Writers find inspiration everywhere and this includes food so it is no wonder that fish , crustaceans, chicken and goat meat h...

An Ode To Seafood, Poultry And Mutton

18 April 2017




Writers find inspiration everywhere and this includes food so it is no wonder that fish, crustaceans, chicken and goat meat have influenced poetry. In addition to poets singing the praises of seafood and poultry in their verse, they also use them as poetic devices to express their feelings and ideas in a creative way. Our long association with fish and meat cause our beloved rhyme-makers to employ them as a metaphor, allusion, symbol, imagery, simile and other such literary techniques. 

Here are some poems that feature chicken, mutton and seafood. Dig in!


1. Inviting a Friend to Supper — By Ben Jonson

Benjamin Jonson  (1572 - 1637), one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, wrote a number of plays, poems, translations and a 17th-century learner’s guide to the English language called The English Grammar. He was one of leading writers of the English Renaissance period. As the title suggests, the speaker in this poem is asking his friend to join him for dinner. He describes to his friend the menu he has planned for the feast in the evening which, of course, includes mutton as no grand spread can be complete without this delicious meat.


“Yet shall you have, to rectify your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better salad
Ushering the mutton; with a short-legged hen,
If we can get her, full of eggs, and then
Lemons and wine for sauce; to these, a coney
Is not to be despaired of, for our money;
And though fowl, now, be scarce, yet there are clerks,
The sky not falling, think we may have larks.
I'll tell you of more, and lie, so you will come:
Of partridge, pheasant, woodcock, of which some
May yet be there; and godwit, if we can,
Knot, rail, and ruff, too. Howsoe'er, my man
Shall read a piece of Virgil, Tacitus,
Livy, or of some better book to us,
Of which we'll speak our minds amidst our meat;
And I'll profess no verses to repeat: “

— lines 9 to 24

Jonson’s vivid description of the supper will make you also want you to indulge in the simple pleasure of a big meal.


2. Mutton — Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote the immensely popular allegorical novel ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. This Anglo-Irish writer’s body of work includes essays, poems, political pamphlets, satires, letter and sermons. Here, Swift’s speaker celebrates one of his favourite foods: mutton. He shares with us how he likes it cooked and the accompaniments he prefers it served with. His delight at the prospect of mutton for dinner is something that all of us mutton lovers can relate to.


 Gently stir and blow the fire,
Lay the mutton down to roast,
Dress it quickly, I desire,
In the dripping put a toast,
That I hunger may remove --
Mutton is the meat I love.
On the dresser see it lie;
Oh, the charming white and red;
Finer meat ne'er met the eye,
On the sweetest grass it fed:
Let the jack go swiftly round,
Let me have it nice and brown'd.
On the table spread the cloth,
Let the knives be sharp and clean,
Pickles get and salad both,
Let them each be fresh and green.
With small beer, good ale and wine,
Oh ye gods! how I shall dine.

“Mutton is the meat I love.” — Jonathan Swift, Mutton.


3. To Stella, Who Collected And Transcribed His Poems —  By Jonathan Swift 

Jonathan Swift obviously liked his mutton hence it appears in more than one of his verses. He is supposed to have written this poem in 1720 for Esther Johnson, a close friend and the inspiration for many of his writings. Addressed to Stella, the poem instructs her on her one flaw while also talking about everything from human nature to what a poet should and should not do through his writing. The speaker tells Stella that a poet who is in dire straits truly appreciates the person who among other acts of kindness offers him bread with mutton-chop.


“Whom Stella chooses for a friend.
A poet starving in a garret,
Conning all topics like a parrot,
Invokes his mistress and his Muse,
And stays at home for want of shoes:
Should but his Muse descending drop
A slice of bread and mutton-chop;
Or kindly, when his credit's out,
Surprise him with a pint of stout;
Or patch his broken stocking soles;
Or send him in a peck of coals;
Exalted in his mighty mind,
He flies and leaves the stars behind;
Counts all his labours amply paid,
Adores her for the timely aid.”

— Lines 24 to 37

Mutton: the poet’s favourite.


4. The Fish — W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939), winner of the Noble Prize in Literature in 1923, is considered to be one of the best symbolist poets of the twentieth century. His verse was rich with allusions and his early writings were influenced by Irish mythology. One can read many meanings in this poem by him. The speaker could be talking to a fish whom he could not capture or to a woman whom he could not win over.


 ALTHOUGH you hide in the ebb and flow
Of the pale tide when the moon has set,
The people of coming days will know
About the casting out of my net,
And how you have leaped times out of mind
Over the little silver cords,
And think that you were hard and unkind,
And blame you with many bitter words. 

The water, fish, net, all serve as a metaphor in this poem.


5. For Viola: De Gustibus.— William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet who was a part of the imagist and modernist literary movement. A doctor by profession, he was also was an established writer whose works include essays, poems and plays. This short love poem by Williams begins with the speaker using caviar as a metaphor for his beloved. According to him, even Norway’s herring (a fish similar to anchovy) that is loved the world over for its flavour is incomparable to her. 


Beloved you are
Caviar of Caviar
Of all I love you best
O my Japanese bird nest
No herring from Norway
Can touch you for flavor. Nay
Pimento itself
is flat as an empty shelf
When compared to your piquancy
O quince of my despondency.

Through comparison with caviar the speaker is saying to his beloved that she is precious to him.


6. No Sunday Chicken — Robert William Service

Robert William Service (1874 - 1958) was an English poet who moved to Canada when he was 21 years old with the hope of becoming a cowboy. He travelled and took up odd jobs before finally finding work in 1903 with the Canadian Bank of Commerce. This job offered him the opportunity to move to Yukon province which is said to have served as an inspiration for most of his poems. The speaker in this touching verse is a landlady who can’t help but feel empathetic toward her tenant who has not been able to pay his rent. Though she herself is not well to do she helps the poor fellow with money. She says that she hopes that one day the widower and his children too can enjoy fried chicken and ice-cream. 


I could have sold him up because
His rent was long past due;
And Grimes, my lawyer, said it was
The proper thing to do:
But how could I be so inhuman?
And me a gentle-woman.

Yet I am poor as chapel mouse,
Pinching to make ends meet,
And have to let my little house
To buy enough to eat:
Why, even now to keep agoing
I have to take in sewing.

Sylvester is a widowed man,
Clerk in a hardware store;
I guess he does the best he can
To feed his kiddies four:
It sure is hard,--don't think it funny,
I've lately loaned him money.

I want to wipe away a tear
Even to just suppose
Some monster of an auctioneer
Might sell his sticks and clothes:
I'd rather want for bread and butter
Than see them in the gutter.

A silly, soft old thing am I,
But oh them kiddies four!
I guess I'll make a raisin pie
And leave it at their door . . .
Some Sunday, dears, you'll share my dream,--
Fried chicken and ice-cream.

Fried chicken as a Sunday meal is a true treat.


7. A Song of Joys — Walt Whitman 

Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892) is considered to be one of America’s greatest poets. His love for nature, the common man, his country and everything it stood for was the subject matter of most of his poems. A Song of Joys is a poem from Whitman’s magnum opus ‘Leaves Of Grass’ that talks about the joys that life has to offer (particularly in America). Through the course of this free verse in the first person, the speaker lists the many things in life that bring him happiness. Amongst these, is the excitement and contentment he experiences when he fishes and cooks clam, mackerel and lobster.


“O to have been brought up on bays, lagoons, creeks, or along the coast! 
O to continue and be employ’d there all my life!
O the briny and damp smell—the shore—the salt weeds exposed at low water, 
The work of fishermen—the work of the eel-fisher and clam-fisher.


O it is I! 
I come with my clam-rake and spade! I come with my eel-spear;
Is the tide out? I join the group of clam-diggers on the flats,
I laugh and work with them—I joke at my work, like a mettlesome young man.


In winter I take my eel-basket and eel-spear and travel out on foot on the ice—I have
a
small axe to cut holes in the ice; 
Behold me, well-clothed, going gaily, or returning in the afternoon—my brood of tough
boys
accompaning me, 
My brood of grown and part-grown boys, who love to be with no one else so well as they
love to
be with me, 
By day to work with me, and by night to sleep with me.


Or, another time, in warm weather, out in a boat, to lift the lobster-pots, where they are
sunk
with heavy stones, (I know the buoys;) 
O the sweetness of the Fifth-month morning upon the water, as I row, just before sunrise,
toward the buoys; 
I pull the wicker pots up slantingly—the dark-green lobsters are desperate with their
claws, as I take them out—I insert wooden pegs in the joints of their pincers, 
I go to all the places, one after another, and then row back to the shore, 
There, in a huge kettle of boiling water, the lobsters shall be boil’d till their
color
becomes scarlet.


Or, another time, mackerel-taking, 
Voracious, mad for the hook, near the surface, they seem to fill the water for miles: 
Or, another time, fishing for rock-fish, in Chesapeake Bay—I one of the brown-faced
crew: 
Or, another time, trailing for blue-fish off Paumanok, I stand with braced body, 
My left foot is on the gunwale—my right arm throws the coils of slender rope,
In sight around me the quick veering and darting of fifty skiffs, my companions.”

The joy of fishing is wonderfully captured by Whitman in this section.


8. Water — Robert Lowell

American Robert Lowell (1917 - 1977) was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice. He was one of the foremost writers of the confessional era of poetry. This verse uses poetic devices such as imagery, symbolism and references to myths. By beginning with a ‘lobster town’ in Maine, Lowell is creating the image of a small fishing village. He then uses oyster shells as a simile for white houses on a rocky hill. 


 It was a Maine lobster town—
each morning boatloads of hands
pushed off for granite
quarries on the islands,

and left dozens of bleak 
white frame houses stuck
like oyster shells
on a hill of rock,

and below us, the sea lapped
the raw little match-stick 
mazes of a weir,
where the fish for bait were trapped.


Remember? We sat on a slab of rock.

>From this distance in time
it seems the color
of iris, rotting and turning purpler,

but it was only 
the usual gray rock
turning the usual green
when drenched by the sea.


The sea drenched the rock
at our feet all day,
and kept tearing away 
flake after flake.


One night you dreamed
you were a mermaid clinging to a wharf-pile,
and trying to pull
off the barnacles with your hands.


We wished our two souls 
might return like gulls
to the rock.
 In the end, 
the water was too cold for us.

The word ‘lobster’ is used for creating an atmosphere in this poem.


9. The Clean Plater — By Ogden Nash

 Some singers sing of ladies' eyes,
And some of ladies lips,
Refined ones praise their ladylike ways,
And course ones hymn their hips.

The Oxford Book of English Verse
Is lush with lyrics tender;
A poet, I guess, is more or less
Preoccupied with gender.

Yet I, though custom call me crude,
Prefer to sing in praise of food.

Food,
Yes, food,
Just any old kind of food.

Pheasant is pleasant, of course,
And terrapin, too, is tasty,
Lobster I freely endorse,
In pate or patty or pasty.

But there's nothing the matter with butter,
And nothing the matter with jam,
And the warmest greetings I utter
To the ham and the yam and the clam.

For they're food,
All food,
And I think very fondly of food.

Through I'm broody at times
When bothered by rhymes,
I brood
On food.

Some painters paint the sapphire sea,
And some the gathering storm.

Others portray young lambs at play,
But most, the female form.

“Twas trite in that primeval dawn
When painting got its start,
That a lady with her garments on
Is Life, but is she Art?
By undraped nymphs
I am not wooed;
I'd rather painters painted food.

Food,
Just food,
Just any old kind of food.

— Lines 1 to 42.


The American poet Frederick Ogden Nash (1902 - 1971) was genuinely gifted at writing funny rhymes. The theme of his poems was light and humorous. His verses were full of wordplay. The Clean Plater is another witty work by him that will resonate with all foodies. Here, the speaker informs us that his primary love is food. Although many artists find inspiration in other things, his muse is food! Whether he is in a pensive or meditative mood it only food that he thinks of. He catalogues the various foods that he ‘fondly’ thinks of and these include lobster and clam.

Seafood: always a source of joy.


Seafood and poultry have found their way into all art forms including poetry. Whether they appear in the lyrics for their literal meaning or to convey something more, we continue to connect with them on many levels other than merely as a food we love.


- The Fishvish Team

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