Learn English » English Literature » Poem 'Fishermen' by Elizabeth Jennings


This to be peace, they think beside the river
Being adapted well to expectation
And their wives’ mutiny at no achievement
And yet can sit watching the promises
Escape through weeds and make a trial of biting,
Can lose them, thankful that it is not yet
Time to draw in the line and drain the net.

Learning themselves in this uncertainty
Each hardly cares whether a fish is caught,
For here is privacy, each warns himself,
The fish, inquiries in the river, not
When drawn out promises at all
Being so solid on the bank and still.

Only the boys who live in certainty,
With expectation other than the stream,
Jeer at the patience and draw up their net
Of future frogs, the river vague to them
Until it’s emptied. But the old men fill
Their eyes with water, leave the river full.


The poet makes an observation about fishermen in the first stanza, that they consider it to be a peaceful existence beside the river, well- adapted to the expectation of fishes biting, and even the dissatisfaction of their wives when they do not get fish. They sit on the bank of the river, watching the fish escape through the weeds, and try to bite the line, but miss it. As they watch thus, they are thankful that it is not yet time to “draw in the line and drain the net”.

In the second stanza, the poet talks about how fishermen learn about “themselves” in the process of fishing. They do no care much about whether they have caught a fish or not. The fish may not be caught for a long time, but there is a certainty about the wait of the fishermen by the side of the river.

In the third stanza, the poet talks about those fishermen who are just “boys” who “Jeer at the patience” and are too quick to pull up their net. What they get is usually “future frogs” or tadpoles. The river is “vague to them” – that is, the river is not an entity that has life, in the minds of these fishermen. For them, the river is just a source to be emptied. But the older fishermen would wait and wait, even if it fills their eyes “with water”. They would rather “leave the river full”.

Language, imagery, tone

The poem is written in the signature style of Elizabeth Jennings, simple and lyrical. There is a metaphor in the first stanza where the poet talks about the fish as “promises” escaping through weeds. “Fill their eyes with water” is an evocative image, which refers to the patience of the old fishermen. The poet draws a contrast between the older fishermen who have a special relationship with the river, and the newer fishermen who treat the river just as a source of fish.

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