#31 untitled (“Fish in the unruffled lakes,” W.H. Auden)

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.


4 responses to “#31 untitled (“Fish in the unruffled lakes,” W.H. Auden)

  1. firewaterboi321

    “Duty is conscious wrong.” The conscious choice of doing one’s duty regardless of the harm it could do to another person is an almost alien concept, however human beings are quite capable of this kind of thinking. Animals, by their natures, do not make conscious choices based on human concepts like “duty.” They react on instinct; what comes natural to them in a given situation. They do not have the capacity for premeditated decision. Consequences of this kind of thinking, like guilt and remorse, are more of human conceptualism than instinct. Auden acknowledges this and yet disregards it when addressing the “swan lover.” Is he saying he truly loves this person who he likens to a swan and is asking for their reciprocation? Comparing humans to animals doesn’t seem to me as the best way to win the affection of another human being. I’m not sure how I’d respond if someone compared me to a waterfowl. Personally I don’t like birds. I wonder how the person he was writing about responded to that metaphor. Did they even know it was them he was referring? I wonder what the “swan” person’s conscious reaction was to Auden’s piece.

  2. I don’t know why, but the picture that goes with the poem at the link in the post weirded me out a little. I’m not sure what it is about his face, but when I try to imagine him reading the poem I get the creeps at the end. The “voluntary love” line didn’t sit too well with me to begin with, but the thought of him reading it just made it worse in my head. I know we talked about the line in class and what it probably meant, but when I see it my mind goes to the opposite thing, being something like “involuntary love”, which just isn’t a fun thing to be thinking about. So I have to wonder how other people may have read the poem, because I would be comforted to know that I wasn’t the only person who took it this way. It sort of killed the poem for me, because it distracted me from the other parts of the poem that were really good and were romantic. I think it’s strange how your interpretation of something as small as two words can completely change your outlook on a poem. No wonder people debate these sorts of things. I think that the rest of the poem is well written and the metaphors are sublime, but there’s something about those last two words that just ruins the entire thing for me.

  3. I believe that in the Fish in the Unruffled Lakes you are talking about have a grand time and not thinking about the consequences. I do believe that when my dog digs in the trash he thinks nothing of it later. But we as humans tend to think more about what we are doing and actions verses consequences that this may cause. I would like to be an animal sometimes and have the gift of no thought of what may happen. But alas we cannot be what the animals are and are doomed to the life of eating salads and craving pizza. When it is said For atonement or for luck I think of the people going in to confession and stating their sins to the father. I can see that atonement of people and of their sins of the past. Do we look at our actions and think if I do this anyways will it be ok? Can I get atonement for this sin? Yes I think that in most cases we do even though we are human we do have some animal instincts.

  4. This poem does not really have a meaning to me. I think the writer is speaking of death. It is a sad poem. I think the writer is expressing how he feels about someones death. It is a little hard to detect exactly what the writer is feeling. I personally did not like this particular poem.

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