The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

“The Goose Fish” is a study in irony, and the irony begins with the title. On one level, the title is straightforward and appropriate, because the goose fish occupies center stage in the poem’s “story”: It is assigned many roles, including onlooker, comedian, optimist, emblem, and patriarch. The irony is that the fish is dead, so one might well wonder how significant any of those roles might be. The poem is in iambic tetrameter and trimeter, in five stanzas of nine lines each (eight lines of tetrameter and the last of trimeter).

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The first stanza sets the scene—a moonlit night on the beach—and contains the poem’s central action: Two people, believing themselves alone, passionately embrace. For a short time, they believe themselves “emparadised” on the “long shore” where “their shadows [are] as one.” In stanza 2, the lovers feel embarrassed afterward, but nevertheless stand united, “conspiring hand in hand.” Believing themselves alone, they are shocked to discover that they have been “watched” by a goose fish “turning up, though dead/ His hugely grinning head.” This ghoulish discovery not only shocks them but also induces guilt. The presence of the goose fish, in a sense, “gooses” the lovers out of self-centeredness into the realization that their lovemaking did not take place in isolation.

Stanza 3 shows the lovers staring at the dead fish, wondering at its significance. Before discovering it, the lovers had thought that lovemaking would carve for them “a world their own.” Having realized that they are not apart from the rest of the world, they try to place a private meaning onto “the observer.” Stanza 4 reveals that the lovers, not knowing what the fish symbolizes, decide that its “wide and moony grin” makes it first a comedian, then an “emblem of/ Their sudden, new and guilty love.” There is a suggestion in this last line that the fish’s observation makes their love “guilty” either because they have been “caught” or because of their modesty at having been watched.

The last stanza ironically stresses the continuing naïveté of the lovers. Not knowing what to make of their grisly audience, the lovers decide that the fish is their friend and their “patriarch,” perhaps in an effort to extort a sort of blessing from the fish. The grin, which is so grotesque in death, fails to explain anything. The presence of death, like a bad joke, has accompanied the lovers both before and after their “private” union, just as the moon continues to follow its accustomed path along the sky.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

The action in “The Goose Fish” is achieved through the lovers’ experience of different stages of feeling and knowing, rather than through their experiencing severe external actions. In fact, the movement in the poem is based on their responses after they make love, not on the lovemaking itself. The poem is unified by its images, two explicit—the moon and fish—and one implicit, that of the drama.

This drama image frames the poem. It has been noted that “The Goose Fish” is structured like a drama, with its five verses taking the place of five acts in a play. The lovers are actors upon the “stage” of the long beach. The moon serves as spotlight for an audience of one, the fish. When the lovers are finished with their lovemaking, they are embarrassed, “as if shaken by stage-fright.” They stand together “on the sand,” “hand in hand” like actors taking a bow on the stage. In this context, the goose fish is considered “a comedian” whose act “might mean failure or success.” The moon’s decline in the last stanza is like the fall of a curtain on the last act.

Two explicit images dominate and organize “The Goose Fish”—the moon and the fish. “Moon” in some form and the fish appear in each stanza. In the first stanza, the moon is mentioned but not emphasized. The moon serves as a spotlight to convince the lovers that they are alone, as they see no one else in its light. Then the moon becomes “hard” and “bony” in the lovers’ perception as they experience embarrassment after their passion; the moon also casts its light upon the macabre fish. Stanza 3 finds the moon also described as hard, although this time it is the hardness of fragile china. Like the moon, the fish is ancient; like the fish, the moon is “bony.” This is the beginning of the merging of the images; they blend in stanza 4: The fish has a “wide and moony grin.” This merging of the two central images, the earthly and dead with the heavenly and eternal, implies the larger unity of the cosmos, which the lovers finally recognize.

The regular meters of “The Goose Fish” (its iambic tetrameter with each stanza’s closing iambic trimeter line) plus its detached, objective narrator give the poem a detached, philosophical tone. Howard Nemerov’s successive use of long vowels in the first stanza (“On the long shore, lit by the moon”) drags the lines’ sounds out in imitation of a stretch of beach. Similarly matching form to content, the energy of the lines increases with the action in his use of shorter, abrupt words, such as “For them by the swift tide of blood” and “But took it for an emblem of.” Thus, the metrics of “The Goose Fish” subtly reinforce the content.

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Themes