Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 602

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“The Goose Fish,” a study in irony, deals with the delusions of humankind. On one level, the lovers express the ultimate delusion—that they can make a world apart from the rest of the cosmos. This is what they believe they accomplish by making love unobserved on the sand. Ironically, they are not alone, but are watched by the fish, that simultaneously represents the cosmos and the equally inescapable presence of death. The intruding goose fish, with its oddly comical expression, punctures the romantic mood created by the first stanza, with its description of the moonlit shore. The lovers’ queries as to the fish’s meaning present further comment on humankind’s egocentricity.

From the lovers’ discovery that they are not unobserved follows an implicit comment on the deceptiveness of appearances. The lovers think themselves alone, because of the moon’s light and because of their passion, but they are controlled by the very forces they believe they can escape. The fish’s sudden “appearance” is not actually sudden at all. It has been there all the time, just as death is always present even in the most seminal situations. In fact, “The Goose Fish” concerns an ironic “love triangle,” the lovers and the fish, or the lovers and the rest of life and death.

Another contrast between the worlds of appearances and reality is in the soft sweeping beauty of the beach with its underlying hardness. The moon softly lights lapping waves and warm sand. Beneath this scene of supposed privacy and comfort, however, is a dead fish with brittle bones; the moon’s light becomes hard, optimism is rigid, and death grins with “picket teeth,” as a bony moon goes down its “track.”

Although the central delusion is the lovers’ belief that they are unobserved and that through mating they can create a separate sphere, they are also deluded in other ways. Never does the poem indicate that they realize that they are as much of a part of the universe as the moon that goes along its “tilted track” and that they are only “doing what comes naturally” by copulating on the sand as would any other species.

The lovers also think that the fish has special meaning for them, and they try to decipher it. They “hesitated at his smile,” but once recognizing that they have been wrong in their presuppositions, they again make a mistake in assuming that the fish’s presence is a “sign” which will explain “everything.” Here, the lovers fall into another egocentric trap. They assume that the outside world revolves around them and is sending messages. They anthropomorphize the goose fish into “their patriarch,” after assuming that it must be “an emblem” of their love.

Although the goose fish “never did explain the joke/ That so amused him, lying there,” the lovers enshrine him to legitimize themselves. The joke, actually, is on them; the lovers may grasp that they are part of the whole, but they do not see that they are an insignificant part. The universe does not revolve around them; in fact, their behavior is as programmed and as impersonal as the moon’s mechanistic route. The lovers show no recognition of their mortality, even when death “grins” at them. Instead, they transform the obvious into a personal emblem.

“The Goose Fish,” one of Howard Nemerov’s most anthologized poems, illustrates the poet’s philosophical side as well as his realistic awareness of nature as entity in itself, not subject to humanity’s “pathetic fallacy.” The poem also contains, implicitly, a wry comment on humanity’s foolishness and life’s mystery.