The Fishmonger

There are good commentaries on ‘The Fishmonger’ at the links below.  The English Elephant analysis you will find below is designed to help you delve a little deeper into detail and interpretation.  So, I would advise you to first start with these links:

Striking here is Sheers’ use of another poem, not just as an epigraph as we have seen at points throughout the collection, but as a complete source. In ‘The Fishmonger’ Sheers translates the original poem. You can find a translation of the original Hungarian poem here:


Sheers’ use of ‘Halarus’ in ‘The Fishmonger’

It is important to consider Sheers’ reasons for doing this.  Throughout the collection, he has referred to other writers’ work, clearly nodding at the importance of literature, writers and art in our heritage and his influence. Here, again, Sheers could be considered to be highlighting the importance of this influence in his own work, or emphasising the importance of the traditional craftsmen in our society. If Sheers’ poem ‘The Fishmonger’ is derived entirely from the Hungarian original, could Sheers be using this whole poem to signify our cultural reliance on the craftsmen before us; therefore, signalling the importance of the craftsman. Alternatively, or perhaps simultaneously, is Sheers suggesting in ’The Fishmonger’ that even in poetry there is potential for profit to be made from the endeavours of someone else, extending the influence of Marxist theory in the collection. Emphasising his opening line, ‘This then, is the age of the fishmonger not the fishermen’.

Consider both ‘The Fishmonger’ and the translation of ‘Halarus’

  • How are they similar? How are they different? What might this comparison show you?
  • How does this comparison influence your interpretation of Sheers’ meanings?
  • Why might Sheers have chosen to use an article ‘the’ in his title, while the original translation does not include this?

Consider the rest of ‘Skirrid Hill’

  • Where is this poem placed in the collection? How does that inform your interpretation?
  • How does Sheers describe workers such as the fishmonger and the fisherman throughout the collection? What comparisons can you draw? How does this inform your interpretation?

Consider ‘The Fishmonger’

  • What other evidence of Marxist theory can you see in this poem?
  • Consider the first and last lines: Why might these be significant?
  • How far do you think this interpretation of ‘The Fishmonger’ is valid?


Artistry and the relationship between man and nature

Like the figures depicted elsewhere in the collection (‘The Farrier’, ‘Equation’, ‘Late Spring’) ‘The Fishmonger’ is presented as a skilled craftsman as ‘only he can’ have an understanding of his work and the fish. However, a line is drawn between production and commerce in the first line of this poem. The figures of rural artistry Sheers presents throughout the collection appear to blur that line. Leading us to question how different they may be at this end of the economic chain. Indeed, the final simile, linking the fishmonger to the fish ‘gasps for growth… struggling for its last breath’, may well suggest that the fishmonger himself is a dying breed.  It is notable when considering this interpretation that he was invisible in the previous poem, merely leaving his produce at the back door. Thus, again, Marxism might be seen here: the working man’s craft has become undervalued as he has become just another part of the economic machine.  Sheers challenges this through his focus on these figures.

  • Analyse details of language from throughout the poem. Does your analysis support this interpretation?

In each of the instances, the paradoxical relationship between nature and man is presented. The violence of man is suggested through the fishmonger’s ‘blade’ ability to ‘pare’; the beauty and fragility of nature is alluded to through the description of the fish’s ‘silver’ ‘foil’ eye. The juxtaposition of his brutal power with the vulnerability of the fish may be damning on human behaviour.  However, as throughout the collection, nature’s enduring power is also clear through the reference to ‘lightening’ and the ‘salty water’ which smarts.  There appears to be more balance here. The oxymoron describing the ‘cruel kindness’ emphasises this.  Futhermore, ‘his ingrown nail’ could be symbolic of both nature and man hurting himself. Importantly, while the salt water smarts, it would also provide a form of primitive natural cleansing to the wound. Thus, despite the suggested violence, there is harmony between nature and man here.

  • How does Sheers present death throughout the collection? How does this develop your interpretation?
  • Explore the connections described between man and nature in this poem and throughout the collection. What methods does Sheers use to depict these? What meanings do you draw from them?
  • How far do you agree that Sheers presents the relationship between man and nature as balanced?