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The Way to a Fish’s Heart: Non-Human Emotion and Emotional Tone in Birds, Beasts and Flowers

Sarah Bouttier
p. 89-103

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1During and after the war, Lawrence’s well-known misanthropy made him try to reject, among other human attributes, human feelings. When he was in Cornwall, he sought the greatest possible distance from humanity, and claimed: “Really, I give up feeling either love or hate – it seems to me a bit of kindness is worth all the love of mankind. – But I give it all up, it is beyond me” (L iii. 122). This might explain why he turned to non-human creatures, devoid of feelings, a few years later, when he wrote Birds, Beasts and Flowers. However, in the Birds, Beasts and Flowers poems, some emotions inevitably show through: the emotions of the creatures as well as those of the poet. This paper will try to define them and understand how they are communicated to the reader.

2However uncertain any distinction between “feeling” and “emotion” may be, the etymology of both words can help us here: a “feeling” refers to the subjective perception of an event, whereas an “emotion” refers to a state, the state of being moved, or a motion, the literal meaning being a physical moving, stirring, agitation. If a feeling, therefore, implies more subjectivity, then it is probably, from Lawrence’s point of view, too personal: it interferes too much with its object, just as love in Lawrence goes together with constraint for both the lover and the beloved. By contrast, if an emotion is the change triggered by an event within one’s body or mind, it implies a more passive self and may thus permit a different interaction with one’s surroundings. Another possible difference between a feeling and an emotion is that a feeling has a precise object, and can therefore easily be classified, while the cause stimulating an emotion may remain secondary, which makes emotions harder to define and classify.

3In Women in Love, such a distinction appears during Birkin’s rêverie in the grass, after Hermione struck him:

Really, what a mistake he had made, thinking he wanted people, thinking he wanted a woman. He did not want a woman – not in the least. The leaves and the primroses and the trees, they were really lovely and cool and desirable, they really came into the blood and were added on to him. He was enrichened now immeasurably, and so glad. (WL 107)

4Here, feelings, (“wanting people”; “wanting a woman”) which link Birkin to other humans, are rejected because they threaten his integrity. Hermione’s love, as well as the blow she dealt him, have even threatened it physically. Instead, what is shown is a change within Birkin’s body – in his blood – and mind. This change is produced by the entire non-human setting, “the leaves, the primroses and the trees.” Consequently, in its unclassifiable quality, what Birkin feels can be considered as an emotion, and we may think that the non-human world alone allows the right kind of emotion, and excludes feelings.

5And indeed, when Lawrence turns to the non-human creatures of Birds, Beasts and Flowers, what seems to fascinate him is the creatures’ absence of feelings, the “Fish,” for example, being “loveless, and so lively!” (CP 337). The fish is not only loveless – it seems to care for no one or nothing, as the very beginning of the poem (CP 334) shows: “Fish, Oh Fish/So little matters.˝ The second line, “so little matters!” seems to express not only the fish’s freedom but also Lawrence’s longing for a world devoid of human feelings, and concerns, which echoes the “pure, inhuman otherness of death” Ursula wishes to attain, after she “washes off all the lies and ignominy and dirt that has been put upon one here” (WL 194). At the beginning of the poem, this purity, in the case of the fish, allows only one type of emotion: the physical emotion, the movement, spurred by the touch of water. Yet, when the fish is said to be “wave-thrilled” in the third stanza, is it excitement that the fish feels as the wave comes, or is it the wave, when it passes over the fish, that stirs it and makes it literally tremble? A few stanzas later, there is no doubt left: “Your life a sluice of sensation along your sides/A flush at the flails of your fins, down the whorl of your tail.˝

6The fish’s whole life amounts to a “sluice of sensation,” a physical emotion stimulated only by the water. The image of the sluice implies that the fish’s sensation is caused by water flowing through him, as if he had become water, just as the trees and flowers had come into Birkin’s blood when he touched them.

7When a feeling, such as fear, is mentioned, it is immediately altered and rendered physical:

Fear also!
He knows fear!
Water-eyes craning,
A rush that almost screams,
Almost fish-voice
As the pike comes…
Then gay fear, that turns the tail sprightly, from a shadow. (CP 336)

8Contrary to what the poem says, the fish does not know fear, since “knowing” would imply a sort of consciousness that is denied the fish who “never knows” and “never grasps.” Rather, the fish embodies fear, through his “water-eyes craning,” his screaming rush, and most of all, his feeling “gay fear, that turns the tail sprightly.” The cause of this “gay fear,” the pike, is reduced to the condition of a “shadow,” and is only mentioned at the end of the stanza: the cause of the fish’s reaction is of minor importance. Therefore, what is originally a feeling, fear, becomes an emotion, in the way I tried to define an emotion at the beginning of this paper, that is to say a physical motion, a stirring, whose origin is of minor importance.

9We could say that the main characteristics of the non-human emotion in Birds, Beasts and Flowers are its physicality (a “physical moving, stirring, agitation”) and its “purity” (it differs from human feelings and all the threats that they imply). Yet the mere description of this feelingless world does not suffice to stir emotions in the reader. In order to set an emotional tone, something else is necessary – something that is lacking in the poem “The Sea” (CP 197).

10Written before Birds, Beasts and Flowers, “The Sea” also deals with the absence of feelings in the non-human world, and their replacement by literal, physical emotions: “You, you are all unloving, loveless, you ; / Restless and lonely, shaken by your own moods / You are celibate and single, scorning a comrade even, […].” In this initial apostrophe, the persona mentions the sea’s absence of love, and the physicality of its emotions, the sea being “loveless” but “shaken” by its “own moods.” This time, the sea, in its cold selfishness, irritates the poet. The point here is not that the same object (a feelingless world) produces different emotional responses in the poet (longing to attain this world in “Fish” or anger in “The Sea”) but that in one case (“Fish”), the poet’s response affects the reader while in the other case it does not. Indeed, in “The Sea,” even though the persona’s anger is stated explicitly (in the first line, for example, the recurrence of the vocative “you” expresses an accusation), the reader does not participate in that emotion. Even the supposedly threatening ending, which includes the reader in the pronoun “us,” falls flat: “Sea, you shadow of all things, now mock us to death with your shadowing.”

11Why such a lack of empathy? Why is there no emotional tone properly conveyed here? A comparison of the apostrophes in “The Sea” and “Fish” contributes to answering this question. In “The Sea,” as in any apostrophe, by the sole fact that the poet speaks to the sea, the sea becomes a subject. This status of the sea as subject, is maintained throughout the poem, in which the sea is capable of will (“refusing any comforter”), and of action (“playing your great game”). Moreover, this addressee, “the sea,” implies the presence of a subject-speaker, “I,” a persona, who feels anger as a response to the sea’s lovelessness. Since the persona easily sustains the apostrophic discourse through the entire poem, we are dealing with a perfectly functioning apostrophe.

12It may even work too well. Jonathan Culler, in The Pursuit of Signs, comments on the embarrassment critics and readers often feel towards poetry that uses apostrophes: “This trope proclaims its artificial character rather too obviously, and the craft of poetry would be demeaned if it were allowed that any versifier who wrote ‘O table’ were approaching the condition of sublime poet” (152). Most of the time, the assertion of a second subject, a “you,” in what Culler calls “apostrophic poems,” is problematic: “Apostrophic poems display in various ways awareness of the difficulties of what they purport to seek. Poems which contain apostrophes often end in withdrawals and questions.”(143)

13Here, however, there is no difficulty. As a result, we immediately sense that the “you,” the sea as subject, is artificial, and consequently, we sense too that the “I,” the persona, which is supposed to define itself against this “you,” is false too. The distance between the sea and the poet is maintained thoughout the poem: there is no attempt to grasp anything of the sea’s experience. The distance between the poet and the reader is maintained as well, since the voice of the poet is only heard through an artificial persona. Under these conditions, there can be no emotional response from the reader.

14On the other hand, in “Fish,” and in other poems of Birds, Beasts and Flowers, some apostrophes do successfully set an emotional tone and trigger emotional responses, namely because they are problematic. The beginning of “Fish” names a creature in an apostrophe, “Fish, oh Fish,” which apparently posits the fish as a subject, an addressee. However, the fish does not seem to correspond to the standards of a subject consciousness with which one may enter into contact: it is said that it “Never knows / Never grasps.” The vocative mode weakens as the poem progresses: the pronoun “you” is consigned to the very end of the second and fourth stanzas (All one to you / Roll you – my emphasis), and is soon replaced by the question “who”: “Who is it ejects sperm to the naked flood?” The vocative mode is eventually abandoned, the fish then being referred to as “Himself all silvery himself.” This problematic apostrophe is uttered by a voice expecting an answer, or hoping to converse with a creature which may not even be a subject: the resulting melancholy may be one of the emotions constituting the poem’s tone. Thus, in order to spur emotion, an address to non-human nature must remain problematic.

15The emotional tone in “Baby Tortoise” (CP 352) is as successful as the one at the beginning of “Fish,” because it also questions the existence of a feeling and thinking subject in the tortoise.

16The only emotion the creature assuredly feels is, once more, physical: “the touch of sun excites you.” But more importantly, the tortoise is said to be “alone, with no sense of being alone / and hence six times more solitary.” If, being denied a consciousness, the tortoise cannot feel that it is alone, how can it become six times more solitary? We may infer that without a consciousness, the tortoise cannot be a subject, and therefore it cannot communicate with the poet. Therefore, the intense feeling of loneliness may affect the poet rather than the tortoise. Since, however, this interpretation is not certain, the doubt as to the “subjectivity” of the creature remains, and thanks to this ambiguity, the poet’s emotion is conveyed to the reader.

17As the effects of this line in “Baby Tortoise” and of the problematic apostrophes in “Fish” suggest, it is neither complete distance nor complete empathy that allows for a successful emotional tone. That is why many of these poems’ most intense lines, emotionally speaking, create tension by expressing distance in the middle of a moment of empathy.

18For example, Lawrence, as I have shown, first attempts to grasp something of the fish’s physical emotions (“your life a sluice of sensation along your sides,” etc.), and it seems that he has quite successfully penetrated the fish’s world. But right after that, in order to express the fish’s loneliness, Lawrence states: “even snakes lie together.” As the whole poem claims, there can be no relationship between the fish and these snakes, the fish’s only contact being that of water. Lawrence’s allusion to snakes therefore places the poet’s voice outside the world of the fish and back into the poet’s own, the human world, which he shares with the reader. The statement appears to be an abrupt withdrawal from the fish’s world. The emotional tone of this poem may then be the result of this alternation between moments of empathy in which the poet, and we readers, sense that something of the fish’s experience is understood, and the sudden withdrawals from its world, because such an empathy is fleeting and cannot be sustained throughout the poem (so much so that ironically, the fish is eventually killed by the poet). Even in such lines, there is a tension between empathy and distance since the statement “even snakes lie together” insists on the fish’s loneliness and on the melancholy that such a loneliness inspires in the poet.

19In “Baby Tortoise,” the momentary return to the human world is even more explicit. The poet first tries to understand what material the turtle is made of, through a close observation of its eye, “under its slow lid,” and of its mouth, “your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if it would never open.” And then Lawrence makes a pause and says: “No one ever heard you complain.” Here also, there is empathy (the poet implicitly stating that in such conditions the baby tortoise should be complaining) as well as a “zooming out,” from the world of the tortoise to the world of humans, who are, this time, mentioned as potential hearers, since “no one” has ever heard the tortoise complain.

20These lines, through the tension that they suggest between empathy and distance, and the tension in the lines preceding them as they mark a return to the human world, condense the paradoxical feeling underlying Birds, Beasts and Flowers: the passionate desire to grasp the non-human creatures’s experience, mixed with the certainty that this project will fail.

21The feelings that we experience as we are happily close to or sadly distant from the creatures, or both at the same time, may define the emotional impact of the poems. Yet an emotion of a different order appears when Lawrence succeeds in making us feel what he believes the creatures feel, i.e., a non-human emotion.

22What stirs the fish, according to Lawrence, is

Food, and fear, and joie de vivre,
Without love.
The other way about:
Joie de vivre, and fear, and food,
All without love. (CP 336)

23Food amounts to the most vital need, and fear is the fear of death, the fear of the pike which threatens the fish’s life. Even though they should be opposed, they seem to be interchangeable, and to cause, indistinguishably, “joie de vivre.” This means that “joie de vivre” is a “pure” emotion, and not a feeling, in that its cause does not have to be specific.

24Food and fear are both absolutely necessary to the fish’s survival. They are what the fish absolutely needs and what protects it from danger. If the fish feels “joie de vivre” each time it experiences these very basic vital impulses, then we might say that this non-human emotion resembles Nietzsche’s joy at experiencing amor fati, the love of one’s fate: “I want to learn more and more how to see what is necessary in things as what is beautiful in them – thus I will be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love from now on! ˝ (Gay Science 157)

25Within this “joie de vivre,” thus, even fear is “gay”:

Fear also!
He knows fear!
Water-eyes craning,
A rush that almost screams,
Almost fish-voice
As the pike comes…
Then gay fear, that turns the tail sprightly, from a shadow. (CP 336)

26As the threatening pike comes nearer, the fish becomes “gay fear, that turns the tail sprightly, from a shadow.” In this stanza, the fish is denied the status of subject: it is not the fish, but “gay fear” that “turns the tail”; similarly, the “rush” “screams”, and the “eyes” are “fixed.” A link between the fish’s absence of subjectivity and its ability to experience such a paradoxical emotion as “gay fear,” may be found, once again, in Nietzsche, who describes the joy of existing in terms of “Dionysian ecstasy” in The Birth of Tragedy. When we manage to shed our individuality,

For brief moments we are truly the primordial being itself and we feel its unbounded greed and lust for being ; the struggle, the agony, the destruction of appearances, all this now seems to us to be necessary, given the unaccountable excess of forms of existence thrusting and pushing themselves into life, given the fertility of the world-will. (Birth of Tragedy 81)

27Indeed, if one is divested of one’s own individuality, and placed at the level of the human species, then fear of death or destruction may become “gay,” since the destruction of oneself as individual may be necessary to the survival of one’s species and the continuance of life. “Gay fear,” and “joie de vivre” in general, may be non-human emotions in that they require one to cease being self-centred, something which Lawrence repeatedly claims has become almost impossible among humans.

28How are such “non-human emotions” conveyed to the reader? In the section of the poem mentioning this “joie de vivre,” the fish no longer stands for a “you,” an addressee against whom the subject-speaker can define himself; consequently, the poet’s voice abandons its endeavour to communicate with the fish. Instead, Lawrence, as if enacting the fish’s carefree joy, flippantly shifts the order of nouns:

Food, and fear, and joie de vivre,
Without love.
The other way about:
Joie de vivre, and fear, and food,
All without love.

or plays on the liquid alliteration in “l” and “v” (“loveless and so lively”), building hypotheses as to when the little creature was born: “Loveless, and so lively / Born before God was love, / Or life knew loving.”

  • 1 Jeff Wallace, in D. H. Lawrence, Science and the Posthuman, first established a connection between (...)

29In J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous character gives a lecture on poets writing on animals. Her reflections may cast a new light on the carefree tone Lawrence uses in this section of “Fish” 1:

What is peculiar about poetic engagements of this kind is that, no matter with what intensity they take place, they remain a matter of complete indifference to their objects. In this respect they are different from love poems, where your intention is to move your object.

Not that animals do not care what we feel about them. But when we divert the current of feeling that flows between ourself and the animal into words, we abstract it for ever from the animal. Thus the poem is not a gift to its object, as the love poem is. It falls within an entirely human economy in which the animal has no share.”(Elizabeth Costello, 96)

30Lawrence certainly had in mind that it was no use trying to connect with the fish, and to spur any response from it. Once the fish’s absence of love is revealed (“loveless, and so lively!”), the poet is no longer compelled to express any feeling towards the fish. Instead, he wholeheartedly engages in this “entirely human economy” and therefore no longer conceals the inevitable textual condition of the poem.

31The carefree tone is but one example of this tendency; the frequent use of the infinitive can also be understood as an openly textual device, in that it does not assert the performance of an action in “real life” but leaves it in the realm of language:

Quelle joie de vivre
Dans l’eau!
To sink, and rise, and go to sleep with the waters;
To speak endless inaudible wavelets into the wave,
To breathe from the flood at the gills,
To be a fish!

32The infinitive also eludes the necessity of mentioning a subject, and this openness enables the reader to imagine his own self performing the actions. This device is to be found in many of the Birds, Beasts and Flowers poems, notably at the beginning of “Baby Tortoise,” when it is interestingly mixed with the vocative “you”:

The first day to heave your feet little by little from the shell,
Not yet awake
To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if it would never open,
Like some iron door.

33Just like the carefree tone used in “Fish,” the infinitive allows the experience of “joie de vivre” to be transmitted to the reader, even though it is explicitly textual. It seems that paradoxically, the more openly textual the lines are, the better they convey something of the fish’s experience.

34It may be explained thus: having abandoned the apostrophic system, or any project to connect with the creatures, Lawrence, as we have seen, wholly embraces his own condition as a human, and as a poet. This position allows him to retrieve a sense of fullness of being that was inevitably lost when he was trying to enter the non-human world through empathy and apostrophes. Yet as it happens, this fullness of being is precisely the non-human emotion Lawrence was striving to express. Indeed, Elizabeth Costello promotes precisely this approach in order to feel “what it is like to be a bat”:

To be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully a bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being. Bat-being in the first case, human being in the second: maybe; but those are secondary considerations. […] One name for the experience of full being is joy. (EC 60)

35She notably uses the same term as Lawrence: “joy.” Even though Coetzee remains quite vague as regards the nature of this emotion ( he also has Elizabeth state that “to be full of being is to live as a body-soul”), the “joy” mentioned seems related both to Lawrence’s carefree tone and to the fish’s Nietzschean “joie de vivre”: it has no specific cause outside that of being, and it is not limited to one’s self.

36In Birds, Beasts and Flowers, Lawrence approaches the non-human by experiencing the fullness of his own being as a poet, that is, by showing the textual condition of his poem. In doing so, he may experience an emotion that is closer to that of the fish than when he was consciously trying to enter its world through apostrophes. The “tour de force” is that when he no longer adopts a highly personal voice, but rather a selfless voice, thus de-personalizing his account of the fish’s experience, Lawrence conveys much more of the fish’s emotion than when he was directly addressing it.

37One point remains to be clarified: if Lawrence can reach this “joie de vivre,” then it is a sort of underlying emotion that transcends the boundaries between the human and the non-human, and perhaps should not retain the exclusive appellation of “non human.” However, I have chosen to keep this term for two reasons: first, Lawrence’s post-war misanthropy prevented him from having any faith in the human’s ability to experience such a boundless, selfless feeling. Second, Lawrence regains a sense of his limited human self soon enough, as later in “Fish” he claims to “stand at the pale of [his] being.” The access to such a “non-human” emotion is rather presented as a sort of revelation, a miracle that is not soon to be performed again.

38Thus Lawrence, by apparently breaking free from his limited self in some of the Birds, Beasts and Flowers passages, manages both to feel something close to the creature’s emotion and, thanks to playful and openly textual devices, to reduce the distance that separates him, Lawrence, from the reader. He thereby necessarily reduces the distance from the creature’s experience to the reader’s. In these cases, the tone is no longer melancholy: he, and we, feel a sort of carefree “joie de vivre” which may be considered a “non-human emotion.”

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Coetzee, John M. Elizabeth Costello. London: Secker and Warburg, 2003.

Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Lawrence, David H. Complete Poems. Ed. Viven de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. London: Penguin, 1977.

___. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, vol. 3. Ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

___. Women in Love. Ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Nietzsche, Friedrich W. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Ronald Speirs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

___. The Gay Science. Trans. Adrian Del Caro and Josefine Nauckoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Wallace, Jeff. D. H. Lawrence, Science, and the Posthuman. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

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1 Jeff Wallace, in D. H. Lawrence, Science and the Posthuman, first established a connection between Lawrence’s treatment of animals in the narratives and Elizabeth Costello, but he applies it to the question of “the meaning of animals” (see section on “Anthropomorphism and the meaning of animals: Coetzee and Lawrence,” 119-123).

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Sarah Bouttier, « The Way to a Fish’s Heart: Non-Human Emotion and Emotional Tone in Birds, Beasts and Flowers », Études Lawrenciennes, 43 | 2012, 89-103.

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Sarah Bouttier, « The Way to a Fish’s Heart: Non-Human Emotion and Emotional Tone in Birds, Beasts and Flowers », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 43 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2013, consulté le 13 décembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.89

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Sarah Bouttier

Sarah Bouttier is a PhD candidate at Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle, a recipient of a fellowship from the French Ministry of Research, and a holder of the agrégation d’anglais. She has spent a year in New York as a visiting scholar at NYU, working on her dissertation on Writing the Non-Human in D. H. Lawrence’s Poetry. (PhD obtained in 2011)

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