‘On the Move,’ by Thom Gunn

About the Poem

“On the Move” is one of the famous poems of Thom Gunn. It is included as an opening poem of his poetry collection “The Sense of Movement.” The poem is described as “a sociological footnote of the 1950s.” Motorcyclists have come to represent reckless vitality and aggressive energy in the East. The subtitle also serves as the epigraph, underscoring the urge to keep going while emphasising the hyperactive tension and dynamic energy that they symbolised.

The poem explores the response of the leather jacketed “Boys” astride their motorcycles to existential issues about the meaning of life. The speaker admires bikers who he sees defining or realising themselves while on the road. Human life is contrasted with animal life throughout the poem. Unlike humans, birds appear to be certain of their mission. The poem’s many references to movement may not only allude to physical action, but also to growth, whether intellectual, philosophical, spiritual, or otherwise.

On the Move Summary

Summary of On the Move

The bird with flamboyant plumage is a member of the crow family. Its “scuffling movements” represent its restless movements as it seeks some secret goal. Because of their uncontrolled energy and inclination to grow in communities, the birds represent motorcyclist–groups. They look for the instinct that lives within them, or they look for poise, or they look for both. Some people move at an unnecessarily fast or ineffective pace. Some show off their unrestrained animal instincts.

They arrive on motorbikes as quickly as flies in the heat, their steps across the road appearing smooth. The term “the Boy” relates to how the motorcycle gang plagued lonely ladies with their uninhibited attitude, a supreme statement of their manhood. The sound of the bikes travelling in sync is similar to the sound of thunder. The bikes have complete control over their calf and thigh. They wear goggles, so it is difficult to tell them apart – the imitation is obvious. The dust on their jackets is like trophies adorning their ‘don’t-care’ attitude. They have replaced meaning with noise because they can no longer communicate coherently.

Their energy has nowhere to go; it is not being directed in the proper manner. There is no ‘precise conclusion.’ They just keep going where the tyres carry them, with no goal or plan in mind. They frighten the carefree birds on their crazy adventure. According to Gunn, willpower should give way to natural forces (instinct). This is perhaps Gunn’s “voluntary commitment to the irrational,” as Martin Dodsworth put it.

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Men manufacture both machine and soul,
 And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.

Men can be objective (machine) as well as subjective (soul). They use the one they can (at least imperfectly) control to carve out the future based on the ‘taken courses’ (conservative, inherited or the routes of experience). It is only a partial solution to the existential quandary. When one acts according to his impulses, it cannot be labelled conflict. If he is half-animal, he cannot be damned. Only direct instinct is lacking, because as one awakens consciously in his surroundings, he is driven by social ideas and dictums that compel him to proceed along certain lines. Even whether one joins the movements, the end result is the same for all—death or nihilism. The speaker says that as long as one lives, he should strive in the direction he wishes since, most importantly, it is his.

A minute holds them, who have come to go:
The self-denied, astride the created will.
They burst away; the towns they travel through
Are home for neither birds nor holiness,
For birds and saints complete their purposes.
At worse, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.

Everyone is united for a brief moment in that they accept the fact that they ‘have come to go.’ In such an attitude, the’self-denied’ and ‘manufactured will’ are rendered ineffective; they just burst. The towns they pass through are ultimately neither a home for the bird (which represents striving for a goal) or ‘holiness’ (religious dictums). Birds and saints both achieve their goals in the end. When the urge to achieve the goal is satisfied, individuals lose their joy because there is nothing to look forward to. The one in perpetual motion, on the other hand, never reaches an absolute. He is neither static nor has he arrived at any destination: the journey itself becomes the destination.

Analysis of On the Move – Thom Gunn

On the Move written by Thomas Gunn is one his most famous poems. In it, a motorcycle gang’s aimless yet dangerous movement becomes a metaphor for modern man’s sense of alienation and lack of purpose. Gunn employs a variety of interconnected metaphors in “On the Move”, all of which stem from the central notion of mobility.

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‘On the Move,’ by Thomas Gunn, is a well-known poem with five stanzas. The poem begins with “On the move man, You gotta go”. This is the intended phrase to represent the lifestyle of 1950s motorcycle gangs, who are the result of changing culture and inventions during that time period. Their actions have made them famous in the United States and the United Kingdom. In his poem, Thomas Gunn portrays the lifestyle of these gangs and attempts to convey a message.

First Stanza

In this stanza, Thomas Gunn compares humans, particularly gangs, to birds. The blue jay that scuffles in the bushes is doing so for some hidden reason. The flock of birds flying through the fields has a specific purpose. Swallows build their nests in low-lying trees and bushes. Every bird has been guided by instinct or by the necessity and purpose for which they were created. Now he incorporates these gangs into the poem, writing, “One moves with an uncertain violence,” implying that one is speeding on one’s bike, raging violence, which could result in an accident. The motorist is driving erratically because he is completely perplexed, and the dust has raised and fallen on him. In this first stanza, the human nature is contrasted with that of birds, and the crazy for speed is expressed.

Second Stanza

In this stanza, Thomas Gunn wants to portray a vision of motorcycle gangs approaching from a long and top of the road to a closer shot. He depicts it extremely effectively, as though he is keeping a tight eye on them. He sees gangs approaching. He likens them to flies. When he sees them from afar, they appear as small animals like flies in black, as they have worn the black coats that are hanging in the heat. When he sees gangs in the distance, he assumes the worse. Then, as they get closer, the faraway sound of humming transforms into thunder sound, accompanied by the razing sounds emitted by vehicles. He claims they are driving them while ‘held by the calf and thigh.’ He also describes the appearance of the gangs. They wear goggles to protect their eyes from the dust emitted by their vehicles. He refers to them as impersonalities. The gleaming jackets have become dusty, and he claims that the jackets have been trophied by the dust. Their sound is deafening, but they can sense meaning in the noise they have produced.

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Third Stanza

In this stanza, Thomas Gunn explains how they are upsetting and the consequences of scientific discoveries. He claims that they are not tired on their journeys. They have no idea where they are headed. They have no idea where they will remain. The swallows have nests, but these motorists do not, at least not in the same way. They proceed along the path. They travel in ways that their vehicles are capable of. They travel aimlessly while being terrified by the birds that soar through the fields. These birds act on their instincts and wants, but these gangs oppose them. They have no idea where they are going. Thomas Gunn is referring to scientific discoveries, particularly machinery. He claims that men created both machines and their personalities. He claims that men use what they cannot use correctly and control it poorly. They just think on the present, leaving the future to chance.

Fourth Stanza

Thomas Gunn is referring to the current status of the bikers. He refers to himself as a “half animal.” He claims that they lack instinct and that without a purpose, they continue on without an objective or a target. They are solely interested in the present going speed. Its high speed disrupts the flight of birds and humans on their way to their goal. Accidents and losses are attracted by speed. He claims that no one sleeps since “one wakes afloat on movement.” One (Motorbike gang) lives in a world devoid of values. They do not require a destination. It is always moving in the direction of.

Fifth Stanza

Thomas Gunn explains how these bikers go and where they might go. They sit astride and accelerate their vehicles to an unknown destination. In this stanza, he used the phrase “self denied” to speak to the gangs. They pass through towns where there are no bird nests and holy houses. It is because saints and birds both have a purpose. They are moving in that direction. However, these fast-moving vehicle gangs have no purpose, thus they are fleeing them. They claim that they should always be on the go. They just want to have fun with the speed. They are smudged with dust. They are unconcerned about these. They are at their worst when they are in motion. They are always moving. As a result, they are always closer to the final rest (death).

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