O Death, where is thy Pyrrhic victory?
O Death, where is thy cursèd venom sting?
Alas, from sullied tank of algae pine
Dost thou into latrine Charybdis gyre —
Like Death did I with net as scythe reap thou
Sans pomp nor circumstance nor fun’ral shroud;
Alone swam’st thou, forsaken and deprived
As Sisyphus condemned to search for friends;
Thy rock the mountain ne’re shall overcome,
For thou art Solamente — fish reborn
On July 12, one century B.C.E., infamous Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar was born. His momentous rise to power through tumultuous civil war and bloody conquest precipitated the demise of the Roman Republic and the establishment of dictator perpetuo, a single Emperor to lead a unified Roman Empire; however, Caesar’s godly ambition provoked a grievous backlash, leading to his assassination at the hands of the Roman senators, notably a young Brutus. As lamented Mark Anthony in William Shakespeare’s history Julius Caesar, “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, / And I must pause till it come back to me.” To even people of seemingly inexhaustive power and resources, the ancient aphorism memento mori — remember thou art mortal — still applies. Whether rich or poor, educated or illiterate, blessed or damned, we are all mere mortals. Though Caesar and Solamente could not appear more dichotomously opposed in their lives, they both share a common bond — a bond of cold, hard, releasing, interminable death.
This past July 12, 2020, my pet fish Solamente met Death, albeit on terms wholly antithetical to those of Caesar on the Ides of March. Solamente was a fish unlike any I had previously: he was a true survivor. After saving up both money and good will, I went to Larry’s Ultimate Aquarium my freshman year of high school and purchased a fish tank, along with several denizens to populate it. Death, as you might imagine, was a common theme — plants would disintegrate, snails would be sucked up by the filter, and fish, like wounded airplanes, would spiral helplessly into the rocks and gravel. However, life did flourish notwithstanding death — plants grew deep roots and came to cover the tank, snails thrived on the excess algae lining the walls, and fish built a vibrant and diverse community extending to every corner and crevice. For a brief time, the tank was an earthly paradise.
Nevertheless, nothing lasts forever, and because all of the fish in the tank were males (in order to stymie hostility), the sole mode of replenishing life was external supplementation from Larry’s Ultimate Aquarium. As senior year rolled around, my parents warned me, “Just so you know, when you go off to college, we’re not feeding or cleaning your tank, so don’t buy any more fish.” With those words began a long, protracted reverse genesis — one by one, the snails, accidentally washed away by a hose, and the fish perished (my forthcoming poem “The Great Ramshorn” chronicles the life and death of the snail community). Perhaps unexpectedly, the plants did not wither alongside their faunaic brethren; they had constant light and abundant nutrient levels (I stopped cleaning the tank around late December — I made my last trip to the store in early October). A couple of months after this past December, a sole fish remained. I, along with my family, thought that he quickly would follow in the steps of his aquatic fellows. What followed shocked us all.
The solitary fish, with only algae and various other seaweeds as company, survived an astonishing nine months, with at least four of those spent alone. My grandmother dolefully christened him Solamente, which is Spanish for “only.” Though Solamente’s death was quick, I know his final moments were a mixture of pain and relief — he and I locked eyes as he lay upside down on the gravel floor of the tank dying. I had watched Solamente from the other side of the glass before, as every night I would find him before I went to bed to confirm that he was still alive — why I did it, I still do not quite understand. Every night I watched, and every night there he was, swimming along. I can only imagine what he might have been thinking while he swam, if anything at all; but in that final moment, we both gazed into each other’s eyes — I saw in him a beaten, tired being who spent every moment of his pitiful life fighting and, at long last, would feel imminent relief from “the whips and scorns of time,” as the titular Prince Hamlet lamented in Shakespeare’s classic Hamlet. What he saw in me I do not know — did he know my face, my eyes, me? I was the one who fed him, cleaned his tank, and cared for him. I was the closest thing to a friend or family that he had left. Granted, he was not a human, but still — what kind of existential crises might you have if you were locked in some cage of a tank, “forsaken and deprived?”
Frankly, I had not truly considered nor appreciated the significance of Solamente’s plight until that final moment, and I realized he would die — of course I had always known he would die at some point, but the potency had not set in until then. After dinner on that dismal July evening, I could see that Solamente was no longer struggling to carry on; Death had taken him. To honor him, therefore, I wrote “Elegy to Solamente.”
“Elegy” comes from the Greek noun elegos, meaning a “song of sorrow;” these poems were composed of elegiac couplets with a line written in dactylic hexameter followed by one written in dactylic pentameter. As Solamente’s very tale of existence subverted expectations, so too, in myriad ways, does “Elegy to Solamente.” The poem preserves the couplet motif as part of a greater theme of duality, but with a twist on the meter — all lines (with the exception of lines one and three of stanza five) are written in iambic pentameter. Furthermore, while the thematic progression of a traditional elegy mirrors the stages of grief — first a lament, then a praise, and finally a consolation, this elegy begins ironic (and remains ironic), progresses to half-sad and quasi-condescending, and ends with partial — if not paradoxical — relief in the concluding stanza. One of — if not the — greatest piece of irony of the entire poem is that although this poem is entitled an elegy, there is neither a description of Solamente until the final line, where he is merely identified as a fish, nor any faint explanation of how he died. Adding to this irony is that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines fish as “a member of the human race,” which, thus, furthers the deeper commentary on the nature of life and death.
If this poem was a cake, it would unequivocally be a layer cake, with layer upon layer of irony. The grand opening couplet plays an integral role in quickly creating a sardonic, but not wholly bitter, tone: the first stanza echoes 1 Corinthians 15:55 of the King James Bible — “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” — modified to conform to iambic pentameter. The true depth of the irony herein is appreciated when one understands the context behind the aforementioned reference; the apostle Paul and Sosthenes chronicle the resurrection of Jesus Christ — “when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Thus, the language of stanza one suggests some costly clash — a “Pyrrhic victory” — or some great evil — “cursèd venomed sting” — overcome by someone who smited Death and defeated sin, as with Christ; however, because the title of the poem includes the word “elegy,” the “victory” mentioned is rather a single battle — ironically deemed Pyrrhic, or excessively costly — won by Death over Life.
Stanza two marks an important shift in subject, as the speaker moves from invoking Death with emphatic apostrophe to addressing Solamente as “thou.” This stanza also gives the first measly hint at the identity of the subject by referring to a “sullied tank of algae pine.” As you can see from the cover image, an appropriate adjective (really a past participial) for the tank, if not also a bit dry in humor, is “sullied,” as the once pristine, crystal tank is spoiled by algae and inimical bacteria. “[P]ine” is this context refers to the dark green color of the reeking algae, although if the whole of stanza two is considered a single sentence and thought, then “pine / Dost thou” can be read as one continuous phrase, as in “You [Solamente] do pine.” Ergo, there is more irony in that Solamente “pine[s],” even post-mortem, for his veritable squalor — for the tank is his home, no matter its condition. The absolutely delightful line “Dost thou into latrine Charybdis gyre” means “You go into the churning toilet water,” or rather simply, “You are flushed down the toilet” (Charybdis is a monstrous whirlpool from Greek mythology who, along with fellow monster Scylla, devours ships and men passing through the Strait of Messina). For Solamente, it was out of the dirty tank and into the swirling toilet. This stanza itself is a cruel twist on Psalm 23:1-2 (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters”) — the “green pastures” are the “sullied tank of algae pine,” and the “still waters” are the “latrine Charybdis gyre.” This stanza, therefore, clearly establishes the juxtaposition of illusion with reality, in effect questioning whether death will actually amount to any tangible release from the “sea of troubles” of life (Hamlet). This more serious undertone is augmented by the em dash succeeding line two of stanza two, exemplifying a pause and, therefore, a reflection on the speaker’s behalf on Solamente, his life, and its meaning, as his tail slipped down into the dark tubes of oblivion.
Arguably the piece of paramount importance in any written work is diction, or word choice, because, as the axiom oft-touted by English teachers goes, diction creates tone. As aforesaid, the introductory couplet, largely quoting the King James Bible, is crucial to the establishment of the rather trenchant tone; however, stanzas two through five are of comparable significance in that regard because each stanza shapes the resultant tone. All five stanzas are composed in Elizabethan English (aka Shakespearean English or Britannian) to accentuate the dichotomy between the glorification and the derision of Solamente — to laud him with elegant language and archaic grammar and to declaim his lamentable fate with plaintive interjections and shallow shame (for information concerning the mechanics of Elizabethan grammar — e.g. thou versus thee — please visit this helpful guide). Curiously, the second person singular nominative pronoun “thou,” objective “thee,” and possessive “thine” actually signified familiarity or mockery while the pristine “you” was reserved for addressing persons of higher social status (analogous to the Spanish tu versus usted form, or the French tu versus vous form). Today, the antithesis holds true, and “thou” remains rare and largely restricted to some poetry and the Bible, retaining both its exulting and condescending connotations; the interplay between meanings, implied and direct, shifting over time is crucial to the success of the style of this elegy.
Stanza three introduces the speaker as the intimate “I,” enabling the establishment of a seamless window to the speaker’s conscious and unconscious thoughts. The first line builds a strong comparison of the speaker to a veritable angel of Death, a Grim Reaper who, “with net as scythe reap[s] thou [Solamente].” As Death reaps his harvest of the souls of the deceased, “I” literally reaped the body of Solamente from the tank with a small, blue fishnet. The following line elaborates on the post-action contemplation with the remark, “Sans pomp nor circumstance nor fun’ral shroud.” Without any sort of formality, Solamente has a pauper’s impromptu burial at sea — no words nor thoughts, just the simple actions of scoop, carry, dump, flush. End of story. Thus, part of the irony of the work stems from the speaker’s own regret at the fundamental lack of care he demonstrated to poor Solamente, the culmination of whose life was but a crude, hasty farewell. A comparison — when initially introduced, the speaker himself scoffs and dismisses it— of Solamente to Christ, nevertheless, takes root and begins to grow with thought and revelation. In Genesis 17, God instructs Abraham to “‘Walk before me, and be blameless;’” the only person, in the Bible, who can walk before God Almighty as wholly pure, without mere taint of sin, and redeem Adam’s sin is Jesus. In a similar vein, Solamente is “blameless” because he never knew hate nor violence nor sin — he, like Christ, is the ultimate innocent agnus dei, or, rather, piscis dei. Ironically, such a base and meek creature represents the Messiah; however, the irony is all intentional. The semicolon clinging to “shroud,” like the would-be shroud to the body of Solamente, marks a connected temporal detachment interspersed between couplets three and four, which evinces inner turmoil in the mind of the speaker, as a recollection of the lone fish’s memory forces a reevaluation on the value, per se, of life.
Flowing continuously from the feelings in stanza three, stanza four directly mirrors the speaker’s train of thought and implied emotions, with a recount of the entirety of Solamente’s life in a mere twenty syllables. This section dyes the irony of the tone to a darker hue, as the speaker has an epiphany — with respect to Solamente’s life in specific and life for all in general — that unravels over the course of the denouement. For months on end, Solamente did swim alone, “forsaken and deprived” — “I,” his caregiver, gave up caring for the tank and let the algae run rampant and rank; “I” could not care less each day whether he lived or died; “I” gave up hope on him. In retrospect, the speaker views Solamente’s toilings to survive as analogous to the plight of Sisyphus, a Greek forced to roll a gargantuan rock up a steep and monolithic hill, only to have his progress erased each day by the rock rolling back down to the nadir. The speaker echoes the desolate futility of Sisyphus, as Solamente, though alone, is “condemned to search for friends” by a power of the greatest enigma; the profound and utter futility of Solamente’s endeavor segues naturally to the existential dilemma of whether existence is intrinsically meaningless, and we, with all of the proud accomplishments of civilization, are really no different from Solamente — as I wrote in my musing Paradise, “So life, continuing its unending struggle, moves on, if perhaps futilely, in search of a new home, a new sanctuary, a new paradise.”
The silence of the ex post facto cogitation, bolstered by the semicolon, is broken with the jarring, discordant “Alack!” With the context of line two of stanza five, said interjection assumes a despairing, exasperating timbre — “Thy rock the mountain ne’re shall overcome,” i.e. Solamente lived like Sisyphus, and, thus, even in death, there is no flicker of hope for any spiritual release. However, in the manner previously established while at the same time breaking the couplet convention, the fourth line of stanza five affirms Solamente’s identity by proclaiming his name; the ensuing em dash highlights the transformation from banal, lonely fish to “Solamente — fish reborn.” In existentialist philosophy, one’s name is of central importance because it is a symbol of one’s identity. As Jean-Paul Sartre remarked, “Existence precedes essence” — that is, to achieve essence, the individual alone must face the onerous task of imbuing life with meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. Because Solamente has a name and a purpose in life (albeit seemingly hopeless from our perspective), he has essence beyond mere existence and, therefore, free will. Though the idea of Solamente having free will seems above absurd and contradictory to line two of stanzas four and five, it is really complementary — he could give up and simply make his quietus, but he perseveres to push that rock, swim around, and search for friends. Solamente does his best to shape his situation and survive as long as he can. He chooses life over death, and he succeeds as “fish reborn.” Thus, the second “Alack” becomes a rejoiceful call signifying renewed faith in the value of life. This sentiment is further reflected by the punctuation in the fifth and final stanza: the comma subsequent “overcome” suggests impermanence, directly undermining the line previous, which declared, “Thy rock the mountain ne’re shall overcome” — consequently, you — Solamente — shall overcome that mountain; that comma is juxtaposed with the lack thereof in the fourth and final line of stanza five because rebirth transcends time and decay and death, once again pointing to Solamente as a Christ figure — the deliberate omission of a period after “reborn” implies a second chance at life, thus rendering the story of Solamente incomplete in its current form, as reflected by infinite resonance in lieu of hard finality to close the poem.
In terms of rebirth, the phrase “fish reborn” is a double entendre — “reborn” can refer to a resurrection of the body and/or the soul. In a literal sense, Solamente’s physical essence (i.e. feces) will fertilize new life, and, thus, he will be reborn vicariously through fresh flora and the fauna who consume it. In a figurative sense, his memory will live on and provide a lesson for others — one that, like the Greek myth of Sisyphus, demonstrates the mundanity of quotidian life while stressing a fundamental truth that too many forget: notwithstanding the vicissitudes of life, we will live on. We are not alone, nor will we ever be; we share this mutual burden of absurd existence — we all face the same mountain and the same challenges, though manifested in unique ways. Thus, we should cherish the things we do have — as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius cautioned, “think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them” — and live today as if tomorrow zemblanity, with both rapidity and spontaneity, shall close the curtains on the show of your life — for one day and for every human of every creed and of every color and for every Caesar and for every Solamente, it eventually will. Leave neither words unsaid nor kindness unthanked, neither responsibility unassumed nor misdeeds unforgiven.
Now, we can step back and re-examine the poem as a whole. On one level, it is simply the wistful mourning of a simple fish, but on another, it is a timeless allegory of the struggle of humanity — of life condemned to futility, but, ultimately, able to break free of its betrothal to cruel destiny to exert its independent, indefatigable will. Thus, as 1 Corinthians 15 promised, “Death is swallowed up in victory,” as the most unlikely of candidates proves that death is not final and salvation is possible.
The irony-laden verse of “Elegy to Solamente” does not intend to solely make light of death; ironically, the irony enables serious reflection and an evolving metamorphosis in the speaker’s perspective on life and death.
We fade in and out of existence like wind on the shore of a great sea — sometimes it blows south, other times north-northwest, other times it lies still, forever fleeting and fleeing from the memory of the past as if desperate for freedom from the shackles of history. While life may be as fickle and as short-lived as sea wind, we do not so easily forget those whom we have lost in Death’s grave harvest — for they shall be in our hearts, reborn forevermore.
locked in dirty tank
swimming circles day and night
(On Life, Verse VII)