The Salmon Fisher to the Salmon

The inquisitive observer of Death of a Naturalist described in detail the behaviour of trout and the swirling idiosyncrasies of flowing water in his local river Moyola.  Ringing a change Heaney pens a monologue in which a first person angler addresses the iconic fish he is seeking to net.

Atlantic salmon was common in the Lower Bann and Moyola rivers of the poet’s mid-Ulster neighbourhood.  Coincidently Heaney has chosen a fish whose life-cycle covers huge distances as will be the case of the eel that populates A Lough Neagh Sequence. 

The fisherman’s camera-eye dips beneath the river surface, picking out the salmon’s protruberant, plated mouth (ridged lip) facing the current (set upstream), engaged in its hectic, final journey (you flail inland again). Its period away from home (exile in the sea) has ended instinctively (unconditionally cancelled) obedient to the earth’s magnetic fields (pull of your home water’s gravity) and the salmon’s need to spawn … then die.

Heaney’s fly-fisherman (Heaney’s portrait is born of watching others rather than his own practice) is mid-river (I stand in the centre) seeking to attract his prey’s attention (casting). The man’s balance is challenged by the weight of flow (river cramming under me) that throws back images (reflects) of gear ensuring no catch gets away (slung gaff and net), of fishing technique (white wrist flicking), of man-made lures (flies) skilfully designed to mimic the textures and colours of insects (well-dressed with tint and fleck).

Heaney refers to the literary doyen of fishing (Walton) who suggested that the simplest of baits (garden worms) stored in a subtly sensual olfactory marinade (oil crushed from dark ivy berries) was ideal for catching salmon (lure that took you best).

Heaney’s fisherman goes into greater detail: angling is a convergence – his salmon is drawn to the lure (here you come to grief) sensing sustenance (hunger in your eyes); its approach is visible to his practised eye (ripples arrowing beyond me). His skill is to cope with water flow (current strumming water up my leg) and follow a sequence of moves as in a dance (water’s choreography). Both he and fish are sensitive to light effect and ‘tug’ (gleam and drag) … both are poised – the fish to lunge and seize the bait (strike), the fisher to impale the hook in its mouth (strike) and reel it in (kill).

Their conjunction via the fishing line reduces both to nought (both annihilated on the fly): the fish unable to prevent (can’t resist) its destruction (gullet full of steel), the fisher tainted by the indelible odour of handling and cleaning it (fish-smelling, scaly).

  • salmon: the fish is plentiful in Northern Ireland; for example the Lower Bann which drains Lough Neagh is a prolific source with fast and slow flowing stretches that favour fly-fishing and others where spinning and bait fishing is successful; some Atlantic salmon is caught in the Moyola; the fish’s life cycle begins in freshwater rivers; it migrates into the ocean to grow and mature before returning to where it was hatched in freshwater to spawn and die; this remarkable journey back to its source is attributed to the salmon’s use of the earth’s magnetic fields and ‘smell memory’;
  • ridge: long narrow elevation;
  • flail: swim wildly;
  • pull of gravity: attraction caused by an irresistible force;
  • cast: throw a baited end out into water;
  • cram: fill to maximum volume, to the brim;
  • gaff: hooked pole with which to spike a fish and lift it out of the water;
  • flick: propel with sudden quick movements of fingers and wrist;
  • fly: artificial flying insect used as fishing-bait
  • tint: colour tone;
  • fleck: patch of colour;
  • Izaak Walton: author of The Compleat Angler was first published in 1653 in London and added to over a quarter of a century; the volume celebrates the art and spirit of fishing in prose and verse;
  • worm: common burrowing invertebrate, soft bodied and said to be delicious to fish
  • Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) ‘Angling or float fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other’.
  • ivy berries: fruit of an evergreen climbing plant;
  • lure: general name for the devices that would entice a fish onto the hook:
  • arrow: move in a perfectly straight line;
  • strum: mimic the sweep of fingers across guitar strings;
  • gleam: faint light
  • drag: pull heavily;
  • strike: jerk the fishing line to embed the hook in the fish’s mouth;
  • annihilated: reduced to non-existence;
  • gullet: throat passage:
  • scaly: with scales, fish-like;

DOD 88 Heaney indicated that Door into the Dark was started from scratch: The poem first of the collection I did that morning (a Saturday morning in autumn 1965) came from a sort of professional drive, an order J gave myself on the lines of, ‘OK, you’re now a published poet and you should have a discipline, sit down at that desk and get on with the job in a more organized way.’ The poem was one called ‘The Salmon Fisher to the Salmon’ and it appeared in due course in the second book. But I always had mixed feelings about it. It started where I always like to start, in the ground of memory and sensation, but I had a hunch that during the actual writing the impulse had got tied up rather than set free . There wasn’t enough self-forgetfulness … So, yes, there was definitely a new self-consciousness, at which point I realized that the one simple requirement – definition even – of lyric writing is self-forgetfulness

DOD 94 Fish – trout, tench, salmon, eels – and things connected with fishing – spoonbaits, ‘slung gaff and net’, ‘flies well-dressed with tint and fleck’ – and fishermen-artists such as Barrie Cooke, Sean O’ Riada, Norman MacCaig and Ted Hughes – are found in your poems. Are you a devoted fisherman yourself?

SH: No. It may sound odd, given my attraction to it and the regularity of those references, but since my teens I’ve been on a riverbank hardly more than a dozen times… But the depth of it was inestimable. The nibble on the worm, the tugs, the arc and strum of the line in the water, the moods of the water and the moods of the

weather. I loved being on the riverbank … And that’s enough for a lifetime of poems. That, and the memory of being out with Barrie Cooke on the Nore and once with Ted Hughes in Devon. Fleetness of water, stillness of air, stealthiness of action. Spots of time.

  • Heaney continues to ring the changes of form and formatting: five quatrains (Q) in eight sentences rhymed abab cdcd etc. ; variable line length 6-10 syllables;
  • the balance of punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and  rhythm within the oral delivery potential; Q 1 to 4 are heavily enjambed; Q5 however is a sequence of individual sentences which offer pauses as Heaney reflects on the deeper implications of the fishing process;
  • Q1 totally enjambed ; presents the determination (ridged lip … set) of a fish responding instinctively to forces beyond its control; vocabulary of a cycle (exile…home water) and fatigue (upstream…flail…pull);
  • Q2, totally enjambed; change of focus; the man now ‘centre’ of the poem, the scene, the spot of time; water effects ‘cramming’, reflections; fly fishing effects reflected in the use of present ‘ing’ participles that inject movement; Heaney offers the man-made fly for our consideration;
  • Q3 single enjambed sentence; fishing bait – literary record and recommendation versus fly-fisher’s conclusion – exotic recipe replaced by simple driver ‘hunger’; introduction of the ominous ‘come to grief’ leading eventually to ‘kill’;
  • Q4 single partly enjambed unfinished sentence; interplay of water (‘ripples’) and balletic musicality (‘water’s choreography’) that seek to explain the strategic game being played by both man and fish (‘arrowing… gleam and drag’); contrast of straights (’arrowing’) and curves (‘ripples’);
  • Q5 each line with full stop; convergence of hunter and hunted centred round ‘strike’; notion of loss of individual identity (‘both annihilated’) ; each comes to bear the evidence of the other’s presence (‘steel’ ‘fish-smelling’);
  • first person singular and plural pronouns; ; ‘ing’ participles; present tenses of the fishing process; past tenses of the literary reference;
  • final three lines reflect on the deeper significance of a recreation which, as the man well knows, only the driven fish can lose;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
  • the use Heaney seeks to make of assonant effects can be judged and measured in the ‘coloured hearing’ that follows

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the
  • Afterthoughts section;
  • the final eight lines are a weave of alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [m] [n], sibilants [s] [z] [sh] and velar plosives [k] [g] alongside front -of-mouth alveolar [l] bi-labial [p] [b[ and labio-dental fricatives [f] [v];


Join the Conversation - Leave a comment