The Flying Fish

Original Text: 
The Poems of John Gray, ed. Ian Fletcher (Greenboro, N.C.: ELT Press, 1988): 30. PR 6013 R367A17 Robarts Library
Magnae Deus potentiae
qui fertili natos aqua
partim relinquis gurgiti
partim levas in aera.
1Myself am Hang the buccaneer,
2whom children love and brave men fear,
3master of courage, come what come,
4master of craft, and called Sea-scum;
5student of wisdom and waterways,
6course of moons and birth of days;
7to him in whose heart all things be
8I bring my story of the sea.
9The same am I as that sleek Hang
11in sailing time, whose pile is high
12on the beach when merchants come to buy.
13Am he who cumbers his lowly hulk
14with refuse bundles of feeble bulk;
15turns sailor's eyes to the weather skies;
16bows low to the Master of Merchandise;
17who hoists his sails with the broken slats;
18whose lean crew are scarcely food for his rats;
20and utmost vision of all men:
21ah then, am he who changeth line,
22and which man knoweth that course of mine?
23Am he, sir Sage, who sails to the sea
24where an island and other wonders be.
25After six days we sight the coast,
26and my palace top, should a sailor boast;
27sails rattle down; and then we ride,
29For there lives a junk in that ancient sea
30where the gardens of Hang and his palace be,
31o my fair junk! which once aboard
32the pirate owns no living lord.
33Its walls are painted water-green
34like the green sea's self, both shade and sheen,
35lest any mark it. The pirate's trade
36is to hover swiftly and make afraid.
37Its sails are fashioned of lithe bamboo,
38all painted blue as the sky is blue,
39so it be not seen till the prey be nigh.
40Hang loves not that the same should fly.
41In midst of the first a painted sun
42gleams gold like the celestial yon;
43in midst of the second a tender moon,
44that a lover might kiss his flute and swoon;
45or maid touch lute at sight of the third,
46pictured with all the crystal herd;
47so the silly ships are mazed at sight
48of night by day and day by night.
49For wind and water a goodlier junk
50than any that ever sailed or sunk;
51which junk was theirs; none fiercer than
52my fathers since the fall of man.
53So cotton rags lays Hang aside:
54lays bare the sailor's gristly hide;
55and wraps his body in vests of silk;
56ilk is as beautiful as ilk.
57Then Hang puts on his ancient mail,
58silver and black, and scale on scale,
59like dragons', which his grandsire bore
60before him, and his grandsire before.
61He binds his legs with buskins grim,
62tawny and gold for the pride of him;
63his feet are bare like his who quelled
64the dragon, his feet are feet of eld.
65His head is brave with a lacquered casque,
66the donning which is a heavy task;
67its flaps are feathered like Yuen Yin;
68'tis strapped with straps of tiger-skin.
69The passions of his father whelm
70the heart of Hang when he wears their helm.
71Then Hang grows wrinkled betwixt his eyes;
72he frowns like a devil, devil-wise;
73his eyeballs start; his mask is red
74like his who at last shall judge the dead;
75his nostrils gape; his mouth is the mouth
76of the fish that swims in the torrid south;
77his beard the pirate Hang lets flow;
78he lays his hand on his fathers' bow,
79wherewith a cunning man of strength
80might shoot an arrow the vessel's length.
82of a great man's height, so the string be slack;
83the charge departs with a fiery clang;
84'tis drawn with the foot, the foot of Hang.
85Such house and harness become me, when
86I wait upon the laden merchantmen;
87'Twixt tears and the sea, 'twixt brine and brine,
88they shudder at sight of me and mine.
89Of birds that fly in the farthest sea
90six are stranger than others be:
91under its tumble, among the fish,
92six are a marvel passing wish.
93First is a hawk, exceeding great;
94he dwelleth alone; he hath no mate;
95his neck is wound with a yellow ring;
96on his breast is the crest of a former king.
97The second bird is exceeding pale,
98from little head to scanty tail;
99she is striped with black on either wing,
100which is rose-lined, like a princely thing.
101Though small the bulk of the brilliant third,
102of all blue birds 'tis the bluest bird;
103they fly in bands; and, seen by day,
104by the side of them the sky is grey.
105I mind the fifth, I forget the fourth,
106unless that it comes from the east by north.
107The fifth is an orange white-billed duck;
108he diveth for fish, like the god of Luck;
109he hath never a foot on which to stand;
110for water yields and he loves not land.
111This is the end of many words
112save one, concerning marvellous birds.
113The great-faced dolphin is first of fish;
114he is devil-eyed and devilish;
115of all the fishes is he most brave,
116he walks the sea like an angry wave.
117The second the fishes call their lord;
118himself a bow, his face is a sword;
119his sword is armed with a hundred teeth,
120fifty above and fifty beneath.
121The third hath a scarlet suit of mail;
122the fourth is naught but a feeble tail;
123the fifth is a whip with a hundred strands,
124and every arm hath a hundred hands.
125The last strange fish is the last strange bird;
126of him no sage hath ever heard;
127he roams the sea in a gleaming horde
128in fear of the dolphin and him of the sword.
129He leaps from the sea with a silken swish;
130he beats the air does the flying fish.
131His eyes are round with excess of fright,
132bright as the drops of his pinions' flight.
133In sea and sky he hath no peace;
134for the five strange fish are his enemies;
135and the five strange fowls keep watch for him;
136they know him well by his crystal gleam.
137Oftwhiles, sir Sage, on my junk's white deck
138have I seen this fish-bird come to wreck,
139oftwhiles (fair deck) 'twixt bow and poop
140have I seen this piteous sky-fish stoop.
141Scaled bird, how his snout and gills dilate,
142all quivering and roseate:
143he pants in crystal and mother-of-pearl
144while his body shrinks and his pinions furl.
145His beauty passes like bubbles blown;
146the white bright bird is a fish of stone;
147the bird so fair, for its putrid sake,
148is flung to the dogs in the junk's white wake.
149Have thought, son Pirate, some such must be
150as the beast thou namest in yonder sea;
151else, bring me a symbol from nature's gear
152of aspiration born of fear.
153Hast been, my son, to the doctor's booth
154some day when Hang had a qualm to soothe?
155Hast noted the visible various sign
156of each flask's virtue, son of mine?
157Rude picture of insect seldom found,
158of plant that thrives in marshy ground,
159goblin of east wind, fog or draught,
160sign of the phial's potent craft?
161'Tis even thus where the drug is sense,
162where wisdom is more than frankincense,
163wit's grain than a pound of pounded bones,
164where knowledge is redder than ruby stones.
165Hast thou marked how poppies are sign of sin?
166how bravery's mantle is tiger-skin?
167how earth is heavy and dumb with care?
168how song is the speech of all the air?
169A tree is the sign most whole and sure
170of aspiration plain and pure;
171of the variation one must wend
172in search of the sign to the sea's wild end.
173Thy fish is the fairest of all that be
174in the throbbing depths of yonder sea.
175He says in his iridescent heart:
176I am gorgeous-eyed and a fish apart;
177my back hath the secret of every shell,
178the Hang of fishes knoweth well;
179scales of my breast are softer still,
180the ugly fishes devise my ill.
181He prays the Maker of water-things
182not for a sword, but cricket's wings,
183not to be one of the sons of air,
184to be rid of the water is all his prayer;
185all his hope is a fear-whipped whim;
186all directions are one to him.
187There are seekers of wisdom no less absurd,
188son Hang, than thy fish that would be a bird.


10] pattens: wood-soled shoes or overshoes. Back to Line
19] ken: range of eyesight. Back to Line
28] junk: ."A name for the common type of native sailing vessel in the Chinese seas. It is flat-bottomed, has a square prow, prominent stem, full stern, the rudder suspended, and carries lug-sails." (OED ."junk." n. 3). Back to Line
81] lac: crimson. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
Silverpoints (London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1893).
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire