Yeats, The Fish And Your Cousin
Although you hide in the ebb and flow
Of the pale tide when the moon has set,
The people of coming days will know
About the casting out of my net,
And how you have leaped times out of mind
Over the little silver cords,
And think that you were hard and unkind,
And blame you with many bitter words.
-William Butler Yeats-
When we read anything by the Irish poet and dramatist, William Butler Yeats, we are aware of the many levels hidden behind his simplistic images and words. The poem The Fish is no exception. True, what lies on the surface exceeds satisfaction. Yet, digging deeper, we find so much more.
In the first line, we are told that someone or something is hiding. Were it not for the title, this line could apply to any living creature. Reading further, we are told that they hide in the night, “when the moon has set.” Who is hiding? Why are they hiding? These words evoke images of fugitives and every unsavory character that we are told from childhood to stay away from.
Next, you learn that the speaker has every intention of telling others about this creature. Not only that, they will tell of how an attempt was made to catch the subject. They will say that, despite a great deal of effort on the speaker’s part, the creature escaped. While they may hide, their hiding is in vain because everyone knows they exist. Though it is neither said nor suggested, undoubtedly, someone, after learning of this story, will seek out this fugitive.
Lastly, for a long time to come, possibly even forever, the speaker will think badly of the fish. He will blame his failure on the fish, not even taking into account that he may have simply lacked the skill to catch it. You save face when you can blame things on others.
In my opinion, this fish stands for a lover, a friend, an enemy, a salesperson and many other characters. It is the one that got away, not because you let them, but because they were too heartless and selfish to stay. Taken in this light, this poem was written for everyone who can’t take ownership for their shortcomings.
Everyone seems to have a friend or family member who falls in love with a cute person without even first getting to know them (often, not even learning of their name until they are deeply in love.). Each time you see your person, they give you an update on their “progress” i.e. he smiled at me, she laughed too hard at one of my jokes and such. When you finally encourage them to take things to the next level/actually talk to this person, things don’t go as planned. Your person has misinterpreted signals. As they were about to lower their net on to the cutie, the cutie said they weren’t interest, figuratively jumping out of the net. What is your friend/cousin/yourself to do? It is quite simple. In order to come off looking like your pride is still intact, you tell a story of how your cutie turned on you and was rude or, just before you were about to ask them out, they did something disgusting or mistreated someone and you realized you couldn’t handle being with someone like that. To tell the truth that they politely declined your advances would be too much of a blow. Over time, the fish turns into a great white whale.
To return to the actual fish, though I don’t know many people who fish, all of the ones I do know have a story like this poem. They were just about to reel in a huge fish when the line snapped or something like that. While in truth, they could’ve accidentally let the fish go or never actually got to this point to begin with, the legend of this fishing trip and that mean fish who didn’t know its place will out live the life any actual fish. No one wants their pride publicly wounded. Besides, hiding is for cowards and honesty is for the brave. Let this fish hide.
To me, Yeats wrote this poem both to release him of the negative feelings he felt about losing the fish and for others like him to know they are not alone. Though written years ago, failure has always been quite common. Since the dawn of time, people have been made to feel cheated by others. Still, with the fish supposedly in hiding and the speaker telling his cover story to all who will listen, thus hiding from the truth, you have to wonder who the coward really is.
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