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Analysis of Poem "The Fish" by Elizabeth Bishop

Updated on February 15, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop | Source

Elizabeth Bishop and The Fish


The Fish is a free verse poem all about the catching and landing of a big fish, which Elizabeth Bishop probably did catch in real life during one of her many fishing trips in Florida.

This one stanza poem stretches down the page and is full of vivid imagery and figurative language, the poet going deep into the act of the capture and coming up with a wonderfully evocative end.

But the poet had her doubts about this poem. In a letter to her friend Marianne Moore she wrote: I am sending you a real "trifle" ["The Fish"]. I'm afraid it is very bad and, if not like Robert Frost, perhaps like Ernest Hemingway! I left the last line on it so it wouldn't be, I don't know..

Critical appraisal of the poem over the years has generally been positive. Many have said that this is one of the best of Bishop's poems because it contains lines of brilliant observation and keen insight.

Her use of poetic device and the ease with which content creates form give the work a satisfying completeness when read aloud, yet also offer the reader a taste of mystery.

One critic from the recent past enjoyed the poem but spent far too much time querying the actual species of fish that had been caught. He eventually decided it must be a grouper, a large mouthed sea bass that lives on the sea floor.

Whatever the species, this poem brings to the surface many powerful images and will evoke lots of questions from the reader.

The Fish


I caught a tremendous fish

and held him beside the boat

half out of water, with my hook

fast in a corner of his mouth.

He didn’t fight.

He hadn’t fought at all.

He hung a grunting weight,

battered and venerable

and homely. Here and there

his brown skin hung in strips

like ancient wallpaper,

and its pattern of darker brown

was like wallpaper:

shapes like full-blown roses

stained and lost through age.

He was speckled with barnacles,

fine rosettes of lime,

and infested with tiny white sea-lice,

and underneath two or three

rags of green weed hung down.

While his gills were breathing in

the terrible oxygen —the frightening gills,

fresh and crisp with blood,

that can cut so badly—

I thought of the coarse white flesh

packed in like feathers,

the big bones and the little bones,

the dramatic reds and blacks

of his shiny entrails,

and the pink swim-bladder

like a big peony.

I looked into his eyes

which were far larger than mine

but shallower, and yellowed,

the irises backed and packed

with tarnished tinfoil

seen through the lenses

of old scratched isinglass.

They shifted a little, but not

to return my stare.

—It was more like the tipping

of an object toward the light.

I admired his sullen face,

the mechanism of his jaw,

and then I saw

that from his lower lip

—if you could call it a lip—

grim, wet, and weaponlike,

hung five old pieces of fish-line,

or four and a wire leader

with the swivel still attached,

with all their five big hooks

grown firmly in his mouth.

A green line, frayed at the end

where he broke it, two heavier lines,

and a fine black thread

still crimped from the strain and snap

when it broke and he got away.

Like medals with their ribbons

frayed and wavering,

a five-haired beard of wisdom

trailing from his aching jaw.

I stared and stared

and victory filled up

the little rented boat,

from the pool of bilge

where oil had spread a rainbow

around the rusted engine

to the bailer rusted orange,

the sun-cracked thwarts,

the oarlocks on their strings,

the gunnels—until everything

was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!

And I let the fish go.

Analysis

eventy six short lines in one lengthy slim stanza with occasional trimeter lines but no set rhythm or beat and little regular rhyme make this quite an exercise in reading down the page. The syntax is skilfully crafted, the imagery vivid.

Note the use of the occasional dash, - which causes the reader to pause - as if the speaker is interrupting their own thought process.

Internal slant rhyme and assonance help keep the lines interesting and musical; note caught/water/fought and brown/blown and backed/packed/scratched and grim/firmly/crimped and so on.

Similes occur and help intensify the imagery - so the skin of the fish hung in strips like ancient wallpaper together with the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers.

Diction/Language

The diction is varied and textured, from powerful adjectives used to describe the fish: battered, frightening, tarnished, sullen, aching to the relatively obscure entrails (guts, internal organs) and islinglass (a substance obtained from dried swim bladders).

On the boat a thwart is a crosspiece used for a rowing seat, an oarlock a metal holder for the oar, the gunnel (or gunwhale) is the top edge of the boat, whilst the bilge is dirty water pooling on the boat bottom.

These nautical names, along with the names used to define the actual physical fish, bring authenticity to the idea that this is very much the world of fishing.

Tone/Atmosphere

At first the speaker is jubilant, catching a tremendous fish, landing a whopper, but as the poem moves on this pride is tempered by closer and closer observation of the specimen. All kinds of associations come to light through multiple uses of simile. This fish has a complex anatomy, reflected by the speaker's use of the figurative language of awe.

Awe turns to admiration and the acknowledgement that this is no ordinary fish, it has the scars of battle to prove its worth. Surely such a prize fish deserves another chance? The poem ends in a revelatory fashion as the rainbow takes over, which tips the balance.

Further Analysis


This poem shifts in subtle fashion from the initial pride of the fisherwoman hooking a tremendous fish, on into intense observation and admiration of the catch before finally concluding with an epiphany of sorts as the fisherwoman lets the fish go.

Written in an intimate first person style the reader is taken directly into the action from the first line, with I caught. As the poem progresses the speaker's identification grows and develops, with the additional I thought, I looked, I admired, I saw, I stared, I let.

  • The hunter, the fisherwoman, gradually comes to change her way of thinking as she focuses in on the fish, the battle hardened fish, its venerable status confirmed as the speaker begins to anthropomorphize her catch.

Venerable means to show respect to an older person or thing, so early on in the poem there is acknowledgement that this particular fish is deserving of more attention. The fact that it didn't fight perhaps put the fisherwoman off at first - every angler loves a fish that battles to survive - and it's only when it's hanging on the hook, grunting, does she become aware of its age and history.

As the close observation continues, the wonder increases. Here is a creature from the deep with skin like wallpaper; faded full blown roses adorn it, rosettes too, and even the swim bladder, that most incredible internal organ, resembles a peony, a flower.

The speaker is choosing these familiar, domestic images in an attempt to understand better the creature she's just caught. It's appearance reminds her of home and despite the presence of sea-lice and weed, and the sharp gills that can cut, the pleasing aesthetics come to the fore.

  • The reader is taken on a guided tour through the fish's anatomy as the eyes of the speaker scan and meet the words of the poet, bringing the whole experience to life. Intimacy increases as the speaker looks into the eyes of the fish - the windows of the soul traditionally - and a rare alliterative combination, tarnished tinfoil, helps paint a unique picture of the inside of a fish eye.

As the guided tour continues the speaker subtley distances herself from the fish momentarily by stating that it does not return her stare, it isn't looking back at its captor, it's merely like a thing reacting to the light.

At this point there could well have been a change of mind on behalf of the fisherwoman speaker. The fish is not conscious of her, so why not simply get the job done, remove the hook, kill it and save it for eating later on?

But no. One final observation proves to be the tipping point. This fish has got five big hooks in its mouth; they're souvenirs from previous battles with other fishermen and women. Who knows how long they've been there?

  • The speaker implies that the fish is a wise old warrior, that the hooks are like a veteran's medals. It has survived five attempts on its life and so is deserving of a reward - freedom. This raises a bigger moral issue - that of the dominance of the human over the animal kingdom. The speaker holds life and death in her hands - what shall she do with this power?

The crucial point to understand is that this fish has now become one with the latent ideals of the fisherwoman. It's a survivor, in a harsh, cruel world. Even the boat agrees; a rainbow spreads out from the oily bilge and seems to cover everything, reminding the reader of the biblical story of Noah, the Flood and the rainbow covenant, the agreement humans made with God.

In the end, mercy is shown to the fish, who appears wise, tough yet beautiful, who has gained the hard won respect of the speaker after surviving previous struggles against adversity, on the end of a line.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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