The greatest fishy poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Fish don’t necessarily lend themselves to poetic possibilities, but there have been some classic poems written about fishing and fish nevertheless. Ranging from religious instructional verse to religious satire, to ecological poems and poems about the self, the following ten poems are among the greatest fish poems in the English language.
John Bunyan, ‘Upon the Fish in the Water’.
The water is the fish’s element;
Take her from thence, none can her death prevent;
And some have said, who have transgressors been,
As good not be, as to be kept from sin.
The water is the fish’s element:
Leave her but there, and she is well content.
So’s he, who in the path of life doth plod,
Take all, says he, let me but have my God …
Using the refrain, ‘The water is the fish’s element’, this short poem by one of the most famous religious writers and preachers of the seventeenth century uses the image of the fish dancing in their native element as a simile for the relationship between God and man.
The hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?
Thomas Gray is remembered chiefly for three poems, although he was a much better-known figure in his own day (1716-1771). His ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ is still widely anthologised. His other enduring poem is this, written about the cat belonging to Gray’s friend Horace Walpole, inventor of the Gothic novel; Walpole’s cat did indeed drown in 1747.
Leigh Hunt, ‘A Fish Answers’.
Amazing monster! that, for aught I know,
With the first sight of thee didst make our race
For ever stare! O flat and shocking face,
Grimly divided from the breast below!
Thou that on dry land horribly dost go
With a split body and most ridiculous pace,
Prong after prong, disgracer of all grace,
Long-useless-finned, haired, upright, unwet, slow …
This sonnet by the friend of John Keats and inspiration for Harold Skimpole in Dickens’s Bleak House is, as the title suggests, by a fish. The poem was written as a response to one of Hunt’s earlier sonnets, ‘To a Fish’. Here, the fish addresses the ‘Amazing monster’ that is the man looking down at it, asking how this weird creature can breathe air when not in water, and why this human ‘monster’ moves so gracelessly.
W. B. Yeats, ‘The Fish’. This short poem is the first of a number of classic poems on this list about catching a fish, though the ‘fish’ in the poem is metaphorical as much as literal. It is short enough to be reproduced in full here:
Although you hide in the ebb and flow
Of the pale tide when the moon has set,
The people of coming days will know
About the casting out of my net,
And how you have leaped times out of mind
Over the little silver cords,
And think that you were hard and unkind,
And blame you with many bitter words.
Rupert Brooke, ‘Heaven’.
Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity …
This poem, composed in 1913 before the outbreak of the War, is altogether more playful, even satirical, than Brooke’s later war poems. ‘Heaven’ uses fish to make a comment on human piety, and specifically the reasons mankind offers for a belief in something more than one’s immediate surroundings (e.g. an afterlife – hence the title of the poem). Witty and well-constructed, ‘Heaven’ is an overlooked poem in Brooke’s oeuvre.
H. D., ‘The Pool’. Any list of the best short poems by female poets should include at least one by the Queen of Imagism, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle). Quite what this five-line poem refers to (possibly the poet coming face-to-face with her own reflection in a rock pool, although one reader of this blog once suggested persuasively that the poem might be a reference to the tragedy of a lost child) remains unknown. Even H. D. doesn’t appear to know – hence the use of question marks. H. D. was once described by Glenn Hughes as ‘the perfect Imagist’, and ‘The Pool’ shows why.
Marianne Moore, ‘A Jelly-Fish’. Okay, so jellyfish aren’t actually fish, but then according to Stephen Jay Gould, there’s no such thing as ‘a fish’. Moore (1887-1972) was one of the American modernist poets who stayed in America, unlike Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot who moved to Europe. This poem might be said to be somewhere between H. D.’s ‘The Pool’ and Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poems about animals. In a few lines, Moore captures the quivering movement of the jellyfish.
Elizabeth Bishop, ‘The Fish’. In this poem, Bishop’s speaker catches a fish but then lets it go; she delivers the first piece of information succinctly in the first line (‘I caught a tremendous fish’) and then the news that she let the fish go is delivered only in the poem’s final line; in between there is a long description of the fish and of the speaker’s growing awareness of it as part of a rich natural ecosystem. This has to be one of the most famous poems about fish.
Ted Hughes, ‘Pike’. One of Hughes’s most frequently anthologised poems, ‘Pike’ is another poem from quite early on in his career. Hughes conveys the idea of this fish, ‘three inches long’, being somewhat bigger and more dangerous than it actually is, inviting us to view the fish as the descendant of a larger, primitive pike which once swam the world’s waters.
Richard Brautigan, ‘Your Catfish Friend’. A remarkably tender poem which posits a hypothetical case: if the speaker were a catfish in the bottom of a pond, and the poem’s addressee were to come along, he would love her (him?) and be her (his?) friend. That explains the poem’s title, if not its rather surreal setup. Surreal it may be; touching it is. It also concludes this pick of the best fish poems.
Discover more classic poetry with these poems about food and eating, these great drink-related poems, and these poems about wine. For the best of English poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.