Seascape at Berck, Fishing Boats and Fishermen by Édouard Manet (French, 1832 – 1883)
More poems, it seems to me, have been written about merchant sailors than about commercial fishermen. I find this rather odd. Fishermen, after all, have a much harder time eking out a living at sea. As the International Labour Organizaton points out on its website:
Fishing involves long hours and strenuous activity in an often challenging marine environment. Fishers may be using simple or complex dangerous machinery to catch, sort and store fish. Injury and fatality rates are much higher in the fishing sector than national averages for all workers in many countries.
Fortunately, I found, after a good deal of searching, three outstanding poems about the world of fishermen. Hopefully they will make the reader pause and think of these unsung group of maritime workers.
Off to the Fishing Ground
by Lucy Maud Montgomery (Canadian, 1874-1942)
There’s a piping wind from a sunrise shore
Blowing over a silver sea,
There’s a joyous voice in the lapsing tide
That calls enticingly;
The mist of dawn has taken flight
To the dim horizon’s bound,
And with wide sails set and eager hearts
We’re off to the fishing ground.
Ho, comrades mine, how that brave wind sings
Like a great sea-harp afar!
We whistle its wild notes back to it
As we cross the harbor bar.
Behind us there are the homes we love
And hearts that are fond and true,
And before us beckons a strong young day
On leagues of glorious blue.
Comrades, a song as the fleet goes out,
A song of the orient sea!
We are the heirs of its tingling strife,
Its courage and liberty.
Sing as the white sails cream and fill,
And the foam in our wake is long,
Sing till the headlands black and grim
Echo us back our song!
Oh, ’tis a glad and heartsome thing
To wake ere the night be done
And steer the course that our fathers steered
In the path of the rising sun.
The wind and welkin and wave are ours
Wherever our bourne is found,
And we envy no landsman his dream and sleep
When we’re off to the fishing ground.
At the Fishhouses
by Elizabeth Bishop (American, 1911–1979)
Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
Read the full text of the poem here.
The Hidden Tide
Roderic Joseph Quinn (Australian, 1867-1949)
Within the world a second world
That circles ceaselessly:
Stars in the sky and sister stars—
Turn in your eyes and see!
Tides of the sea that rise and fall,
Aheave from Pole to Pole—
And kindred swayings, veiled but felt,
That noise along the soul.
Yon moon, noon-rich, high-throned, remote,
And pale with pride extreme,
Draws up the sea, but what white moon
Exalts the tide of Dream?
The Fisher-Folk who cast their nets
In Vision’s golden tide
Oft bring to light misshapen shells,
And nothing worth beside.
And so their worn hands droop adown,
Their singing throats are dumb;
The Inner-Deep withholds its pearls
Till turn of tide be come.
But patience! wait—the good tide turns,
The waters inward set;
And lo, behold! aleap, alive
With glowing fish the net!
O Toilers of the Hidden Seas!
Ye have strange gain and loss,
Dragging the Deeps of Soul for pearls,
And ofttimes netting dross.
Flushed to the lips with golden light,
And dark with sable gloom;
Thrilled by a thousand melodies,
And silent like a tomb.
Fierce are the winds across your realm,
As though some Demon veiled
Had loosed the gales of Spirit-land
To ravage ways unsailed.
But still sweet hours befall at times,
Rich-lit and full of ease;
The afterglow is like the light
Of sunset on tired seas.
And worse, perhaps, may be the lot
Of those whose fate is sleep;
The sodden souls without a tide,
Dense as a rotten deep.
Pain paves the way for keener joy,
And wondrous thoughts uproll
When the large moon of Peace looks down
On high tide in the soul.