Fish

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by Sam Alexander


“Fish” is the best known poem in D.H. Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts, and Flowers (1923). As he does throughout this volume, Lawrence in this poem uses an encounter with an animal to explore some of his characteristic concerns: the importance of reclaiming instinctual life from the intellectual abstraction of modern life, the need to maintain individuality in love, and the irreducible otherness of the natural world.

Lawrence's original artwork for the dust jacket of Birds, Beasts and Flowers. Source: blacksparrowbooks.com.

In the first part of the poem, (lines 1-20), Lawrence presents the “wave-thrilled” fish as one with its environment, its life as one of pure sensation detached from the abstract knowledge that he had treated as the root of neurosis in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. Unlike self-conscious man, the fish will “Never know, / Never grasp" (14-15).[1] Lawrence’s verse itself is at its most sensuous in this section of the poem, as he uses alliteration and the repetition of liquids as a sonic replication the fish’s world: “Your life a sluice of sensation along your sides, / A flush at the flails of your fins, down the whorl of your tail…” (17-18). These lines recall a passage in Look! We Have Come Through! (1917) in which the poet uses similar sound effects to evoke the sensuality of his new wife:
She drips herself with water, and her shoulders
Glisten as silver, they crumple up
Like wet and falling roses, and I listen
For the sluicing of their rain-dishevelled petals.[2]

The fish’s “sluice of sensation,” however, is decidedly non-sexual: “Even snakes lie together…,” the poem continues, but the fish consummates the sexual act without penetration, or even adjacency; instead, he “ejects his sperm to the naked flood” (25, 32).


As such lines make clear, Lawrence continues to stress the fish’s oneness with its environment, but as the poem progresses “oneness” begins to take on the meaning of another Lawrentian concept, which Rupert Birkin, throughout Women in Love, calls “singleness”: the refusal to lose one’s individuality in fusion with another. The fish is completely self-contained, lacking all extension in space (“No fingers, no hands and feet, no lips”) and experiencing a list of emotions (“Food, fear, and joie-de vivre”) that pointedly excludes love (24, 56). It is not so much that Lawrence wants the fish to be free of love as that he wants it to embody the new kind of love that Birkin describes:

There is now to come the new day, where we are beings each of us, fulfilled in difference. The man is pure man, the woman pure woman, they are perfectly polarised. But there is no longer any of the horrible merging, mingling, self-abnegation of love. (Women in Love, 201)[3]

Admitted, they swarm in companies,
Fishes.
They drive in shoals.
But soundless, and out of contact.
They exchange no word, no spasm, not even anger.
Not one touch.
Many suspended together, forever apart,
Each one alone with the waters, upon one wave with the rest. (“Fish,” 82-89)

Mingling, or touch, is the enemy here, and the need to avoid it while still achieving some kind of union (a need expressed in the paradoxical “together, forever apart” and “alone … with the rest”) accounts for the earlier parable of the ejected sperm as well as for Lawrence’s interest in electromagnetic forces that act at a distance.


After this (at line 94), the poem signals a thematic shift with the transitional “But” that Michael Levenson has noted as a persistent rhetorical tic in the passages of free indirect discourse in Lawrence’s prose: “‘But’ and ‘yet’ serve as hinges within the paragraph, pivots which allow it to alter its direction abruptly, creating frequent reversals which are themselves sometimes reversed."[4] Here, the transition brings a change of scene and, more importantly, a sense that the allegorical treatment of the fish pursued in the preceding stanzas has been unsatisfactory: “But sitting in a boat on the Zeller lake… I said to my heart, who are these? / And my heart couldn’t own them” (94, 97-98). In order to “own” the fish, he at first turns to the familiar poetic tool of metaphor:

A slim young pike, with smart fins
And grey-striped suit, a young cub of a pike
Slouching along away below, half out of sight,
Like a lout on an obscure pavement. …

Aha, there’s somebody in the know! (99-103)

The sarcasm of the last line—a one-line stanza—already indicates what the next stanza will make clear: that this anthropomorphic attempt to know the fish has not only been unsuccessful; it has also made obvious the mistake of the allegorical sections preceding it. Both seek to understand the fish by arbitrarily comparing it to something else (a lout in a striped suit, the paragon of a new kind of love) instead of approaching it on its own terms. This realization marks another turning point, signaled by another stanza-initial But: “But looking closer … I left off hailing him. / I had made a mistake, I didn’t know him” (104, 107-108).


The rest of the poem will continue to emphasize the unknowability of the fish, which seems to represent for Lawrence a special instance of the Kantian thing-in-itself; however, this does not keep the speaker from seeking to “own” it. He catches the fish, and momentarily resembles Yeats’s wandering Aengus as he reels it in and watches it “fly like a halo round my head" (131). Lawrence (who has already demonstrated his impatience with the anthropomorphic transformations of metaphor) does not have his fish become a glittering girl; instead, he probes it with the curiosity of a naturalist. “I have,” the speaker says,

Unhooked his gorping, water-horny mouth,
And seen his horror-tilted eye,
His red-gold, water-precious, mirror-flat bright eye;
And felt him beat in my hand, with his mucous, leaping life-throb.
And my heart accused itself
Thinking: I am not the measure of creation.
This is beyond me, this fish.
His God stands outside my God. (133-140)

Though he has caught the fish, he clearly cannot own it. There is a crucial role reversal here: the speaker, who has failed to comprehend the fish (in the cognitive sense), finds himself comprehended (in the spatial sense) by the world of the fish (“His God stands outside my God”).[5] The fish’s spatial transcendence denotes its temporal precedence over humanity (the speaker goes on to say that the fish “outstarts” him), and I think we need to interpret the final stanza on this cosmic timescale, even though it seems explicitly to refer to the iconography of the early Christians:

In the beginning
Jesus was called The Fish. …
And in the end. (169-171)

Lawrence rewrites the opening of the Gospel of John, in which the “beginning” refers to the creation of the world (the gospel writer himself rewrites Genesis), presided over by Christ as “the Word.” To choose a specific word to name the Son-as-Creator, to say that Jesus was called “the Fish” at the beginning, is to draw attention to the fact that he could not yet have existed in the human form suggested by Lawrence’s choice of his historical name (rather than “Christ”). Moreover, since humanity itself (in Lawrence’s cosmology) did not yet exist at this point, the use of the passive voice provokes the question: if Jesus did exist in the beginning, who would have “called” him a fish? One answer would be the fish themselves, imagining God as like themselves and reclaiming the task of metaphor-making from the poet. In any case, the non-human “beginning” and “end” here stand—as Lawrence has already said of the fish’s God—“outside” of the human God, framing his life (and ours) as a brief interlude in time.


  1. Line numbers refer to the text of "Fish" in Lawrence's Collected Poems, ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts (Penguin, 1971), pp. 334-340. This antipathy toward "grasping" is a recurring element in Lawrence's writings. Compare his letter of April 23, 1919, to Ottoline Morrell (the model for Hermione in Women in Love): "Why must you always use your will so much, why can't you let things be, without grasping and trying to know and to dominate" (Letters, II, 326; also in the Modernism Lab database).
  2. Lawrence, "Gloire de Dijon" (Collected Poems, p. 217), 11-14.
  3. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
  4. Levenson, Modernism and the Fate of Individuality: Character and Novelistic Form from Conrad to Woolf. (Cambridge UP, 1991), p.152.
  5. This double meaning of the word “comprehend” plays an important role in the writings of Emmanuel Levinas. See Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Duquesne UP, 1969), pp. 37-38, 43, 194.
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