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Salmon Eggs Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“Salmon Eggs” is the closing poem of Hughes’s collection River (1983). The collection itself is a sequence of forty-three poems offering both description of river life and meditations on the spiritual and physical ecology. “Salmon Eggs,” as the final poem, offers an affirmation: “Only birth matters/ Say the river’s whorls.”

There are two movements in the poem. One is the horizontal flow of the river, its journey downstream, oceanward, toward conclusion and, implicitly, extinction. The other movement is vertical, from the sky, penetrating the water’s surface, probing the sediments. The poet occupies the intersection of these two movements and travels their axis. The poem opens in the past tense, suggesting that had the reader arrived sooner he or she, too, would have seen the salmon. The second stanza, cast in the present moment, gives witness to the salmon’s fatal exhaustion after spawning. Throughout the poem, there are images of fertility and birth, as well as exhaustion and extinction. These two conditions are never isolated; one always informs the other. For Hughes, the essential role of the poet is to be at the intersection of these movements, to witness and record them.

“Salmon Eggs” continues with the poet or speaker describing his reverie: “I lean and watch the water/ listening to water/ Till my eyes forget me/ And the piled flow supplants me.” Rather than the incantatory archaic and totemic being invoked, as in “The Thought-Fox,” this poem’s reverie carries the poet into the geologic and biological world of catkins, spiders, “mud-blooms,” and “Mastodon ephemera.”

The speaker notes that “Something else is going on in the river/ More vital than death.” Death is merely part of nature’s overarching processes. Hughes sees everywhere the continuity of life—“The river goes on/ Sliding through its place, undergoing itself/ In its wheel.” The conventional symbol of the river as a coursing of life is certainly evoked here, as well as the vision of life as cyclical. The river is also understood in poetry and myth as the process of time, encompassing both time’s passage and eternity—rivers, such as the Styx of Greek mythology, lead to death, as well as to immortality. Hughes’s image of the wheel becomes identified as the water mill, a common image in the English landscape, and one that has come to represent both time and fate. The poet communes with the river and invokes a blessing upon the river and upon the salmon, “Sanctus Sanctus/ Swathes the blessed issue.” The river becomes a holy “font . . . swaddling the egg.” In the course of the river “Only birth matters.” The poem closes with the river’s movement spreading...

(The entire section is 648 words.)