The Poem

“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.

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,...

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Forms and Devices

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,...

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