Sea Stories: An Ode to Flying Fish by Charles Wharton Stork

The phrase 'a fish out of water' certainly didn't come from flying fish. These ocean dwellers swim very fast (around 59 kph) which allows them to leap out of the sea. Thanks to their rather large pectoral fins and rigid bodies, they then glide through the air. By whipping their long tails through the water whilst gliding, they can stay airborne for up to 400 meters.

It's no wonder that in 1917 poet Charles Wharton Stork (1881 - 1971) chose to capture them in his poem An Ode to Flying Fish:

Low lies Bermuda on our starboard bow,
The morning’s hue is misty, like a pearl’s.
As lightly through the severing swells we plough,
To right and left the widening foam-wedge curls.
I stand and watch alone:
No slanting sail, no black and stalwart hull,
Not even one stray gull
To fleck the languid ocean’s monotone;
Nothing but sky and sea
And, vague with mystery,
Yon distant island, fairy-like, unknown.

But what is that? Scarce fifty yards away
A flock of birds where bird before was none,
Skimming across the smooth unlustrous gray
On wings that glint so oddly in the sun!
No sooner seen that lost.
Melted like scudding snow-flakes as they touch
The surface, not so much
As one black bobbing head of all that host.
Yet see! once more they rise
And, like strange dragonflies,
Along our bow-flung breakers deftly coast.

At last I know you, birds that may not soar,
Shuttlers between two elements. Your flight
So low, so little veering, and the four
Short filmy wings that, quivering, catch the light,—
These told me what you were.
Audacious truants from your parent sea,
Half fabulous are ye,
Oh flashing ones, oh sylph-like beings rare,
That, heedless quite of earth,
Spring toward a nobler birth
From the dim waters to the radiant air!

How must it be to swim among your kind,
Dull with the cold and dreary with the dark,
Enclosed above, beneath, before, behind
In green uncertainty, from which a shark
At any time may dash
And doom you like some huge demonic fate
With lust insatiate?—
He cuts the water with a seething gash;—
What use to dart aside?
Those great jaws, grinning wide,
Will close your frolic as the long teeth clash.

But I forget your gift; the bonds that hold
The others of your race are loosed for you,
For you alone. The silver dolphin bold
Shoots like a spray-haired comet from the blue,
But may not poise or flit
As you do—. What if but a minute’s space?
Hardly a longer grace
Has poet, saint or lover. Nor a whit
Less sure to sink are we;
Our wings of ecstasy
No loftier, no longer joy permit.

Yet joy it is! to scorn the dread of death,
To dwell for shining moments in the sun
Of Beauty and sweet Love, to drink one breath
Of a diviner element—though but one;
To reach a higher state
Of being, to explore a new domain;
To leap, and leap again,
Unheeding the gray menace of our fate
That follows till we fall:
For—fishes, men and all—
The grim old Shark will have us, soon or late.

Then tell me, comrades, does your little flight
Thrill with the foretaste of a life to be?
Is your ethereal revel in the light
The promise of some fair eternity;
Where you may roam at will,
Safe from the terror of the world you knew,
On wings of rainbow hue?—
How vain to question! I may ask my fill.
One life is all you wish;
You fly, and are but fish;
Your gift, a trick of blind instinctive skill.

And I who ask,—what certainty is mine
That these poor flights (which seemingly exalt
My soul into an element more fine)
Foretell me immortality?—I halt.
Then from the depths of dread
Once more my faith-winged spirit flashes free
And quaffs eternity!

I start and look: the flying-fish have fled;
Have got them to their kind,
Or tamely dropped behind.
The ship drives on; Bermuda looms ahead.

An ode to flying fish has been reproduced here under the Public Domain licence.

Header Image: Flying Fish. Credit Mike Prince/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)