The state of the wild Atlantic salmon

A poem by Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes was Poet Laureate from 1984 until his untimely death at the age of 68 in 1998. He is widely regarded as one of the finest poets of his generation. Ted Hughes was a passionate lover of wilderness and the wild Atlantic salmon. This poem  is an elegy for the lost innocence of the wild salmon smolt, bringing the bounty of the ‘Gallery of Marvels’ back to our rivers, and into our hands.
From my point of view, Ted Hughes was the most effective champion of the wild Atlantic salmon. His home was in Devon and he fished his local river, the Exe. He also fished in Scotland extensively, and also for steelhead in the wilds of western Canada. He was a friend and supporter of the Atlantic Salmon Trust and dedicated the poem, ‘The Best Worker in Europe’, to the Trust in 1985. He and Charles Jardine got together with AST to publish a limited edition (156 numbered copies) of the poem with three illustrations.
Here is the poem, which is of course highly relevant to the state of our wild salmon today:
The Best Worker in Europe
The best worker in Europe Is only six inch long
You thought he’d be a bigger chap?
Wait till you hear my song, my dears,
Wait till you hear my song.
No Union cries his Yea or Nay
He works for all, both night and day,
With neither subsidy nor pay.
He comes out of a heap of stones
Like some old-fashioned elf.
And all he asks is plain water,
Such as you drink yourself, my dears,
Such as you drink yourself.
Two years toiling secretly He fits his craft, without a sigh
To rest his head  or close his eye.
And then one day he’s off to sea.
And only six inch long
Into the Black Hole under the Ocean,
Rows himself along, my dears,
He rolls himself along.
To Hell with Russian, Viking, Hun!
This great-hearted simpleton
Takes the whole Atlantic on.
He hauls his trawl from Scilly Isles
To the subarctic shore.
No overheads, no crew to pay
Whose wives will cry for more, my dears,
Wives always cry for more.
Through storm and freeze, with cheerful grin,
Candlefish and Capelin,
He crams the Ocean’s goodness in.
A catch that all but splits his seam!
Although, like a magician,
He’s magnified his mass by ninety
(He too’s gone a-fishin’, my dears,
He too’s gone a-fishin’).
Such a God-like magic, one’s
Suddenly summed in millions
And understated metric tonnes.
Then in from Ocean’s curve he brings
His National Gross Achievement.
Even the miracle of two fishes
Cries: ”Tis past believement, my dears,
‘Tis simply past believement!’
Nobody’s had to lift a hand!
No prayer, no contract, no command,
And he could feed the entire land!
Nobody has to lift a finger
Or to wet a shoe!
This is the worker for the job that
God alone could do, my dears,
That God alone could do.
What a production line, where he
Processes the open sea
To solid feast, and delivers it free.
The best worker in Europe
Is only six inch long –
Suddenly all his labours fail.
But still he sings: ‘What’s wrong, my dears?
I’ll tell you what’s wrong.
My respiration, my circulation,
Compulsory-purchased by the Nation,
Are now the sewers of your Civilisation.
God help the slave’, sings the Salmon Smolt,
‘Who is owned by everyone
The Donkey used, flogged, owned by all
Is protected by none, my dears,
He is protected by none –
And the wolf takes him easily.
O every wave upon the sea
Carries a wolf that lives on me.’
Ted Hughes 1985

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