Rupert Brooke remains known for two poems: ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, which offers a powerful vision of dreamy English life before the outbreak of the First World War; and ‘The Soldier’, a patriotic sonnet written shortly after the outbreak of the war. But although Brooke was not a prolific poet – he died while still in his twenties – he wrote more than these two anthology favourites. His poem ‘Heaven’ is another classic, although less famous, and deserves a few words of analysis devoted to its quietly satirical tone and clever use of metaphor.
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.
We darkly know, by Faith we cry,
The future is not Wholly Dry.
Mud unto mud! – Death eddies near –
Not here the appointed End, not here!
But somewhere, beyond Space and Time
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.
Rupert Brooke’s ‘Heaven’, composed in 1913, uses fish in a stream, brook, or pond to comment on human piety, and specifically the reasons mankind offers for a belief in something more than one’s immediate surroundings: ‘Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond; / But is there anything Beyond?’
Why do we believe in an afterlife? So many of us want to believe there is something Beyond, too: that this life is not the only one. Fish almost certainly don’t spend their time wondering such things.
By using the simple fish to draw a parallel with human emotions and aspirations, Brooke (aptly named given the watery setting of this poem) comments on humankind’s determination to believe in something existing beyond this life, despite the lack of concrete evidence in favour of such a proposition.
‘Each secret fishy hope or fear’ is a particularly good line, since ‘fishy’ here both refers to the subjects of the poem while also implying something suspect about our own ‘fishy’ or suspicious beliefs and drives.
Brooke’s couplet strikes at the heart of the vain (perhaps in both senses of the word) belief that humans nurture that there is ‘anything Beyond’ this world: ‘This life cannot be All, they swear, / For how unpleasant, if it were!’ Such a belief is driven by a longing for it to be true, rather than a more rationally or empirically based hunch that it is true.
In the last analysis, ‘Heaven’ is Rupert Brooke’s great satirical poem, and deserves to be placed alongside his patriotic war poems and his poem idealising Edwardian England shortly before the outbreak of the Great War.
‘Squamous’, by the way, means ‘covered in scales’. Fishy indeed.