The Fish Summary
In the poem “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop, the speaker catches a large old fish and begins to take notice of his appearance.
- The fish is covered in barnacles and sea lice, and his scales remind the speaker of old wallpaper. She also sees that the fish has been caught and escaped at least five times before.
- The speaker then reflects on the fish’s “wisdom” in overcoming so many attempts on his life. A feeling of “victory” fills up her boat.
- The speaker honors the fish by letting him go.
Last Updated on July 22, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376
The speaker begins "The Fish" by reminiscing about a fish she once caught. This fish does not struggle as she reels him in, and once he is captured, she begins to take special note of his appearance.
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He is a large fish, hanging with a "grunting weight" from her rod. His scales are no longer those of a young fish. They "hang" from his body instead of conforming to it. They remind her of old wallpaper, which loosens from the wall and whose patterns fade with age.
The fish is physically unappealing. He is covered in barnacles and sea lice. Some green weeds dangle from his body, likely remnants of the home where he rested before her hook held fast in the corner of his mouth.
She watches the fish breathe in the "terrible" oxygen, described as such because this very act is taking his life, one breath at a time. His gills, which are "fresh and crisp with blood," long for the water which they need to sustain his life.
The speaker then looks into the fish's eyes, which also reflect his advanced age. They have yellowed over time, and they remind her of looking at tinfoil through "old scratched isinglass." Although his eyes shift, they do not seek to meet her gaze, the gaze of the one who has taken him from his natural environment and seeks to take his life.
She then shifts her focus to his jaw and notes that from his lip dangle "five old pieces of fish-line." The fish has been caught and escaped at least five times prior to this day. She sees these lines like medals, showing evidence of battles this fish has fought and won. She reflects on the fish's "wisdom" in overcoming so many attempts on his life.
And suddenly, her perception shifts. This is a victorious fish. He has lived through so much in his old age. The feeling of victory fills up her entire boat, and she notes the rainbow, often symbolically representing brilliance and life life, in the oil residue in the water. She knows that she cannot be the one to take the life of an old fish who has overcome so much.
And she honors the fish by letting him go.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419
“The Fish” is Bishop’s most anthologized poem. The work is popular because it avoids the surrealism that makes puzzling some of the other poems published in Bishop’s first collection. It is devoted in large part to a description of a fish that the narrator catches and, in the last line, lets go. The moral suggested is somewhat closer to the surface than is usual for Bishop; in addition, the slight but undeniable sententiousness of the narrator may make it easier for the reader to identify with him or her than with the less characterized and virtually invisible narrators of many of Bishop’s other poems.
The work opens with a simple statement: The narrator has “caught a tremendous fish.” The fish immediately comes to seem somewhat noble, or perhaps resigned: “He didn’t fight./ He hadn’t fought at all.” The reader sees the fish immediately as humanized, both through the male pronoun as well as through the author’s ascription to it of the adjective “venerable.” The narrator clearly reacts to this creature as an equal to an equal, on one hand totally within his or her power, on the other hand a creature into whose eyes he or she looks. The reader is told that the fish’s eyes are “far larger” than those of the narrator, “but shallower, and yellowed.” The most intimate communication with another person frequently takes place through the eyes—so too this contact of fisher and fish.
This fish, however, is the veteran of many previous combats; from his lip hang the remains of five fishhooks. As a result, it seems that the narrator has been victorious where others have failed; the reader is told that “victory filled up/ the little rented boat.” Yet this victory may perhaps be that of the fish, whose hooks have been referred to as “medals”—the fruits of military victory.
The last line reads: “And I let the fish go.” Why “and,” the reader may wonder. This suggests that the narrator’s letting the fish go is the anticlimactic natural result of the fish’s victory, an acknowledgment of the greater nobility of the natural world with respect to the human one. This reaction seems a bit extreme for the situation described; indeed, the slight discomfort the reader may feel with this poem lies in precisely this self-effacement of the narrator before the minutely described denizen of the deep. One may wonder whether human beings are nothing more than creatures to plague a fish.