrative voice that Jeffers uses. It becomes obvious that the poet is speaking directly to the reader, especially by the time the poet refers to his own verses in the last stanza. He also speaks plainly, describing the scene in conversational language and then bluntly stating that he is comparing the purse seine net to the confining civilization of the city. The poet’s tone is prophetic and admonitory, warning humans of the doom that awaits them if they follow their present course.

Jeffers is able to take this “moral high road” without offending the reader by his use of a distant perspective: He becomes an omniscient narrator as well as an individual speaking to the reader. He describes the fishing scene from an indefinite point of view that even knows the actions of the sea lions in the deep, dark water. He observes the city from a specific place on a nearby hill but also from a great psychological distance. He speaks of humanity as “them” rather than “us.” This perspective gives his opinions and warnings some validity: Readers are led to believe that he can see things that they, mired in the immediate present, cannot see. The poet’s conversational tone also helps readers to believe him. He uses words rooted in science and politics that readers may not be accustomed to hearing in poetry: phosphorescence, interdependence, government, and anarchy. He speaks directly to readers, saying “I cannot,” “I was looking,” and “I thought.” At the same time, he disarms readers with beautiful descriptions of nature and metaphors of fish as rockets and cities as galaxies of stars.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 128

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