On "The Purse-Seine"
Down vistas of time he sees first human and then all life fade from the earth. Or he looks on contemporary history from the point of view of the sea cliffs. Or he sees ominous and terrible revelations. "The Purse-Seine" describes sardines caught in a net at night, their phosphorescence making a pool of light as the net closes. The scene is beautiful, but it reminds the speaker of another occasion, when at night he saw the lights of Los Angeles shining amid the blackness.
from A History of Modern Poetry (1987)
Progress, in its final incarnation, was the rationalization of pleasure, the pursuit of gratification by material means, and that pursuit in turn was the expression of a despair so profound it could be felt only as a longing for death. Divorced materially, intellectually, and spiritually from the natural world, modern man was enclosed in the artifice of his cities, whose lights against the night sky resembled nothing so much as the glitter of scales in a fishnet: . . . .
The "net" of the city, like the purse seine, scoops men up from their native element; it jostles them together so that none can stand alone yet none are truly linked; its glow is the shimmer of decay. Jeffers had deployed the image of the net previously to describe the consequences of a culture built upon narcissism, most notably in "The Tower Beyond Tragedy": "the net of desire / Had every nerve drawn to the center, so that they writhed like a full draught of fishes, all matted / In the one mesh." Urbanization was the outer symptom, the public manifestation of this collapse upon the self. The tightening web of community created isolation within dependence, enlarging the sense of self while destroying the scope of free activity, as narcissism and anomie reinforced each other in a self-perpetuating cycle.
from The cliffs of solitude: A reading of Robinson Jeffers. Copyright © 1983 by Cambridge University Press.
Although it was the sparsely populated coast that Jeffers preferred to live in and write about, he also portrayed his feeling about coastal cities (probably Los Angeles) in such a poem as "The Purse-Seine." This poem is about fishing, as other poems are about hunting, primitive actions of men that Jeffers admired more than their congregation into cities. In the poem, he describes the sardine-fishers going out at night in their boats to cast their huge seines for schools of fish, and he paints a thrillingly realistic picture of their prey caught in the net beneath the boat:
I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, then, when the crowded fish
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. . . .
Jeffers transfers this scene to another setting, as he looks down from a mountaintop at night on a "wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light" and asks himself, "how could I help but recall the seine-net / Gathering the luminous fish?" The comparison of the people in the city to the sardines caught in the purse seine seems to him both beautiful and terrible, and he keeps his distance from them on his mountaintop, taking from the two spectacles the lesson that whether men prey on fish or on each other, the result is much the same: "surely one always knew that cultures decay, and life's end is death." The moral for Jeffers was simply that American and Western civilization was dying from its own rapacity, and that the right action to take in the midst of such decadence is to stand apart from it, like a southern Fugitive, or like one of Robinson's citizens of Tilbury Town or one of Frost's New England farmers.
from Singing the Chaos: Madness and Wisdom in Modern Poetry. Copyright © 1996 by the Curators of the University of Missouri
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