‘The Fish’ by Elizabeth Bishop is considered to be one of her best poems. In it, readers can find some clues about her personal life.
Although not a lot is known about Bishop’s life, she did spend time fishing as a young girl. It is likely that she experienced something similar to the events depicted in the poem.
The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that she went fishing and caught a “tremendous fish”. She emphasizes the fact that as she was reeling in the fish it did not fight at all. Bishop uses three adjectives to describe it. It is “battered,” “venerable,” and “homely”. She goes on, spending the next lines giving in-depth details about the state of the skin. She compares it to old wallpaper that is peeling off the walls of an ancient house. In the next seven lines, the sight of the blood inspires the speaker to consider the fish’s insides. From past experience catching, killing, and eating these animals she knows that the “white flesh“ is “packed in like feathers”.
Most importantly, she takes note of the fact that there are “five old pieces of fishing line” in the fish’s mouth. They are all “still attached” to their “five big hooks”. The speaker continues to stare at the fish, and she begins to feel a sense of victory. She also notices the oil in the boat, and the way it spread into a rainbow. The speaker was awed by these sights and suddenly everything appeared to be a rainbow. This new state of mind encouraged her to release the fish. You can read the full poem The Fish here.
‘The Fish’ is one of those poems that seems simple from the outside but actually contains great depths of meaning. In the text, Bishop engages with themes of nature, humility, and choices. It is her choice, after catching this extremely noteworthy fish to release it back into the water. She had a moment of connection with the creature that spread out into a broader connection with the natural world. She was suddenly more a part of things than she had been in the past, her state of mind was altered. Additionally, it is clear that she was moved by the history of this particular creature, the number of times it had been caught, and how each time it escaped death. This speaks to another less obvious theme–death.
Structure and Form
It is written in free verse, meaning that there is no specific pattern of rhyme or meter to the lines. In total, there are 76 lines contained within a single stanza. They are all similar length, fairly short, and sometimes stray into the realm trimeter. This means that a number of them, although nowhere close to all of them, contain three sets of two beats. Again, there is no single pattern of rhythm to the text.
When scanning the poem, the reader will immediately notice the dashes. Bishop chose to incorporate this form of punctuation into the poem in order to make the reader pause, and consider what her speaker just said. Often, the dashes are also used to represent the speaker’s own uncertainty. She pauses to think about her own words before continuing.
While there is not a rhyme scheme, there are also a few moments of complete or perfect rhyme. For example, a reader can look to lines one and six with the words “caught“ and “fought”. The word “thought” also connects to the word “fight” directly above it in line number five, as well as to “out” in line three. These relate to one another due to consonance, or the use of similar consonant sounds.
Repetition appears throughout the text and in different forms. There are examples of it lines seventy and seventy-one with the use and reuse of the word “rusted”. Another moment is in line sixty-five with the repetition of the word “stared”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. This is one of the most common techniques used by poets and appears a number of times in ‘The Fish.’ For example, in line thirty-eight she uses the phrase “tarnished tinfoil.”
Another poetic technique Bishop makes use of is simile. There are a few examples such as in line twenty-eight when the speaker describes the flesh of the fish as “packed like feathers”.
Analysis of The Fish
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
In the first lines of ‘The Fish,’ the speaker begins by stating that she went fishing, and caught a “tremendous fish”. As soon as the fish was out of the water, she began an intense period of observation. Perhaps due in part to surprise, the speaker does not immediately haul the fish into the boat. It is halfway out of the water, and she takes note of the fact that her hook is caught in the corner of its mouth, where one would expect it to be.
In lines five and six this speaker emphasizes the fact that as she was reeling in the fish it did not fight at all. This seems surprising considering the fact that the fish is so large. There is a distinct possibility that if it had fought, then it could’ve broken in the line and gotten away. A reader should take note of the use of anaphora in lines five, six, and seven. Although the fish did not fight when she reeled it in, it had a deadweight which proved to be a different kind of resistance.
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
In lines eight and nine Bishop uses three adjectives to describe the fish. It is “battered,” “venerable,“ and “homely”. At first, these three words seem to cancel one another out. But that is not the case at all. Through the use of the word battered, Bishop’s speaker is acknowledging the fact that this is not the first time the fish has been caught. It also possibly references injuries the fish sustained in the water itself. When she uses the word venerable she is showing her respect for the animal. She has taken note of its past injuries, and the scars which have resulted. She knows that the fish has strength, endurance, and perseverance that should be recognized. Lastly, she calls the fish homely. This is a word meaning ugly or unattractive.
She goes on, spending the next lines giving in-depth details about the fish’s skin. Bishop uses a simile to describe its state. She compares it to old wallpaper that is peeling off the walls of an ancient house. As the strips come off, the skin underneath is revealed, and a new pattern is created as the two different textures and colors contrast to one another.
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly —
In the next two lines of ‘The Fish,’ the speaker uses additional similes to compare the shapes that the peeling skin makes to “full blown roses”. This is another reference to a wallpaper pattern. But, she makes sure to emphasize the fact that the paper pattern has been lost to the ages. However it used to look, those images are long since gone.
There are other textures on the skin as well. These return the speaker to the wallpaper simile over and over again. They were “barnacles,” and “fine rosettes of lime”. But, the speaker makes sure she doesn’t get too far from the “homely” qualities of the creature. These barnacles and rosettes are infested with sea lice.
She also takes note of the impact the oxygen is having on the fish. It is struggling through its violent introduction to this very different world. The oxygen is described as “terrible” and the gills as “frightening”. They move as though terrified themselves. There is also the blood; as a result of the hook in the fish’s mouth.
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
In the next seven lines, the sight of the blood inspires the speaker to consider the inside of the fish. From past experience catching, killing, and eating these animals she knows that the “white flesh“ is “packed in like feathers”. With this simile in mind, she continues on to describe the different size bones and the dramatic, contrasting, and evocative colors and shapes one would see inside the fishes body. There is another simile that relates back to the roses of the wallpaper. This time, the “swim bladder” is like a “big peony” flower.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
— It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
The speaker also makes sure to draw a comparison between the fish and herself. She notices that his eyes are much larger than hers, but they are also “shallower” and yellower.
Just like the fish’s entrails, there is a shine to its eyes. They appear like “tarnished tinfoil”. She goes on to connect the fish to the human body again, and the act of wearing glasses. The fish’s eyes move in their sockets, but, not with the intent of looking at her. She is just another object in this terrible, yet familiar world. As the eyes move, she compares them to objects “tipping toward the light”.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
The fish is further personified, or compared to humans when she describes its face as “sullen”. She also begins to speak about its lower lip and then pauses. The dashes indicate this moment. She is considering the fact that it may not actually be a lip. It is more like a weapon, and much grimmer than a human lip.
Most importantly, she takes note of the fact that there are “five old pieces of fishing line” in the fish’s mouth. They are all “still attached” to their “five big hooks”. Their age is determined by the fact that they have “grown firmly in his mouth”.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
The speaker takes the next line to go into great detail about what the hooks and fishing line look like. The in-depth study of these details makes the poem slow down. It feels as if time itself is moving at a decreased pace. She stares at the fish, entranced by its age and history. The speaker sees the hooks and their attached strings, not as burdens, but as metals. They speak to its venerability and strength.
It is clear that the speaker is capable of sympathizing with the fish. She interprets the hairs on its chin as representatives of wisdom and determines that its jaw must be aching.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
The speaker continues to stare at the fish, and she begins to feel a sense of victory. As if she surmounted some great obstacle, with the catch and capture of this creature. Again, there is a great amount of detail used to slow the lines down. She takes notice of the oil in the boat and the way it had spread into a rainbow. The speaker also noticed how the “thwarts” had been cracked by the sun and a number of other small details.
These elements, combined together, convey to the reader that she is in awe of the animal and is having a transcendent moment in its presence. Finally, the beauty of the scene overcomes her and everything transforms into the rainbow of oil. In the last, simple, and concluding line Bishop’s speaker admits that she let the fish go. Now, her victory seems different.
The fact that she caught the fish does not speak to her strength or skill. In fact, five people before her had accomplished the same thing. The last line indicates that all of them had a similar transcendent moment. They were all influenced to release the fish back into the water.
It also speaks to the possibility that the fish had some understanding of the impact it had on those who caught it. Because it does not fight, perhaps it knew that it was not in any real danger. It just had to endure the temporary pain and terror and then it would be let go.