Senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, Dr Steve Ely, has taken his lifelong fascination with the eel as the inspiration for a new epic-length poem, to be published by Longbarrow Press on 8 April.

Eely is structured like a symphony in four movements, and ranges over a string of scenarios related to the life of the fascinating and enigmatic creature that has gripped Steve, reader in creative writing and director of the Ted Hughes Network, since his childhood in Yorkshire.

Some of Steve’s teenage angling experiences on the River Wharfe, when he first encountered the eel, manifest themselves in Eely, which also explores wider aspects of his biography, cuts trajectories into various aspects of nature and culture, including the now neglected story of the once extensive Yorkshire fenlands.

“I was a pretty useless angler as a kid, but I used to go fishing quite a lot, accompanying my mates who were much more skilled anglers than me. One of our favoured fishing locations was on the River Wharfe at Ulleskelf, near Tadcaster, where the only fish I could ever manage to catch were eels,” he says. “I caught my first in the summer of 1977, and it bit me—establishing an intimate and personal connection that forty years later became key to the book.

The first of Eely’s four movements, ‘Eel’, previously published as The European Eel in 2021 , was focused on the natural history and ecology of the eel. The second movement, ‘/ˈiːlaɪ/’, explores this context of conflict.

“The late seventies and early eighties were a tense and sometimes violent time, and this manifested on the riverbank. Conflict—with water bailiffs, challenging us over licenses and day-tickets; with landowners and farmers, who seemed to resent our presence on their land in principle; with the local villagers and shopkeepers, who didn’t seem keen on working class kids from pit communities sullying their prosperous, middle-class communities, and with rival groups of teenage anglers from places like Pontefract or Castleford—seemed almost routine”, said Steve.

“We weren’t angels, and we did get up to mischief, roaming across the landscape bird-nesting and messing about as well as fishing, but it dawned on me that eels and conflict were inextricably intertwined for me,” he continued.

As the work developed in his imagination, Steve drew a parallel between the human propensity for conflict and violence with the nature of the eel.

“The eel is essentially a predatory machine. All it does in the time it spends in freshwater is kill and eat, executing its DNA’s programme to grow and reach sexual maturity. I came to see the species as embodying a kind of pure, natural, predatory energy, which I began to compare unfavourably with the human capacity for violence, institutional and personal — including my own,” he said.

This parallel is explored in ‘eely’, the poem’s tongue-in-cheek third movement, in which the author, having been bitten by an eel, becomes a were-eel, and roams the transformed fenland landscape in that predatory persona.

The fourth and final movement, ‘Eelysium’, unifies the themes and content of the preceding three sections in a sequence that focuses on the fenlands of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, which were drained in the seventeenth century.

“‘Elysium’ tells the story of the fen, beginning with end of the Ice Age, and ending in an undefined near future when sea level rise has re-flooded the fen and rinsed it of people,” Steve continues. “Nature is somehow restored to a Mesolithic flora and fauna – there are herds of bison, shoals of sturgeon, colonies of pelicans, and minke whales in the Humber. It is a vision of re-wilding, or re-feralisation.

“Eely took four years to write and research. The adoption of symphonic form to helped improvise and write freely, without losing the plot. I’m pleased with it, I think it is one of the best and most decisive things I’ve written.”