July 24th, 2017

When trout swim down…

Sometimes random associations lead to a post.

Earlier today I wrote about a story that’s big in the news: the legal, medical, ethical, and human issues involved in the case of Charlie Gard. While writing it, I noticed that the hospital in London where the child has been treated is called Great Ormond Street Hospital.

For me—maybe not for you, but for me—the words that immediately leapt into my head were “When trout swim down Great Ormond Street.” No, I’m not going daft; that’s a line from a highly anthologized poem of the same name.

Some poems can work like musical earworms, particularly some lines of some poems. That’s one of them—so catchy! Once you hear it, it may remain in your mind forever. The poem itself wasn’t one of my favorites, or I’d have recalled the whole thing, but I remembered that the mental image and the message of the poem is something like “When pigs fly…”—in other words, when something impossible happens—and that it ends with a declaration that only when that impossible thing occurs will the poet stop loving his beloved

Here’s the poem, conjured up almost instantaneously by the wonders of Google. I appreciate it more now than when last I read it so many moons ago (probably in adolescence). Such lyrical, improbable images! Here’s the gist of it:

When trout swim down Great Ormond Street,
And sea-gulls cry above them lightly,
And hawthorns heave cold flagstones up
To blossom whitely…

….And in the sunlight,

By the green margin of that water,
Children dip white feet and shout,
Casting nets in the braided water
To catch the trout:

Then I shall hold my breath and die,
Swearing I never loved you; no,
‘You were not lovely!’ I shall cry,
‘I never loved you so.’

If I had to guess, I would have said that it was written by Dylan Thomas. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s by Conrad Aiken, about whom I remembered absolutely nothing. So of course I had to look him up, too.

I would have thought he was British because of that Great Ormond Street reference. But no; he was American, although he lived for a while in England. He was very prolific in both poetry and prose, and was moderately famous but not extraordinarily so. He had a troubled life in many ways, beginning with an almost unspeakable family tragedy that occurred when he was eleven.

But I’ll let him describe it. As he wrote in his mostly autobiographical work Ushant (the unspecified other person here was his mother, and the “his,” “he,” and “himself” is Aiken as a child):

After the desultory earlymorning quarrel came the halfstifled scream, and then the sound of his father’s voice counting three, and the two loud pistol shots and he tiptoed into the dark room, where the two bodies lay motionless, and apart, and, finding them dead, found himself possessed of them forever.

That’s a poet writing.

After that, he was farmed out to relatives, and spent the rest of his life picking up the pieces. I think that, despite multiple marriages and quite a bit of womanizing, under the circumstances he probably did a pretty good job.

17 Responses to “When trout swim down…”

  1. Stan McQueen Says:

    There’s an interesting section about him in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It discusses his poetry and his tomb in the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. Wikipedia summarizes it. I was especially touched by the inscription of “Cosmos Mariner-Destination Unknown” on his tombstone, which is in the shape of a bench.. He saw a ship by that name and looked it up in the port logs and found the notation “Destination Unknown”. He apparently likened that ship to himself.

  2. Mike K Says:

    Great Ormond Street hospital is a famous institution that has been harmed by its association with the bureaucracy of the NHS.

  3. huxley Says:

    I made the acquaintance of Conrad Aiken when Rod Serling presented Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” on “Night Gallery.” Narrated by Orson Welles, no less!


    I went back and read the Aiken short story and was thrilled by its delicious hypnotic reverie.


  4. huxley Says:

    When my best friend was in middle school, his uncle would pick him up at school and drive him home. One day his uncle made a stop to see his wife, my friend’s aunt, and shot her dead.

    My friend didn’t remember it for years until he ran across a newspaper clipping in a family scrapbook.

    When he asked his mother why no one ever mentioned it to him, she said, well, you seemed all right not remembering it.

  5. Dave Says:

    are you banning me neo?

  6. neo-neocon Says:


    No Dave, as you can see, you are not banned

    But my spam filter has a mind of its own. I can correct it sometimes, but sometimes not.

  7. neo-neocon Says:



    I guess Aiken didn’t have the luxury of not remembering it, since he apparently discovered the bodies. Plus, he had a poet’s sensibility, so he probably would have remembered it quite well even without those terrible visuals.

    Of course, when people “forget” important things, it can still affect them quite deeply and sometimes dangerously.

  8. March Hare Says:

    Isn’t Great Ormond Street Hospital the beneficiary of royalties from “Peter Pan”?

  9. Mike K Says:


    The Hospital is known internationally for receiving from J. M. Barrie the copyright to Peter Pan in 1929, which has provided significant funding for the institution.

    It has been interesting for me to read the novels and the biography of AJ Cronin for the history of what medical practice in England was like before the NHS. That history has been pretty much lost.

  10. Ymar Sakar Says:

    Dave Says:
    July 24th, 2017 at 7:15 pm
    are you banning me neo?

    This is why I don’t post links in my comments very often, because years ago I noticed that if I reached a certain threshold, it would perma spam filter my comments, won’t even go into moderation.

  11. Caedmon Says:

    I know Great Ormond Street well, but this poem is new to me and I love it.

    It also provoked a hunch which led me to a google hunt, and it seems trout might well have once swum down Great Ormond Street, because the street is close to if not directly above a tributary of the River Fleet.

  12. Mac Says:

    I saw Aiken’s “Morning Song From ‘Senlin'” in more than one anthology when I was in school, and it made me think his work would be worth investigating further, but I never have.


    Pop music artist Shelby Lynne suffered a similar family catastrophe. It astonishes me that people can recover from such things.

  13. Dave Says:

    Neo why not write an article about Ryan lochte and his exoneration. The unfair treatment he has received from the MSM is an perfect example of someone being bully solely for no more reasons than being a white handsome male athlete bearing the stigma of a stereotype of arrogant and loud American.

  14. Dave Says:

    I remember you have commented on that before. I have been reading this blog for years (since the Zimmerman trial) even though I only started commenting a few months back.

  15. vanderleun Says:

    Ah yes… now that’s a fine poem and one most poets would have been proud to have written. At the same time, as I mentioned to a friend discussing is post, Aiken was a famous poet at the time he was writing but was always, alas, one of the second intensity.

    (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I wish my work could even aspire to be of the second intensity.)

    As a result his work has not so far, and is not in the future, likely to be remembered much outside of academia.


    “Time that is intolerant
    Of the brave and innocent,
    And indifferent in a week
    To a beautiful physique,
    Worships language and forgives
    Everyone by whom it lives,
    Pardons cowardice, conceit,
    Lays its honors at their feet.
    Time that with this strange excuse
    Pardoned Kipling and his views,
    And will pardon Paul Claudel,
    Pardons him for writing well.”

  16. Lazarushian-leather Tap Shoes in the Labyrinth - American Digest Says:

    […] “After the desultory earlymorning quarrel came the halfstifled scream, and then the sound of his father’s voice counting three, and the two loud pistol shots and he tiptoed into the dark room, where the two bodies lay motionless, and apart, and, finding them dead, found himself possessed of them forever.”neo-neocon When trout swim down… […]

  17. Edward W Wagner Says:

    Yes, as a teenager I was also mesmerized by the short story, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” He also wrote a short interesting recollection of T.S. Eliot.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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