Marianne Moore

The Fish by Marianne Moore

‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore uses imagery and form to objectively describe nature and humanity’s ability to survive and mature in the face of death, destruction, and loss.

The feelings we associate with grief and death can be challenging to articulate in words alone, but in the case of ‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore, poetry can capture meaning, images, colors, and emotions beyond plain language. 

‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore is a masterpiece of imagery, form, and meaning. This poem, published in 1918, hangs on to the conventions of the imagist movement but foreshadows some of the innovations to come during the modernist era of poetry. Additionally, it uses breath and imagery to offer hope and strength to people who have experienced grief, loss, and pain.

The Fish
Marianne Moore

wadethrough black jade. Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps adjusting the ash-heaps; opening and shutting itself like

aninjured fan. The barnacles which encrust the side of the wave, cannot hide there for the submerged shafts of the

sun,split like spun glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness into the crevices— in and out, illuminating

theturquoise sea of bodies. The water drives a wedge of iron through the iron edge of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

pinkrice-grains, ink- bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green lilies, and submarine toadstools, slide each on the other.

Allexternal marks of abuse are present on this defiant edifice— all the physical features of

ac-cident—lack of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and hatchet strokes, these things stand out on it; the chasm-side is

dead.Repeated evidence has proved that it can live on what can not revive its youth. The sea grows old in it.


‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore is a free verse poem that uses imagery to compare the sea and a cliff to the universe, depicting how life and death can exist simultaneously. 

‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore opens with a description of fish darting through black jade waters and a mussel puffing up clouds of ash-like silt on the ocean floor. Barnacles cling to the side of the ocean’s waves as rays of light illuminate the blue-black waters, making them turn a bright turquoise color. 

This sea, full of life, takes on a life of its own as it cuts a cave into a tall, dark cliff. Inside this cave and on the cliff’s surface, starfish, jellyfish, crabs, and toadstools add a splash of color. Although the green crabs and pink starfish are lively-colored, the black jellyfish and red toadstool signify death. 

These organisms all slide into each other, indicating they are all a small part of the same ocean. 

However, this teeming cliff is broken and damaged, as people have left behind dynamite and axe marks on its surface and removed the stones from its top. This abused cliff is dead. 

However, the speaker states that this cliff can live on the things that harmed it. While the cliff can never be complete or alive again, it still exists. The ocean, surrounded by this dead cliff, grows old as it experiences destruction and death. Despite this looming darkness, the ocean creatures that make up the body of water are still alive.

Form and Structure

This poem is written in rhymed syllabic verse. While it uses rhyme, it does not use an accentual meter to determine the poem’s beat. Instead, each line contains a specific number of syllables.

The rhyme scheme of this poem is aabbc. This rhyme scheme sets up the expectation that there will be three couplets, but at the end of each stanza, the last line stands all alone without a partner. This helps to generate a slightly unsettled tone, but it also creates the image of water crashing up on the shore. 

While the poem does not follow a strict meter, each line has a pattern of syllables. Line one of each stanza has one syllable, the second line has three, the third has nine, the fourth has six, and the last line has eight. 

This syllabic pattern is largely symmetrical. The second line in each stanza, having three syllables, doubles in the following line to create six. Then, the poet adds another three syllables to make nine. While the last line of each stanza has eight syllables, the first line of the next stanza connects to it with enjambment, pushing the listener on to the next stanza to find the missing syllable. 

These doubling syllables and the incomplete-feeling last lines of each stanza attempt to illustrate the movement of water in the ocean, which gains momentum as a wave crests, then crashes against the shore, slowly ebbing back as the next wave comes in. 


This poem, published in 1918, is a product of the imagist movement. This early modern school of poets attempted to create image-rich, compressed, and meaningful poems in a very confined space. In avoiding complex language and strict meters and forms, the poet’s job was to paint a picture with words and leave the interpretation up to the listener. 

As such, there are many images that need a bit of unpacking in ‘The Fish.’ This poem, while it is titled ‘The Fish,’ isn’t really about a fish at all. Instead, it mimics and attempts to embody the spirit of the ocean. However, in keeping with Moore’s ideas about the natural world, this poem turns the ocean into one organism — a fish. 

For example, the barnacle’s on the side of the sea “move themselves” “in and out” of the crevices, just like breath moves in and out of a body. 

In addition, the images in this poem are very polarizing. Everything is so black and dark that it is reflective and shiny. The poem depicts everything in the sea as “stars” in the night sky, with the “black jade,” “ash heaps,” and the “iron-edge” of the cliff shifting from vibrant color and luster when the sun shines to a very deep, dark “crow-blue” when the light does not hit it. 

These transient colors create contrast in the poem, but while light and dark seem to stand for death and life, they coexist together in this poem, existing in everything simultaneously.  Like the waves that ebb and flow, and like the lengthening and decreasing lines in each stanza, life increases then decreases. Such is the circle of life. 


The main themes in ‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore are life and death. The poem plays with the idea that death and life coexist together in everything. Because these two uncontrollable forces rule the sea, everything within the sea is equally a part of both life and death. 

Thus, the sea has become its own organism in the poem, with each crab, fish, toadstool, barnacle, jellyfish, and wave functioning like a cell or an organ within a much larger body. While some of these cells, or animals, may die, their absence makes room for other things to thrive. 

However, within this poem, there are hints of humanity. The “dynamite grooves, burns, and / hatchet strokes” on the cliff are a mark of quarrying, where people have chipped away at the natural stone. These “external / marks of abuse” are like scars on the cliff. Yet, this stone is “defiant” and  “can live / on what can not revive / its youth.”

This cliff is one example of how the ocean is similar to how we, as humans, react to and interact with the universe. The ocean, like humanity, breathes, supports life, and accepts abuse as a challenge. This abuse is what the ocean thrives on, and as it ages, it learns and changes. 

Like the cliff, we cannot erase the effects of things such as a World War or a wound. We can, however, heal and allow the scars to guide us in the future. Marianne Moore’s ocean, likewise, lives on despite its scars and the constant presence of darkness and death. 

Historical Context

This imagist poem features some images that directly recall World War I. Marianne Moore published ‘The Fish’ in 1918, the final year of WWI. As such, the devastation of war — and the hope and celebration following its end — seep into this poem. 

One can definitely extract universal, timeless meaning from this poem since it is mostly about life and death. However, images like “ash-heaps,” “submarines,” and “dynamite” are very reminiscent of war. 

These allusions imply that ‘The Fish’ is about how humanity and nature can recover from war, even if the damage is devastating. While the poem suggests that erasing the effects of death and destruction is impossible, it still proposes that new life can grow on top of death. In other words, humanity still has hope of reconstructing the world, even if they had lost many people and things in the war. 

This perspective makes a lot of sense, considering the way the speaker treats death and destruction. Instead of depicting death as fuel for new life, the speaker suggests that death is a foundation for life. As such, one can never erase the effects of loss, but one can hold tight to it and continue to survive. 

After all, if you had lost someone in WWI, would you really want to believe that the loss was all for nothing? In addition, wouldn’t you want some hope that you could find a way to move on without forgetting the people you lost? 

This poem, then, is reverent to both life and death. It offers no hope of erasing the past. Instead, it is not sentimental, and it explains how people and nature become more experienced with handling loss over time. With this experience, the world evolves, learning from its mistakes, growing scars that never fully fade, and continuing to survive. 

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore opens with a verb, borrowing the title as the unspoken first line. Thus, the fish “wade” here, immediately indicating that the unspecified speaker is looking into water. 

However, the speaker describes this water as “black jade,” which is a type of stone that forms in the ocean. Since fish cannot swim through rock, the black jade is a metaphor for the water, indicating that the water is black, but like jade, it is shiny. 

The next line uses anastrophe, or the inversion of the expected word order, to describe how one “of the crow-blue mussels” adjusts “ash-heaps.” Like the black jade water, the mussels are blue-black, indicating that they are the color of a crow. This scene, then, is pretty bleak. It’s dark in the ocean, which makes it feel ominous and a tad spooky.

The ash-heaps that this mussel is moving are likely piles of ocean silt or sand. However, “ash-heaps” brings up other associations, such as cremation or burnt garbage. Yet, despite the dark connotations of this silty ash, the mussel still sifts through it, “opening and shutting itself.” 

This open-close movement is like breath in this poem. It also gives us a clue as to why the stanzas look so strange. Each stanza opens with a short one-syllable line, crescendos with a nine-syllable line, then finishes with an eight-syllable line. This structure creates a fluid, cyclical wave of words flowing like the ocean or a breath. 

As such, we can expect the poem to constantly expand and contract in its lines and stanza structure, but also in its meaning. Think of it this way: this poem starts with a honed-in focus on the fish. Still, it will soon zoom out like a camera, then zoom back in on another image. Only through this big-picture view can we understand everything that’s going on.

Stanza Two

injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the

In keeping with this poem’s focus on fluidity, line one of stanza two is an example of enjambment as the speaker continues to discuss the mussel of stanza one. 

This mussel opens and closes irregularly, as the simile “like / an / injured fan” indicates. 

However, note the dark connotations of the word “injured.” As it fans up the ash-like silt, this mussel is surrounded by death and hurt, but it still opens and closes — albeit strangely. It’s kind of a pitiful little mussel, really, as it limps on despite its bleak environment. But isn’t that how we react to stress, pain, loss, and death, too? 

The barnacles, on the other hand, “cannot hide,” which immediately implies that these crusty creatures are looking for a place to hide — another bleak situation. 

These barnacles are also “on the side / of the wave.” If you know anything about barnacles, they surely do not grow on water. They need something hard to cling to, like a rock, ship, or whale. However, in keeping with the idea that the water is made up of “black jade,” it makes more sense that they are sticking to it. 

Still, the idea that the barnacles are stuck to the side of the water makes them more like scales on the ocean’s skin. This idea further implies that the ocean is an organism, and this organism looks just like a fish. The mussel from stanza one, then, is like the gills of the fish, fluting, and contracting as the ocean breathes. 

Stanza Three

split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating

Another enjambment features in stanza three of ‘The Fish’ as the speaker describes how the sunlight deprives the barnacles of a hiding place. 

As always, the sun and its light symbolize life. This life and light “split / like spun glass” into the “crevices” of the ocean. This image is of a piece of glass that magnifies and refracts light into the sea. However, this glass constantly spins,  moving the rays of light everywhere — sort of like a disco ball but much more majestic. 

Just like the mussel in stanza one, the light moves “in and out,” once again touching on the idea of breath and the image of the rolling waves. Thus, this light is a life force that penetrates the ocean, but it only shines erratically. 

Note the pervasive use of alliteration and consonance in this stanza. The letter “s” appears ten times here. This forces the listener to make a hissing “s” sound, breathing out air. Simply put, the poet is, essentially, forcing you to breathe out and breathe in again very quickly to read this stanza — one might say “with spotlight swiftness.” 

This idea is revolutionary. By using this “s” repetition, Moore wants you, the listener, to participate actively in the ocean’s waves, the light shining deep into the water, and the pitiful little mussel who flaps his shell open every once in a while. She is implying that you are this ocean, too. 

Stanza Four

turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

In stanza four of ‘The Fish,’ things get a bit dark again, but they are accompanied by glittering colors this time. 

The sun’s bright rays “illuminate / the / turquoise sea,” warding off the “crow-blue” darkness from the first two stanzas. This light allows the ocean’s bright blue colors to shine through. The bright colors are the “sea / of bodies” within the much larger, all-encompassing body of the sea. 

Since Moore has already convinced us that the ocean is one living organism, these smaller bodies are like little cells, invisible to the naked eye but visible under a microscope. Moving forward with this idea, the sun is much like a microscope, shining a bright spotlight on each cell with a magnifying glass and mirror. 

However, in the middle of the poem, the focus of the microscope shifts. While we were looking into the ocean in the preceding stanzas, the speaker’s focus is now panning up like a camera onto a cave within a large cliff. 

The way that the water and cave meet is forceful. The body of the water becomes a stone-smith driving an iron wedge into the cliff. Interestingly, the stone that the cliff consists of is “iron.” This dark, bluish-black colored metal is best known for being hard and strong. So, by characterizing the ocean and cliff’s meeting as iron-on-iron, both the rock and the water are strong, heavy, and dark, and they clash, creating a clang or cracking sound as they clap together.

Despite the cliff’s dark, strong, and looming nature, it supports life, as we’ll see in the next stanza.


Stanza Five

rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

Stanza five of ‘The Fish’ is intensely colorful. The sea “stars” stuck to the cliff have small little dots on them like pink rice grains spattering their skin. The jellyfish are covered in splotches of black ink. Meanwhile, the crabs become green lily pads, and the mushrooms that grow there are like submarines beneath the sea. 

All of this life within the cave becomes its own little universe, with the starfish-like stars clinging to the dark cliff wall. This cliff, in turn, becomes a metaphor for the night sky. The focus pans down from this cliff, moving to the tidal pools where dead jellyfish, understood as dead because of the black ink on their bodies, lay in the sand. 

However, the speaker does not want to linger over the sadness of death here. Instead, the crabs signify life as they become vibrant green lilies. Moving back to the water, “toadstools” are under the surface, functioning like submarines.

These submarine toadstools have undertones of death, as fungi are the best decomposers of the natural world. However, by describing these toadstools as “submarines,” the speaker recalls the idea of warfare, particularly that of WWI. It becomes clear that the speaker is not just talking about how life and death coexist in the ocean or a cave. They are talking about how life and death coexist in and after war. 

All these things, however, slide into each other, uniting life and death in one heaping mass. Life and death unsentimentally join together in this cave, just as they do inside each of our bodies, on the planet, and within the universe. Yet, despite this clash between life and death, the earth spins around to see another day regardless of anything. 

Stanza Six

marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice—
all the physical features of

In stanza six of ‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore, the theme of warfare and destruction becomes much clearer. The dark iron-black cliff shows off “all / external / marks of abuse” on its “defiant” surface. These marks, like scars, are just on the surface, though. The cliff may look beat up and bruised, but it is still strong as iron. 

This cliff becomes a symbol of the indomitable will of humanity against death, war, destruction, loss, and nature. While the roaring em-oceans inside of us may crash against the shores of our bones, and while external forces may bruise and scar our skin, we can survive. 

Stanza Seven

of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

In stanza seven, enjambment connects the “physical features” of the oceanside cliff to “ac- / cident.” This word is so mistaken and fragmented that the speaker has to break it into two lines. This line break drives home the fact that the cliff is broken and damaged. 

Here, the things that “stand out on it” the most are the grooves left behind by loads of dynamite, chunks taken out by hatchets, and a lack of a copestone, the stone that generally goes on the top of a sloping stone wall. Undecorated and damaged, this cliff seems like a battered old soldier or a blown-up building. 

Stanza Eight

evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.

In stanza eight, the speaker again uses enjambment to tell the listener that “the chasm-side” of the cliff where the sea crashes against it is “dead.” 

This dead stone, while damaged, broken, and cut open, isn’t so bleak. If you recall stanzas four and five, the starfish, crabs, jellyfish, and toadstools all live and die in their own little world within the cliff. Thus, with the death of something large, a bunch of little things springs up to fill the void. 

The following lines contextualize the entire poem. The speaker states that “it,” standing in for “anything,” can still survive and live, even if everything is different. 

For example, following World War I, buildings were ruined, people were mourning, and the world’s landscape had changed. No one could “revive its youth” because no one could turn back time, nor was it appropriate to pretend the war never happened. Yet, despite the destruction and loss of the war, people survived. Things were just different. 

In the same way, the dead cliff is home to many new creatures that live and die inside of it. The ocean, too, has both life and death inside of it, with new life wandering and existing on the ruins of the dead. 

“The sea,” as it accumulates death and new forms of life as the years pass, just “grows old in” this cycle of death and life. This sea may never be able to erase the past, but it can always continue living.    


What is the meaning of the poem ‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore?

The meaning of the poem ‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore is that life and death can exist in the same spaces. Thus, when everything seems dark and hopeless, one just has to shine a light on the situation and take a closer look at all the good things and life around them. This poem also offers hope for life to thrive in dead places.

When did Marianne Moore write ‘The Fish’?

Marianne Moore wrote ‘The Fish” in 1918, the final year of WWI. It was first published in The Egoist, a literary magazine associated with Ezra Pound and the imagist movement. As such, this poem contains the rich symbolism and compression associated with imagism while also touching on the theme of war.

What do the sea and cliff stand for in ‘The Fish’ by Marianne Moore?

The sea and cliff stand for the interconnectedness of nature. The lively sea, while obscured in darkness, is host to tons of life, which goes hand-in-hand with death. The cliff also forms a sort of natural body or organism. While this rock seems dead on the outside, tons of life thrives within it.

Is ‘The Fish’ about climate change?

While it was likely not intended to be about climate change, Marianne Moore’s ‘The Fish’ definitely leaves room for an environmentalist reading. The cliff, scarred and killed by human hands, is a bit like a rotting body with a bunch of different organisms living inside. Nature continues to survive, but it will never be the same after human destruction.

Similar Poetry

The ocean has long been one of the best metaphors in a poet’s repertoire, as it is so vast that it can hold as much meaning as we could ever imagine it to.

Some other similar poems that artfully use the ocean and water as a metaphor and symbolic image include:

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Aimee LaFon Poetry Expert
Aimee LaFon has a BAS with honors in English and Classics, focusing her studies on the translation of Latin poetry, manuscript traditions, and the analysis of medieval and neoclassical poetry. She is a full-time writer and poet passionate about making knowledge accessible to everyone.
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