I love it when the Countdown presents me with a poem of such simplicity that commentary seems beside the point. However, commentary is always a joy in itself. Many’s the time I’ve commented on a blog or forum with “Word,” “This,” “LOL,” or D’oh!” Eloquent as the non-comment comment can be, criticism isn’t about just saying you like something; it is, as Anatole France said, “the adventure of the soul in the presence of masterpieces.”
W.H. Auden’s untitled poem that begins “Fish in the unruffled lakes” is the third poem today that compares human experience to that of animals. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” the elderly speaker distrusts salmon, mackerels, and any birds except mechanical golden ones. He even distrusts young men and women whose animal natures neglect the pleasures of the mind and soul. He wants to be anything but an animal.
In “Too Marvelous for Words,” by contrast, the speaker thinks that animals are capable of a finer expression of love than human language can convey. To account for a love beyond words, he resorts to borrowing birdsong, or at least says he’s doing something akin to borrowing birdsong. (Music may be more animal than language.)
In “Fish,” the speaker is entirely on the side of the animals. They do what humans can’t: they live out their compulsions and don’t feel bad about it afterwards. (When did you last see a cat slink away after snarfing down a tin of Fancy Feast, guilty about going off his diet?)
Because humans are conscious of past and present, because our memories fix the moments we wish had been different but let slip our greatest comforts and ecstasies, we might well “turn an envious look” on fish, birds, and cats.
But if we lack an animal sense of devil-may-care, we are capable, in return, of doing all things animals can do, and knowing that we have chosen to do them. And as the end of the poem suggests, knowing that we have chosen to do them for others, and that others (as in “Jenny Kissed Me”) have chosen those things for us. That’s hardly the worst recompense for our tortured consciences.