A Poem About a Staring Contest Between a Man and a Fish

What makes them great.
March 13 2012 3:30 PM

Surf and Turf

A 19th-century poem about a staring contest between a man and a fish.

James Henry Leigh Hunt.
Leigh Hunt

Painting by Benjamin Robert Haydon/Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 293.

The first time I read Leigh Hunt's “The Fish, the Man, and the Spirit”—I must have been in college—I remember doing a double-take. A poem involving a crabby dialogue between a fish and a man stood out radically from the field of English Romantic poetry I was reading then, wherein a man immersed in a landscape typically falls into a quiet meditation. Although the structure of Hunt’s poem is conventional—with its three linked Italian sonnets following the three-part structure of the classical syllogism or the turning dance of Greek drama—the poem still seems as oddly original to me now as it did then. The switches in point of view may seem familiar to us fans of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon who have been schooled in relativity, but what could have prepared a reader of the 1830s for this poem involving a staring contest between a man and a fish?  I’m not aware of any prior poem in which a fish has much of anything to say. Adding to the poem’s innovative nature is the double morphing of fish into man then fish-man into spirit. And the comic play of the poem is zany enough to remind us more of animal fables than the great Romantic lyric, which took its sponsorship of the natural world very seriously.

The fun of the poem—and fun is the mood until the party’s over-sobriety of the final section—lies, as it should, in the playfulness of its language. The first sonnet is given over to man’s condescending view of what he regards as the lower species of fish. The man might be serious in his convictions, but we are mostly entertained by his exaggerated tropes (“astonished-looking … gaping wretches”) and the folly that leads him to choose goggles as a rhyme word then follow it with joggles, and ingeniously find a way out of the corner with boggles. And, of course, his homocentric arrogance is on comic display. He even thinks that fish should know what day of the week it is. (“How pass your Sundays?”) The game does a flip when the surprisingly articulate fish replies with equal wit, giving as good as it has gotten, and forces us to see ourselves as the real aliens. The Great Chain of Being is turned upside-down, and humans become bizarre creatures who walk “prong after prong” in their “split” bodies, breathing “sword-sharp air.” From this ichthyo-centric perspective, hand-holding humans are seen as “linked fin by fin! most odiously.” The appalled fish exposes the man to an odd, objective view of himself, quickly unsettling his (and even our) sense of primacy.

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As we step to the next sonnet, the poem transports us from one realm of life on Earth to another, from the world of air-breathing to aquatic beings, and gives us the other side of this philosophical debate between surf and turf. Each side sees the other as freakish and hideous, a cause not for wonderment, but for distrust and disparagement. The man and fish face off in a put-down contest, an inter-species bout of the dozens. Hostility seems the only available accompaniment to their disbelief in the possibility of the other, the fish gulping salt-water, the man, a breather of the unbreathable. Just listen to the trash talk: wretches, unloving, vile days, monster, horribly, disgracer, dreary sloth. Is there a lesson here in how the Other is naturally regarded with suspicion and hostility? Only with the appearance of the Spirit does the mutual estrangement cease as the resolving power of the final sonnet concludes the poem.

Hunt ends the poem with the now presiding voice of the Spirit who, after having subsumed the fish and man, blithely lifts us above their bickering to a height from which we can hear the music of the spheres. Taking full advantage of the sonnet structure, the Spirit gives over its octave to a calm denunciation of the hate and pride that has driven the fish-man debate and then replaces hierarchical thinking with equality—nothing beneath nor above. The beautiful, peace-making sestet divides its lines equally between man and fish, man aspiring heavenward toward the angelic, the fish sweet and silver, perfectly fitted to its realm, quick with fear. It’s a nice touch that the lowly fish gets to finish this most unusual poem.

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Billy Collins read Leigh Hunts "The Fish, the Man, and the Spirit.” You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

“The Fish, the Man, and the Spirit”

            To a Fish

You strange, astonished-looking, angle-faced,
Dreary-mouthed, gaping wretches of the sea,
Gulping salt-water everlastingly,
Cold-blooded, though with red your blood be graced,
And mute, though dwellers in the roaring waste;
And you, all shapes beside, that fishy be—
Some round, some flat, some long, all devilry,
Legless, unloving, infamously chaste—

O scaly, slippery, wet, swift, staring wights,
What is’t ye do? what life lead? eh, dull goggles?
How do ye vary your vile days and nights?
How pass your Sundays? Are ye still but joggles
In ceaseless wash? Still nought but gapes, and bites,
And drinks, and stares, diversified with boggles?

            A Fish Answers

Amazing monster! that, for aught I know,
With the first sight of thee didst make our race
Forever stare! Oh 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!

O breather of unbreathable, sword-sharp air,
How canst exist? How bear thyself, thou dry
And dreary sloth? What particle canst share
Of the only blessed life, the watery?
I sometimes see of ye an actual pair
Go by! linked fin by fin! most odiously.

               The Fish Turns Into a Man, and Then
                Into a Spirit, and Again Speaks

Indulge thy smiling scorn, if smiling still,
O man! and loathe, but with a sort of love;
For difference must its use by difference prove,
And, in sweet clang, the spheres with music fill.
One of the spirits am I, that at his will
Live in whate’er has life—fish, eagle, dove—
No hate, no pride, beneath nought, nor above,
A visitor of the rounds of God’s sweet skill.

Man’s life is warm, glad, sad, ’twixt loves and graves,
Boundless in hope, honored with pangs austere,
Heaven-gazing; and his angel-wings he craves:
The fish is swift, small-needing, vague yet clear,
A cold, sweet, silver life, wrapped in round waves,
Quickened with touches of transporting fear.

Guest columnist Billy Collins and Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky will be joining in the discussion of Leigh Hunts poem this week.
Post your questions and comments on the work, and they'll respond and participate. For Slate's poetry submission guidelines, click here. Click here to visit Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project site. Click here for an archive of discussions about poems with Robert Pinsky in "the Fray," Slate's reader forum.

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