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Behavior of Fish in an Egyptian Tea Garden Commentry

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‘Behavior of Fish in an Egyptian Tea Garden’ is a narrative poem by Keith Douglas observing the actions of a seductress and a variety of men dining in an Egyptian Tea Garden. Douglas effectively employs a profusion of techniques including metaphors, similes, extended metaphor, and imagery to show the animalistic nature of men when beguiled by a ‘white stone’. The poem’s subtext is the ugliness of physical attraction that has been warped by lust for filthy lucre.

The Egyptian Tea Garden portrays the sometimes cruel and heartless nature of human desire. It uses an extended metaphor comparing the wealthy, powerful men beguiled by a beautiful woman sensually eating ice cream with a variety of predatory fish enamored by a ‘white stone’. Douglas uses metaphors, ‘a cotton magnate, an important fish’, ‘a crustacean old man’, ‘a lean dark mackerel’ and ‘gallants in shoals’, to highlight the similarities between the actions of the men and the predictable behaviors of the fish in an exaggerated manner. The men’s distasteful actions, ‘teeth parted in a stare’, ‘sucks on a straw…laxly’, ‘idling..stays to watch’, are compared with the behavior of fish, ‘pause so to nibble or tug’. However, the woman is compared to an inanimate object, ‘white stone’, having negative connotations of heartlessness, coldness, uselessness and hardness.

This sense of the ugliness of attraction warped by materialism is powerfully suggested in the portrayal of the ‘crustacean old man’. Crustaceans are an ancient, more basic form of life as is the form of desire the old man represents. The alliteration of hard ‘c’ sounds, ‘crustacean…clamped…coldly’, suggest the harshness, agedness and vileness of the character. The images created, ‘clamped to his chair…fissures where eyes should be…teeth are parted in a stare’, also reflect his unattractive disposition. ‘Teeth parted in a stare’ is a grotesque image suggesting his salacious desire to ‘eat her’, relating to the concept of the ugliness of physical attraction.

The woman’s ‘ugliness’ is portrayed through her willingness to exploit men’s desire for advantage, through seductive movements. ‘Slyly red lip on the spoon/slips in a morsel of ice-cream,’ creates a languorous and sensuous atmosphere through sibilance. The repetition of the ‘s’ sounds creates an onomatopoeic effect – the sound of sipping – revealing her erotic personality. ‘Her hands white as a milky stone’, ‘red lips’ and ‘fingers…carmined at the ends’ are juxtaposing images, as white is symbolic of innocence and purity whilst red symbolizes sin and passion. Regardless of her devious behavior, at the conclusion of the piece the reader is sympathetic towards the beautiful woman as she ‘sits alone at the table’, without the admiration of the rich men. She is ‘useless except to a collector,’ suggesting she a worthless ‘stone’, without life, without love, without beauty.

‘Behavior of Fish in an Egyptian Tea Garden’ exquisitely illustrates the power of a woman to seduce a man in search of materialistic luxuries. By effectively using language techniques such as imagery and extended metaphor, Douglas has created an aquatic panorama in the Egyptian Tea Garden.

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