‘Eel Tail’ is written by one of the most important contemporary British poets, Alice Oswald. Her poem is all about the swift eels that mesmerize the speaker with their rapid movement, looks, and mysteriously beautiful nature. These eels, as the speaker notes, possess an “untranslatable” language and lips one cannot describe or speak about. In this poem, Oswald vividly portrays their shyness and makes a number of comparisons to infuse a sense of mystery into these creatures.
Explore Eel Tail
‘Eel Tail’ by Alice Oswald is a pictorial poem that describes the eels and their movements in the water.
The poem invokes the audience to notice eels that hide in low tide. They are described using three metaphors, namely “preliminary,” “pre-world creatures,” and “cousins of the moon.” Then the speaker goes on to talk about their looks and their shyness in human presence. While they make their way into their hiding, the observer could only hear muted “hissed interruptions” and the sound of the wind. When the wind cleared, they could find the creature again silently floating in the water. Once again, if one makes a slight movement, they dive back into their hiding.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
Oswald’s ‘Eel Tail’ is a loosely structured free-verse poem without a set rhyme scheme and meter. The text comprises a total of three stanzas. There are three circular movements in the poem that are tied intricately. The repetitions not only help to create euphony but also connect the subject matter internally. Besides, the poem is addressed to the audience. This is why it is written from the second-person point of view. Another important aspect of the poem is that it does not end with a full stop. It means the same cycle repeats as described in the poem.
In ‘Eel Tail,’ Oswald makes use of the following literary devices:
- Enjambment: One of the important devices used in the poem, enjambment helps in creating a cascading rhythm. For instance, this device is used for the said effect in “and then as soon as you see them/ gone.”
- Alliteration: This device is heavily used in the poem to create internal rhymings. It can be found in “sometimes you see,” “lead lengths,” “preliminary, pre-world,” “creatures, cousins,” etc.
- Metaphor: In the first stanza, Oswald describes eels as “preliminary, pre-world creatures.” It seems that eels are from the pre-creation period. They existed even before the world was created. Furthermore, they are described as “cousins” of the moon. This metaphor hints at the navigation of eels following the beacon of moonlight.
- Repetition: The lines “and then as soon as you see them/ gone” are repeated thrice to create a euphonic effect. Similarly lines 10 through 12 are used as a refrain in the text. The movement of the poem forms a complete circle at this refrain and then the cycle restarts.
sometimes you see mudfish,
those short lead lengths of eels
that hide at low tide
cursing the water and when it clears
you keep looking and looking for those
underlurkers, uncontrolled little eddies,
Alice Oswald’s lyrical poem entitled ‘Eel Tail’ is not only about the physical attributes of the eels but also what the speaker thinks about them. In the speaker’s view, they are mysterious creatures. They are shy and love darkness and solitude. The first stanza introduces the creatures to the audience. Oswald’s poetic persona addresses the audience and tells them to notice the mudfish and eels, especially their short, lead-colored bodies, which are referred to in the title.
They prefer staying in their group and are aloof from other fishes. One can find them at low tide, roping and wagging in a continuous fashion. These creatures seem “preliminary” to the speaker. They existed even before the world was created. This metaphor adds a sense of mystery to the creatures. They navigate through the seas and travel to rivers with the help of the moon. This is why the speaker describes them as the “cousins of the moon.”
Besides, they prefer darkness and solitude. They always move when there is no moon in the sky. As soon as one notices them, they swim fast and slide back into their hiding. The momentary silence created by their absence is best described with the single word line “gone.” When they are gone, the speaker recalls their inscrutable hissing sound, often interrupted by the wind or any other sound as well as their muted, wide cracked lips.
Afterward, the speaker uses auditory imagery in order to describe the sound of the wind. In the first instance, Oswald uses the howling sound of the sound that seems like cursing the water. When the wind clears, she keeps looking for the eels, metaphorically described as “underlurkers,” in the little whirlpools that are uncontrolled and unrestricted.
when you lever their rooves up
they lie limbless hairless
like the bends of some huge plumbing system
bothering the reeds and when it clears
you keep looking and looking for those
In this section, the next phase of searching eels begins. After the wind clears, the speaker urges the audience to lever their watery rooves up and look at their limbless, hairless bodies. Using a simile, Oswald describes the swarm of eels as “the bends of some huge plumbing system.” They keep sucking on the marshes. Then again, when one goes to find them, one can find only ripples in the water. They are already gone.
In their absence, one can think how mysterious their language is and their chapped lips make them appear old and wise. Then the personified wind comes again. This time it is slow and only disturbs the reeds growing beside the water. When the wind clears, the audience could start their investigation again for the “backlashes” (the backward movement of eels) and “waterwicks” (a metaphor for eels).
you keep finding those sea-veins still
flowing, little cables of shadow, vanishing
dream-lines long roots of the penumbra
and then as soon as you see her
and then as soon as you say so
In the third cycle of the search, Oswald’s persona directly addresses the reader and urges them to notice how they float in water. Eels are like the intricate veins of the sea. Their little, cable-like, shadowy bodies appear as if they are part of the outer region of a shadow referred to as the “penumbra.” In the next line, the speaker clarifies that eels are not inanimate. They drill down into the gravel on the sea bed and fade from the surface as quickly as drops of water.
In the following lines, Oswald uses the same lines as a refrain. The last cycle begins after the refrain ends. In this cycle, the wind is so slow that it can only be heard. Consider the use of auditory and tactile imagery in the phrase “pushing on your ears.” After the wind clears, the audience can see the “whip-thin” tail of an eel. Its curved body is compared to the “waning moon.” They could notice how they burrow back into their dark hiding.
The last two lines contain anaphora. In these lines, the poet feminizes the eel for its coyness. Like a shy woman, an eel swiftly swims away as soon as one notices it.
Alice Oswald’s lyrical piece ‘Eel Tail’ is about the characteristics of eels. In this poem, Oswald subjectively describes eels with the help of their discernible qualities. She describes them as pre-world creatures who are fond of darkness and solitude. They are too shy to stay longer in human presence.
The text of this narrative poem does not contain a fixed rhyme scheme or meter. It is entirely composed in free verse. The poem is loosely grouped into three sections each containing a cycle of searching the eels in water. Besides, the poem is written from the second-person point of view.
This piece is all about eels, a kind of ray-finned fish that live in both sea and fresh water. The main themes of this piece include mystery, nature, and imagination.
The speaker’s tone toward the subject is thoughtful, mysterious, and awe-inspiring. While reading the poem, the speaker is fascinated by the creature. Their shyness and physical features are what make them special with respect to other species living in the water.
Here is a list of a few poems that tap into the themes present in Alice Oswald’s poem ‘Eel Tail.’
- ‘The Fish’ by Elizabeth Bishop — This narrative piece captures a speaker’s reaction after catching a venerable, homely, and considerably large fish.
- ‘Aquarium 1’ by Liz Lochhead — This imagist poem depicts an aquarium filled with personified fish.
- ‘The Maldive Shark’ by Herman Melville — This poem is a contemplation of the complex and strange relationship between sharks and pilot fish.
- ‘Pike’ by Ted Hughes — This poem describes the nature of pikes that are born with predatory instincts.
You can also explore these inspirational poems about nature.