What a strange thing the oyster is: its shell is craggy and even grotesque, but peel it open and you are rewarded with silken flesh – and, if you are lucky, the iridescent gleam of a pearl. Dull it may look, yet it has beaten the caprices of time through the evolution of its hard mantle. It has thrived for millions of years on sea beds without ever needing to jostle for survival with other animals outside of the water. During the 19th century, the oyster transforms from cheap food for the working class into a delicacy served in expensive restaurants.
This humble creature’s sly capacity for reinventing itself means it has found its way into some of the best poems ever written. Consider In Time by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin. The oyster makes a crucial appearance in a scene where two lovers are dancing calmly through an apocalypse. ‘…and we got out the oysters / and sat at the small table feeding them / … slowly we danced around and around / in circles and after a while we hummed / when the world was about to end / all those years all those nights ago.’ The creamy wetness of the oyster, and certainly its reputation as an aphrodisiac, add to the dark sensuousness of the poem. But it really is the way it is consumed, ‘first with the fork / then from our mouths to each other’, that heightens the quiet intimacy shared by the couple, despite the world crumbling about them.
Seamus Heaney’s Oysters also makes a star of its subject. A guilt-ridden reflection of the privileged and their cavalier excesses, the poem reminds us that ‘the Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome’ over the Alps, then feasting on ‘millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered’. Heaney anthropomorphises the oyster as ‘alive and violated’ before experiencing self-reproach at his own enjoyment of shellfish when he thinks about the hard work that has gone into harvesting them. However, the oyster is far too tantalising to resist, and he hopes that ‘its tang / Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb’.
Shedding their earthy image, oysters are cast in a more playful role in Lewis Carroll’s macabrely funny The Walrus and the Carpenter, from his book Through the Looking Glass. The characters trick a group of gullible young oysters into taking a walk with them, before devouring them all. One can only describe Carroll’s humour as delicious. Far craftier is the oyster that is the subject of The Mouse and the Oyster by the 18th-century poet Samuel Bowden: part parable, part verse, the poem warns against gluttony as it leads a hungry mouse to lose its life by getting trapped within an oyster shell.
At once mysterious, sexual, strange and wondrous, the oyster lends itself extraordinarily well to the emotional density of the poetic form, and leaves no doubt that it has wiggled its way directly into the heart of our cultural consciousness. There is no need to be alarmed by the old wives’ tale that one can only eat oysters during months of the year that contain the letter ‘R’. Thanks to stringent environmental regulations surrounding oyster farming, oysters are perfectly safe to eat year round, although many claim that they are tastier in the fall and winter, when the waters from which they are harvested are still cold. Enjoy the rest of Lewis Carroll’s work at Alice Through the Looking Glass, the shop in Cecil Court in London dedicated to all Alice in Wonderland-related iconography, and then walk to the Wright Brothers restaurant in Soho to slurp down some oysters.