Basking Shark Norman MacCaig
Context Norman MacCaig divided his time mainly between Edinburgh, where he lived and worked, and the north-west Highlands, where he had relations and friends. This poem depicts the startling encounter he had with a basking shark during one of these visits, while out on a small boat in the Minch (the sea area between the Hebrides and mainland Scotland) near Lochinver.
Basking sharks are one of the largest species of the shark family, in fact they are the second largest species of any fish, reaching sizes in excess of ten metres and weighing several tonnes. They are still found, though reduced in number, in the seas off that part of Scotland. They are harmless filter feeders, having no true teeth, and as such pose no real danger to humans. Still, a surprise close encounter with a creature of that size would be unnerving! Particularly if close enough to touch the oars of a small boat, as happened to MacCaig.
This encounter sparked in him a reflection on the comparative paths of evolution such differing species took: basking sharks on the one hand, relatively unchanged for millions of years, and humans on the other, vastly changed since the days when marine life first crawled ashore and adapted to a life on land. This train of thought leads to a disturbing question: who is the monster? Is it the shark, literally monstrous in size and aspect to the human; or is it the poet himself, representative of the human race and all the dark, monstrous deeds of which our race is capable? The thought remains with the poet, unresolved, as the shark swims off.
Form and Structure • This poem is set out in five stanzas, each of three lines, and each line being end-rhymed with the others in the stanza. The meter of the poem is also fairly regular: the first two lines of each stanza have five stressed syllables, while the final one has four. The effect of the final shorter stressed line is to create a sense of fitting closure to the stanza. • This tight regularity of form is quite unusual in MacCaig’s poetry. He is often quite free in stanza length, line length, and meter, and rhyming may or may not be present; he will vary his style according to the requirements of a particular poem. In this poem the tightness of structure serves to capture the uniqueness of the experience, and the regularity of rhythm and rhyme matches the rhythmic quality of the rise and the fall of the sea itself, and likewise the steady pulling of the oars. • The subject of the poem is never mentioned in the body of the poem itself, instead we infer from the title what the poet's small boat collided with that day.
Themes • Evolution • The hedonism/monstrous nature of humanity • Admiration of nature • The central theme that emerges during this poem deals with our accepted ideas about the process of evolution and our own place in it. • The encounter with this enormous, almost primeval, beast at the opening of the poem acts as a catalyst to consider the relationship between the shark and human beings. • Through the reflection of the speaker, we are reminded that we have much more in common with the shark than we may initially believe, and by rewinding time back to the origins of evolution itself he creates a direct link between it and us. • In doing so, he forces us to think about what we understand when we think of the term ‘monster’, suggesting that it is humanity and not creatures like the shark that are capable of true monstrosity.
Stanza 1 Unusual sentence structure: two infinitive clauses (‘To…To…’) creates tension and suspense as the reader does not know what is happening to the speaker Tension built further – what is this if not a rock? To stub an oar on a rock where none should be, To have it rise with a slounge out of the sea Is a thing that happened once (too often) to me. The word ‘rock’ suggests hardness and immovability of the object. Humorous parenthetical aside ‘(too often)’ implies that this is not an encounter he wishes to repeat Neologism (new word) of ‘slounge’ seems to be an amalgamation of ‘slouch’ and ‘lounge’ and coneys slow, lazy, ponderous movement of creature Word choice and structure add to apprehensive tone Slow, steady rhythm of these lines suits gradual surfacing of huge shark
Stanza 2 Again concentrating on reasons that he feels the encounter to be beneficial, and does so for remainder of the poem The ‘once (too often)’ in opening stanza is both echoed and refuted with ‘But not too often’ in this opening line, which seems to contradict what he has just said. Implies that, while he found it frightening, he also found it a worthwhile and enriching experience. But not too often - though enough. I count as gain That once I met, on a sea tin-tacked with rain, That roomsized monster with a matchbox brain. The word ‘met’ suggests a sense of reciprocity and fraternity between humans and animals (not assuming human superiority over animals) Alliterative metaphor ‘sea tin-tacked with rain’ captures nature of raid – hard, sparse droplets patterning smooth surface with neat round imprints, literally like metal tacks on paper Alliteration of ‘t’ replicates metallic sound of rain hitting the boat
Contrast – ‘roomsized monster’ and ‘matchbox brain’ Contrasts size of shark’s body with tiny brain The linking alliterative consonant ‘m’ serves to further emphasise the comparison Clever use of long and short vowels in this final line: the long vowels in ‘roomsized monster’ appropriately extend the expression to suit the body, as the short, clipped vowels of ‘matchbox brain’ suit the tiny brain “That roomsized monster with a matchbox brain.”
Stanza 3 The colloquial verb ‘shoggled’ creates self-deprecatory tone when describing how he is taken back Switch from observation to reflection. Short opening sentence introduces idea of poet being metaphorically displaced. The shark takes the poet ‘centuries back’ in time metaphorically. This creature, a throwback to prehistoric times, creates in the imagination of the poet a glimpse of the early evolutionary stage of the emergence of land creatures from our common ancestors, marine life. He displaced more than water. He shoggled me Centuries back - this decadent townee Shook on a wrong branch of his family tree. Describes himself as ‘decadent townee’. ‘Decadent’ in this context suggests that, in his (humanity’s) decision to remove himself from the natural world to an urban setting, he has lost a sense of purpose in his life and become too immersed in the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures. The word ‘shook’ conveys how he is both literally and metaphorically shaken by this experience.
“Shook on a wrong branch of his family tree.” MacCaig is emotionally shaken by this experience because he is reminded that this shark too is part of our own family tree and is inextricably linked to us in the same way as any other ancestor. The expression ‘wrong branch’ is slightly ambiguous and could be interpreted in two ways: Because of our inherent sense of intellectual superiority over this creature we are unwilling to recognise that we are in any way related. It is in fact humans who have gone ‘wrong’ in their evolutionary path – it is humankind, not the shark who is the aberration, the ‘monster’.
Stanza 4 Onomatopoeic ‘swish’ also alludes to idea of displacement in previous stanza. While initially dirt would muddy the water and make it dark, opaque, and impossible to see through, eventually once settled it would be clearer An analogy between water becoming clearer and the situation becoming clearer for the speaker about the ideas he is reflecting on. Swish up the dirt and, when it settles, a spring Is all the clearer. I saw me, in one fling, Emerging from the slime of everything. This image effectively prepares us for the conclusion of the poem as the speaker is about to reveal what is now clear to him following this encounter This idea of ‘dirt’ in our origins continue in word choice of ‘slime’ which suggests the primeval slime from which we were all created, linking the evolution of humanity again with the shark The ‘dirt’ in this case is the murky thought of how humans evolved into what they now are
In his mind’s eye MacCaig has a surreal image of himself crawling out of this slime and returning to the initial, fundamental beginnings of human existence. The word ‘emerging’ in the final line of this stanza reinforces this new, almost sense of epiphany and clarity associated with coming out of the dark into light, while the word ‘everything’ again reinforces out similarity with every other species at the start of this process.
Stanza 5 Opens with the question poem has been leading up to. Now clear that poet his reverse initial thought of shark as brainless, inferior creature. This magnificent, awesome creature is monstrous simply because of its size, but in the metaphorical sense it is clear the speaker now considers humanity to be the true monster. First line glides effortlessly into second with enjambment. This thought has left speaker reflecting and concerned. So who's the monster? The thought made me grow pale Fortwenty seconds while, sail after sail, The tall fin slid away and then the tail. There is a sequence of long vowels in ‘sail’, ‘tall’, ‘slid away’, and finally ‘tail’ – all of these effectively combine to suggest the gradual exit of this vast animal. This also helps to show the speaker’s change in perception of animal as a bulky ‘rock’ to a graceful, elegant creature. Sheer size of the creature is conveyed by number of techniques: mention of ‘twenty seconds’ it takes for shark to pass and repetition of ‘sail after sail’, referring to comparison of fin and tail above water. Metaphor of ‘sail’ gives us the impression of vast surface areas to highlight size of shark and also evokes shape of fin and tail.
The change in the speaker’s view of the shark is mirrored in the change in the speaker - just as he now has a different view of himself, so too his opinion about the shark has been altered. The unanswered question at the end of this poem is typical of what is often described as MacCaig's metaphysical approach. His hair-raisingly close encounter with this monster of the deep has raised profound philosophical questions about our ethics and our place in the natural world. MacCaig avoids the temptation to conclude this meditation with an easy or glib answer, instead inviting his reader to draw their own conclusions.
An overview of the stanzas • Stanza One – MacCaig describes the chance meeting with the shark and makes it clear it has happened before. • Stanza Two – the meetings have had an effect on him and he thinks back to one particular meeting. • Stanza Three – he begins to question his position in the evolutionary process. • Stanza Four – explains how indistinct humans were from other species at the beginning of the evolutionary process. • Stanza Five – his opinion of the shark changes and the poet reveals that he is not so sure of his own superiority over the rest of nature.
Reflective nature of the poem • In the interview ‘A Metaphorical Way of Seeing Things’, MacCaig maintained that poetry is a ‘psychological Optrex, it clears your eyes and you see things’. • Like many of MacCaig’s poems, ‘Basking Shark’ moves from description to reflection. This experience leads the poet to reflect on his own and humanity’s relationship with the natural world and to ponder ‘Who’s the monster?’.