‘At the Fishhouses’ is a perfect example of the poet’s dedication to details and the way she’s able to use them to bring a reader into a world of her own creation. She uses her own senses to stimulate the reader’s, asking them to imagine sights, smells, and sensations. Within this particular piece, the tone is contemplative, considerate, and towards the end, philosophical. Her concentrated speaker helps to foster a solemn, but also at times celebratory, mood. This poem delves into themes of human nature, interconnectivity, and knowledge.
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Summary of At the Fishhouses
The poem takes the reader through a series of scenes around the fishhouses. The speaker, at times, focuses on a fisherman her grandfather was friends with, the woods around the shore, the shore itself, and the stones the water moves around. A great deal of the poem is dedicated to the movement of the water, the repetition of silver and shining surfaces, and how all these features come together and interact.
The poet also speaks on the influence that these places, specifically the water, has on her skin. In the last lines, she compares the aching of cold water to the burning of fire. Then, she speaks on how “our knowledge” flowed, and is flowing, as the water does.
You can read the full poem At the Fishhouses here.
Structure of At the Fishhouses
‘At the Fishhouses’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a three-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains forty lines, the second: six, and the third: thirty-seven. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme but there are moments of half-rhyme within the poem.
Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “steeply” and “peaked” in line nine of the first stanza and “horizontally” and “feet” in lines four and six of the second stanza.
Poetic Techniques in At the Fishhouses
These include alliteration, enjambment, and repetition. The latter, repetition, or the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. In the case of ‘At the Fishhouses’ Bishop utilizes this technique quite often. She repeats individual words, specifically adjectives related to shimmering, silver, and iridescence. There is also a moment where the poet reuses “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear” twice. There are cyclical moments of this poem in which the connection between humans and non-human natures emphasized.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples throughout ‘At the Fishhouses,’ such as the transitions between lines two and three and sixteen and seventeen of the first stanza.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “scraped the scales” in line thirty-eight and
Analysis of At the Fishhouses
Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
In the first stanza of ‘At the Fishhouses’ the poet begins by placing the reader into a “cold evening”. They are, as one would expect, going to speak about what’s happening “by one of the fish houses”. There, a reader can find an “old man” who “sits netting”. The whole scene is dark and the net is no different. It blends into the scene, almost invisibly but the man is still able to work on it. He knows his task well.
The poet attempts to stimulate the reader’s senses by moving on to speak about what the scene smells like. It is filled with the “strong” smell of “codfish”. It’s so strong, that it would make one’s eyes fill with water. It is descriptions like these that Bishop is so well-known for and which make her poetry a pleasure to read. She is masterful at painting a scene and placing the reader solidly into it.
The next lines explain that there is more than one fish house. In fact, there are five and each has peaked roofs and “narrow, cleated gangplanks,” or slanted boards usually used to embark and disembark ships. They are slanted up “to storerooms in the gables,” or the parts of the wall that enclose the end of a pitched roof.
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
Continuing on, the speaker explains the scene in detail. The slanted boards are there so that people working and roll their wheelbarrows up and down from the houses.
Pulling back from the detailed description slightly, the poet gives the reader a broader view of the scene and how it feels. Everything, she says, is “silver”. This is an all-encompassing statement that casts a very different mood over the scene. Previously, everything had appeared dark and gloomy. But now, the beauty of the scene is espoused. She speaks on the surfaces of the sea, using alliteration and sibilance with the repetition of the “s” consonant sound at the beginning of the words “silver,” “surface,” “sea,” “swelling,” “slowly,” and “spilling”. This is an impactful way to rhythmically mimic the sounds of the sea. The “s” words continue throughout the next lines as well.
Everything is slow. The sea rises and slowly spills over. It appears silver and opaque. This is contrasted with the “silver of the benches” as well as other items scattered around, which are “translucent”. There is a magical quality to this scene that is juxtaposed successfully with the mundanity of what’s actually be described. There is also a danger, seen through the “wild jagged rocks”. Nature is imposing itself into this place, seen again through the “emerald moss” that’s growing on the walls that face the ocean.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
It is clear by the next section of ‘At the Fishhouses’ that the poet is enamored with this place. She can find beauty in everything. She speaks on the “beautiful herring scales” and the “iridescent coasts of mail” and the “iridescent flies” that crawl around the scene. The repetition of the word “iridescent” mimics the use and reuse of the word “silver” in the previous lines.
The poet takes the reader up “the little slope behind the houses” and depicts the grass that grows there. It is “bright” despite its location. She also describes the “capstan” or a broad revolving cylinder used for winding a rope or cable. It’s old and shows its history through cracks and what appears to her to be bloodstains. The fishhouses, and the area, materials, and tools around them, are all very physical. This place is triggering the speaker’s sense and the reader’s. This is especially true as Bishop is able to get into the smallest details, telling a story about the people who work and live there.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.
In the last lines of the first stanza of ‘At the Fishhouses’ the poet moves back down to the man who was working on the net in the first lines. He takes a cigarette from her and she describes his history and appearance in greater detail. He knew her grandfather and they speak about the population of fish in that area while he waits.
The shine that was present in the silver and iridescence comes back into the poem as she speaks on the “sequins on his vest and on his thumb”. These come from the fish scales he was scrapping off the herring. Here again the reader feels something of the history of the place, and the man’s long life. He has used this same knife for decades, and there is something beautiful about that. It has worked on “unnumbered fish” and is a symbol of time, human effort, and life.
Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.
The second stanza of ‘At the Fishhouses’ is only six lines long and serves as an interval between the longer first and third stanzas. Here, the poet depicts the trees that are “laid horizontally” along the water’s edge. They are stationed that way so that boats might be hauled out of the water more easily. The detail in these lines is impressive. She spends time noting how many trees there are and how well-arranged they appear. There is care in everything that’s done “at the fishhouses”.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
In the first ten lines of the third stanza of ‘At the Fishhouses,’ the poet uses alliteration to describe the water. This time, rather than opaque, the water is “absolutely clear” as well as “dark and deep”. These descriptions conflict, but together they present an overall image of the shifting quality of the water. She speaks about a “seal” in these lines that she’s seen “evening after evening”. Here again, is another example of how Bishop uses repetition for emphasis. It is one of the most common poetic techniques she makes use of throughout the poem.
The seal is personified and given a personality by the speaker. She sees “him” as curious, interested in music and just as the poet is, a “believer in total immersion”. These lines speak to unity with the natural world and the ability to live within it, understand it, and appreciate it. The reference to “total immersion” can also be connected to the nature of this poem and the in-depth dives into detail Bishop takes the reader on.
Because the seal loved music, or so the speaker thought, she would sing hymns and he’d act as though he was bobbing along.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
The description of the seal continues into the next lines of ‘At the Fishhouses’. The speaker says that he’d come and go “almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug”. He’d seemed to be going against his better judgement reemerging to commune with the speaker. The line “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,” appears again as a refrain. It is used in the same way to describe the water, it’s always present in the scene.
Moving away from the water, the speaker describes the trees behind her and personifies them as well. They are “Christmas trees,” waiting for Christmas. This feeling of liminality, as if everything is in transit, waiting for something to happen, is continued. She speaks of the still “suspended” feeling of the water around the stones. Again and again, she returns to the water, and each time it is always there, cold and dark, waiting.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
The words “stones” is used three times in quick succession in these lines. She’s interested in the movement and life of the water and how it relates to the earth and therefore to herself.
The water and its influence on the human body is described in the next lines. She thinks about what happens if you dip your hand into the sea, how cold and painful it would be. The ache would set in immediately and then start to feel more like burning. This process is described as the transmutation of water into fire. It “feeds on stones” and burns with the same gray, coldness as the water itself. It is all elements in once, swirling around the stones of the earth.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
There is a final simile in the thirty-second line of this stanza of ‘At the Fishhouses’. Here, the poet compares the water, which is really like fire, to “knowledge”. Or, at least how we “imagine knowledge to be”. A list of words follows. These words, including “moving” and “utterly free” depict the knowledge as one might imagine it to be. It is “drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world” just as the water is.
The poem concludes by further relating human knowledge to an inherent connection to the earth. Humanity is what it is, and knows what it knows, because of the “historical, flowing, and flown” nature of that connection.