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The Fish Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Fish” marked a turning point in Moore’s development. Even though she would later write poems that were as good, critics note that she never excelled in achieving a more perfect integration of images and ideas. She creates precise images of natural things in terms that also denote human characteristics. These build upon one another to express an eternal truth—that all life forces contain death.

Moore always observed natural phenomena, both at first hand and in pictures and photographs. Her early education in art and the natural sciences provided her with a trained eye for details. In “The Fish,” this observation results in images—colors, shapes, and textures—so precise that critic William Pratt included the poem in his book The Imagist Poems (1963), the definitive text on the Imagist movement. Like the Imagists, Moore bases the poem on common objects of nature. One fish “wades through black jade” as it moves near the treacherous cliff. The “sun,/ split like spun/ glass,” invades every crevice, leaving nothing hidden. It reveals colors—the “turquoise sea/ of bodies” of fish, the “rice-grains” of jellyfish, and crabs like green lilies. Moore also introduces alien images such as “ash-heaps.” These, like the verbs “wade” and “split,” describe the surroundings, yet they also suggest natural and human forces of destruction.

She organizes these details so that they build to an ending that comments on the ethical significance of her images. In the first section, she describes the aquatic world surrounding the cliff: fish, shells, barnacles, starfish, jellyfish, crabs, and toadstools. Following these images, she moves to a general statement about the nature of this world. “All/ external/ marks of abuse” show on the defiant cliff, all the physical signs of nature trying to destroy it; they show the foreboding presence of death within life. The sea, a source of life, also contains powers which threaten. Its creatures exist within it, unconscious of the magnitude of these forces; the cliff remains, a fortress against them. In the last stanza, Moore states the ethical significance of this scene. The cliff, a symbol of defiance and strength, can live on, existing and recording the history of abuses, even feeding upon this harshness.

This paradox, that life and death grow stronger at the same time, is one of Moore’s favorite themes; “The Fish” contains some of her most important ideas. The cliff represents an ideal, the capacity of the courageous spirit not only to survive but also to prevail. The ocean, as it batters the cliff, represents the peril of existence that any life-form battles, but it also represents the source of all life. The fish and other creatures precariously balance between the two. All these images of life in the sea contain some hint of peril, suggesting nature’s impersonal harshness and mysterious purpose. The verbs used in the images suggest unwelcome human intrusions—also forces of death. Like the cliff, human beings caught in this predicament should not hide but should face these forces defiantly. In the poem, Moore explores the human predicament, using the scene as a theater to expose ideas that are harder to clarify in a human context.

Her poetic techniques complement her ideas. The line breaks and stanzaic arrangements combine to keep the reader from scanning through too fast. It is a laborious, not an easy, movement, as is the interaction of the water and the cliff. Each stanza follows the same pattern. Each parallel line has the same syllabic count. The rhyme scheme is elaborate, but because of the run-on lines, it does not intrude. Moore also relies on the sounds to carry the meaning, quick consonants such as “crow-blue mussel-shells,” rather than alliteration. She liked strict proportion and symmetry, so in each line and each stanza, she balances the key words.

This emphasis on pattern and stability in style further shows the precise integration of...

(The entire section is 1,538 words.)