And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 24. august 2016

Pikes, Thomas de Cantimpré and Ted Hughes

As can sometimes be seen on this blog, I'm very fond of juxtaposing medieval and modern cultural expression, be it folklore, literature, art, music or a range of other things. In this blogpost I'm taking a quick glance at the pike, nicely illustrated in Thomas de Cantimpré's book De Natura Rerum. As we see from this folio, the pike is called "esox". In a twelfth-century bestiary, Cambridge University Library II.4.26, edited and translated by T. H. White, however, it has been named "lupis". As White himself suggests in a footnote, this is probably a misspelling of "lucius", as the pike is known as "esox lucius". The bestiary's description of the pike goes as follows.

His wolfish greed has given the name of LUPIS to the Pike, and it is difficult to catch him. When he is encircled by the net, they say that he ploughs up the sand with his tai and thus, lying hidden, manages to escape the meshes.
- Anonymous, The Book of Beasts, edited and translated by T. H. White, Dover Editions, 2015: 202-03

Pike chasing sturgeon
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.126, De Natura Rerum, Thomas de Cantimpré, book 7, c.1290 (Courtesy of

As a modern counterpoint to this description, I give you Ted Hughes' famous poem from his collection Lupercal (1960). The following text is taken from


Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.
Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.
In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads -
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year's black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds
The jaws' hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date;
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them -
Suddenly there were two. Finally one.

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb -

One jammed past its gills down the other's gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks -
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them -

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night's darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.

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