Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark of the moon;
daylight or moonlight
They could not tell where to spread the net, unable to see the
phosphorescence of the shoals of fish.
They work northward from Monterey, coasting Santa Cruz; off
New Year’s Point or off Pigeon Point
The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color light on the
sea’s night-purple; he points and the helmsman
Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the gleaming shoal
and drifts out her seine-net. They close the circle
And purse the bottom of the net, then with great labor haul it in.
I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, then, when the
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the
other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent
Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted
with flame, like a live rocket
A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside the
Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up to watch,
sighing in the dark; the vast walls of night
Stand erect to the stars.
Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light: how could
I help but recall the seine-net
Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how beautiful
the city appeared, and a little terrible.
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable
of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all
dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they
shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we and our
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers
-or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls- or anarchy,
These things are Progress;
Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it keeps
its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
In the manner of the recent young men into mere hysteria, splin-
tered gleams, crackled laughter. But they are quite wrong.
There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that
cultures decay, and life’s end is death.
The poetry of Robinson JEFFERS is best described not as part of a movement but as a search for solitude and a rejection of human-created movements. “The Purse Seine” represents the poet’s antimodernist disavowal of civilization. While the modernists saw the height of humanity in civilization, but felt that the golden age was long past and unrecoverable Jeffers felt that civilization had sustained itself, but at the expense of humanity. He believed that the modern world was declining in its relentless pursuit of progress. He also rejected the modernists’ break with traditional forms, using instead blank verse in long, narrative poems, and a Whitmanesque free verse in his shorter lyric poems.
“The Purse Seine” was published in the collection Such Counsels You Gave Me at a time when Jeffers was beginning to lose his audience, which had grown weary of his pessimism and seeming misanthropy. Still it captures the main thrust of Jeffers’s world view: We are doomed, because we seek comfort and answers in civilization. William H. Nolte describes the poem as “one of his most striking commentaries on the inevitability of the disasters that must follow the separation of man from the earth” (121–122). The poem is simple and direct, reflecting the poet’s typical style. Aside from a single extended metaphor of a fish, it is devoid of symbols. The speaker presents first a scene of sardine fishing boats (the poem is
named for a type of fishing net). Because of the natural phosporescence of the schools of fish, the fishermen must work at night during the dark phase of the Moon. Guided by the glowing of the fish, they place their nets, then haul in their catch. As he watches the trapped fish being drawn closer and tighter together within the net, the speaker describes the scene as both “beautiful” and “a little terrible.” The silver glints of the masses of sardines contrast their terror and imminent deaths.
Later, as the speaker looks from a promontory over the lights of the city, he is reminded of the trapped sardines flickering within the net. Humanity has created its own net, called progress, and has become trapped in cities. The net has not closed yet, but it is being drawn tighter. Finally, in a direct address to the reader, the speaker confronts his contemporaries who take exception to what they perceive as mere pessimism in his verse. His is no prophecy of doom; it is simply an observation of the inevitable. The poem states that any
enterprise conducted by the mass of flawed humanity will eventually bring about destruction, though the earth will live on.
Karman, James, ed. Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers.
Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Nolte, William H. Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the
Romantic Agony. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.