Basking Shark Commentary

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The poem Basking Shark, by Norman MacCaig is a poem which talks about the inequalities that exist in nature due to the overpowering spirit of man. To show this inequality the poet brings the Basking Shark and himself into the picture. The inequality is brought out through the various comparisons that the poet brings out through the verses. By contemplating on these comparisons, the poet goes through a volute face, which changes his perception of the shark which he previously thought was a ‘monster’. Through retrospection the poets finally discovers who the real monster is. This retrospection not only reveals the inequality created by the monster but also the domination of the monster over the ordinary. The poet starts off the poem with a comparison, which depicts the shark as a monster. The poet brings the toughness of the shark through a metaphor by comparing the shark to a rock. It is by superimposing the nature of the rock on to the shark that the toughness of the shark is bought out.

This creates a tactile imagery, which adds on to the might of the so called monster. The poet immediately creates a territory for the monster, to depict the strength and its dominating nature to add on to its tough nature. This is evident form the line ‘where none should be’. The emphasis on the word none, tends to set a very lone some environment. The phase could also be an exaggeration, portraying the vastness of the area that the monster covers and dominates over. The poet also adds to the strength of the shark by using the word “slounge”. The word is onomatopoeic as it suggests the noise of the waves as the shark leaves the water. It again reminds the reader of the bulk of the shark. The first line of the second stanza is very paradoxical, in comparison to the last line of the first stanza. Through the last line of the first stanza the poet puts on a very sarcastic tone. This style of the poet can be attributed to a tactic used by the poet to cover up the fear he has of the shark, and appearing to be fine in a controlled situation. In the first line if the second stanza he refutes this by saying that he ‘But not too often – though enough.’ Fear-stricken, the poet seems to wake up to reality.

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The hyphen, thus gives the reader the time to understand the transition of the poets emotions, until he finally agrees that the stubbing the shark was actually tough enough. Due to his engulfing fear, the poet takes some time to pause and come to a normal state. This is seen form the full stop at the middle of the first line of the second stanza. The poets tone completely changes after the full stop. The poet goes off into introspection. Probably he thinks that his encounter with the shark was not by accident but for some purpose. This is evident form the line, ‘I count as gain,’ which appears as if he was ‘counting’ on the encounter as a ‘gain’ in his life. The poet immediately equates himself to the level of the shark by saying that they actually ‘met’; which is more like as if they were equals. The poet by and by realises the true nature of the shark and himself. The first indication of this comes from the line, ‘on a sea tin-tacked with rain.’

The tin tack here could be a metaphor for a boat, where the tin stands for the material with which the boat was made out of and tack carrying the meaning of a saddle, which carries a man on a horse. It is due to the poet’s oars that the rains of water is getting formed, as he pushes the oars onto the water and lifts them to push the boat forward. This movement lifts the water up which sprinkles in the sea again, making it look like ‘rain’. This can be connected back to the first line, which says ‘where none should be’. Inspite of the sea being the place where none should be, in other words, inspite of it being the territory of the shark, the poet seems to have gone there with his tin-tack. This shows his domination over the shark, making the shark look like a rather submissive creature. This idea of the poet can be connected with the phrase ‘roomsize monster with a matchbox brain’.

By juxtaposing these two contrasting aspects of the shark the poet demonstrates how basic and underdeveloped the shark is in comparison to its bulky size. This idea places the shark very low down in the evolutionary scale, and makes the poet believe that he is much higher in the evolutionary scale than the shark. The poet continues to establish the strength of the shark in comparison to his weakness, evident form the line, ‘He displaced more than water. He shoggled me’. The enjambment in these lines draw the reader’s attention to the next two lines, which changes the perspective of the poet completely. The words centuries emphasises how long it took humans to evolve. This puts the shark on a pre-existent list. Through this the poet implies that the shark existed on the ‘family-tree’ before the humans did. The poet implies that it is the humans who invaded its territory, by shaking it off, and occupying the wrong branch of the family tree. Through this the poet establishes the strength of man, who till now appeared to be matchless in front of the ‘roomsize monster’. Through this the poet reminds the reader that the shark too, is part of the “family tree”, and that we are related to all of nature in the process of evolution. This is also evident from the fact that the poet calls the shark a townee, which implies that the shark is also one of man’s equals in this world. The word “swish” here is onomatopoeic as it suggests the noise of moving water. It also describes the swirling movement of water and dirt. Once the swirling has stopped, the spring of water more clearly from the dust having settled. In this image, the poet is comparing his encounter with the shark to the spring once the dust has settled. Suddenly, he sees his position in evolution much more clearly. One “fling” from the shark makes him understand that his origins are shared with the shark, as well as all other living creatures.

The word “emerging” in the final lines suggests the idea of growing, of coming from darkness to light. Like the shark, the poet has emerged from “the slime of everything”- the word “slime” emphasises the baseness of our beginnings whereas the word “everything” shows how indistinct humans were from other species at the beginning of the evolutionary process. This stanza begins with the question “So who’s the monster?” At the beginning of the poem, the poet is almost insulting to the shark, dismissing it as a brainless monster. However, now he is not so sure of himself and also not so confident that he is the superior being. Now he questions himself. Is he a monster, an intelligent being who has failed to use that intelligence usefully? Despite the fact that he appears so much more advanced than the shark, is he really any more useful? This failure to use his intelligence is further highlighted when we realise that the poet only thinks about the question he has asked for twenty seconds. Is his attention span really that much longer than that of the shark? Moreover, our view of the shark has also changed: the clumsy, bulky creature of the first stanza has been replaced by an elegant, graceful shark, which the poet compares to a ship sailing away. Just as the poet has seen himself in a new light, he has also had to think about the shark in a new way. The poet is much more humble now, not so sure of his own superiority over the rest of nature.

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