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A Comparative Analysis of Bishop’s “The Fish” and Hughes’ “Pike” as Political Commentaries on Human Relations.

Whatever the differences are between the two poems “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop, and “Pike”, by Ted Hughes there is a central idea that binds them together – life is a continuous painful struggle for survival. In this struggle for survival, there are winners and losers.  The winners eat and the losers are eaten.  However, at another level this central idea does not merely bind Bishop and Hughes together, it is the core idea that binds together modern capitalist societies. The idea that human beings, driven by the impulses to survive and reproduce, naturally compete, and in the process often destroy one another, come into being as a dominant concept only during the Age of Enlightenment and was most clearly articulated in the writings of Hobbes and Locke.  For them, man is not a “social being” who survives only by cooperating with others.  He is first and foremost an individual who enters society only unwillingly and after coming to the rational conclusion that the life of competitive self-interest is “nasty, lonely, poor, brutish and short.” Reason carries him into society, but never does his nature become social.  He remains essentially an individual who still competes with others but in the context of a social institution which puts limits on his competition. Thus, Bishop and Hughes, whose fish are mere metaphors for the struggle for survival, are both accepting and supporting Western Liberal Democratic ideas of human nature. Even in society, we live in a world in which our survival is constantly threatened by others – fish or human. In this eat or be eaten world, there are winners and losers, the winners being those who eat and are not eaten, the losers being the food upon which others feed. Any differences, as well as any other superficial similarities, exist within the context of this essential view of life itself. The superficial similarities between these two poets are that both are writing from the perspective of fishermen, and so the subject of their poem is the fish that they have (Bishop’s) or will catch (Hughes’).

Both are writing about the appearance of their fish, In Hughes case, the image of Pike fish in general, in Bishop’s case, a particular fish, probably a rainbow trout, which she has caught.

Bishop’s fish is tremendous, “hung a grunting weight”, “battered and venerable”, “specked with barnacles” and infested with mites. Bishop describes the inside of the fish because she is thinking of cutting it open and exposing its flesh for consumption. She also views the fish as venerable because it has survived at least five attempts to be caught and eaten (“five big hooks grown firmly in his mouth … like medals with their ribbons … grown firmly in his mouth”). She revels in its victory and sets it free and the rainbow is the beauty of the victory of life over death on the one hand, and of not being eaten and so living a long full life on the other.

For Hughes, Pikes are reminders of the “fish eat fish” nature of life in the great, dark pond that is England. Hughes’ fish is “three inches long, perfect pike in all parts, green tigering the gold” It is also “killer from the egg”, “silhouette of submarine delicacy and horror”. He ponders the fish and feels fear, hinting, that at any time, as one sits still in the dark, one can be eaten.

Both poets accept as given that life is a game played out by hunters and prey, and certainly there is much to support their position.  The United States seeks to eat Venezuela, even as radical Muslim terrorists seek to, like pikes, consume others to support their own existence. In the world, individuals compete with one another in order to consume scarce resources, to get jobs and find homes. In this context there are indeed winners and losers, the winners being the rich, well fed and powerful, the losers being poor, hungry and powerless.

Yet both poets which is that their metaphors are poor, their anthropomorphizing of the fish short-sighted.  Men are to a degree to which fish are incapable of being, social creatures.  They realize themselves only in societies which are both cooperative and competitive.  Pike may be born killers, and fish may have always been fished by hungry humans, but the fact of the matter is that human nature is not purely inborn, but also the product of human social and material conditions.  In focusing on the fish eat fish/human eat fish dynamic, both poets ignore the fact that humans do what no animal can possibly do – create the world in which they live.

Dmitry Vlasov is a student

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