‘The Fishmonger’ by Owen Sheers: analysis

The Fishmonger is Sheers’ translation of the Hungarian original, Halárus, by István László. He focuses on how the modern world favours not the manual worker, but the people who are best at making profit from other people’s hard work: ‘this is the age of the fishmonger not the fisherman’. Throughout the collection we have seen how the people who do more manual and physically-tiring work are the ones at the bottom of the society.

Although not directly addressed in the previous poem, Sheers mentions the fishmongers implicitly in ‘the boxes left at the door’. It is no coincident that the following poem is solely focused on the work of the fishmonger. The poem comprises of six tercets, describing the manual work of a fishmonger and how his work is second-nature to him.  Sheers also subtly compares the struggle of the carp to the struggle of the fishmonger in the modern world.

Sheers compares the fishmonger to a sergeant, suggesting his authority and loyalty. However, a sergeant is one of the highest ranks in the army, whilst a fisherman is seen as probably a one of the lowest levels of jobs in modern society. Perhaps Sheers is implying that the work the fishmonger does is just as worthy as the sergeant’s, but our society disagrees. The idea of the fishmonger being harsh but kind is seen in Sheers’ use of ‘cruel kindness’. The sentence stretches over two stanzas, creating the illusion that the process of taking the fish out of the water is slow, but quite gentle nevertheless. Therefore the ‘cruel kindness’ refers to the speed at which the fishmonger kills the carp without prolonging his suffering anymore.

The use of the verbs ‘size up’ and ‘measuring’ suggests calculated, precise and skilled work on the fishmonger’s behalf. Sheers’ commendation of his actions is further emphasised in ‘understanding as only he can’.

The phrase ‘the spot between the knuckles where a nail might enter as if through butter’ creates a contrasting image of the fishmonger’s hands. On one hand, his hands are as soft as butter; on the other, he has an ingrowing nail, suggesting calloused and neglected hands.

The phrase ‘understanding as only he can’ is repeated in the fourth stanza, implying Sheers is once again reiterating the importance and skilfulness of the fishmonger’s work.

Sheers suggest the fishmonger could ‘pare’ men who tried to fight him, just as easily as he can his choose to speak succinctly.

The rhyme of ‘bark’ and ‘heart’, connects stanzas five and six, providing a link between the fish and the tree. Sheers then directly compares the lighting-struck tree which is ‘gasping for growth’, to a fish ‘struggling for its last breath as if biting the air for water’.


This is the direct translation of Halarus:
by István László Géher, translated from the Hungarian by Antony Dunn

The Fishmonger

This is his day. On the crest of his hair,
like some military mock-up,
his cap lists; he weighs up the punters
by their quickest flickers, pulls out carp quick snap,
keeps his in-growing fingernail stinging
in fish water –
got to feel

the heads of the fish. The silvering eyes
only make sense to the man
with gut-knife in hand, in his gut his intent
to the cut; the man who does what he does
for us all, who does what he must, what is meant;
who knows the points at ankle, wrist,
to best hammer a nail in; who can fillet
a man easy as you’d ease open
one of these fish; who cuts the chat
to let his blade do the talking; tidy; fights when he hurts.
There’s no bark around his heart. I mean, picture a tree
nailed by lightning, the hanging flesh of it aflame.
No, I meant
the fish aflame in his hands, its last supper, its mouthing
for water in the air.



One thought on “‘The Fishmonger’ by Owen Sheers: analysis

  1. You now need to begin to put the poems into the context of the anthology – ‘what it means to be ‘a man’ – both in terms of being ‘hu-man’ and ‘male’ specifically. Many of the characters, like ‘real’ people are defined by their occupations (how they spend their time), in terms of what their roles and contributions are to society, to their family etc. and in terms of how they see themselves – self-esteem, personal fulfilment and so on.

    Liked by 1 person

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