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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777

“The Fish” is written in free verse. It relays a narrative about the persona’s remarkable, yet ordinary, fishing experience. Known for her incredible ability to balance conflicting concepts in her poetry—vividness with subtlety, objectivity with compassion, dearness with stern scrutiny—Bishop makes these concepts figure into all 76 lines of her speaker’s encounter with a fish.

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The poem begins with the speaker’s declaration of achievement, specifying that the fish caught was a “tremendous” one. She then recalls holding it “half out of water,” signifying that there is still a certain distance to be bridged between them—but one that is coupled with an already eager nearness from having “held him.” This tentative moment is more a thoughtful delay than worried hesitation from the speaker, as evidenced by the way she calmly carries out the observation that “He didn’t fight.” Here, the reader can picture a collected narrator who cares and an equally collected fish who seems not to care that it has been caught. She personifies the fish for its unusual behavior, as opposed to what most fishing folk would treat as a mere prize catch.

This personification of the fish is what will lead the poem to its close examination. This is also where we see the speaker under a more personal lens, as she makes use of qualifiers that reflect not only the fish she is describing but also her own character through her perception of it. She immediately assigns it human qualities of being “battered and venerable / and homely,” indicating that she somewhat takes pity on it without being overly sentimental. She describes the fish’s skin by comparing it to “wallpaper”—a dry, neutral, domestic image that serves to give a glimpse into an aspect of the speaker’s space or reality (as well as ascribing a manmade aesthetic to the fish, as if to make it more easily understandable).

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The distance between these two characters is diminished all the more when the speaker moves from mere decorative observations to realizations of its present suffering—the way it was “infested / with tiny white sea-lice” and how its “gills were breathing in / the terrible oxygen.” This paves the way for the speaker to touch on her emotions, as in the way she began to regard these gills as “frightening” and “fresh and crisp with blood.” This fear enlarges when, in the following lines, the imagery and words shift from relatively dry and objective to darkly visceral:

coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

At the end of the speaker’s recollection of horror is the point where the fish and the speaker connect as beings who are no strangers to suffering. She looks into the fish’s eyes and, in a moment of quiet epiphany, everything becomes visible again, “like the tipping / of an object toward the light.” She begins to look at the fish with renewed admiration—even an almost spiritual sense of attention—as she notices the five hooks still attached to its mouth “like medals with the ribbons / frayed and wavering.” This fish, she realizes, has survived five brushes with death.

The poem moves towards its conclusion (when the speaker lets the fish go) mirroring the same state of arrest in the beginning (when she caught the fish). As she “stared and stared,” the image of a rainbow first materializes on an oil leak, leading her to form further perceptions of joy in what little space she occupies in her boat. Everything worn down and ordinary seems to come to life right before her, until her spirit rises above all material confinement and “everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” This poem showcases the rich internal journey of the speaker—a journey taken without ever leaving her physical location. She arrives at a state of pure elation, having traveled from mild detachment, connection, attachment, horror, and admiration. The fish is a potent symbol here for shared animal meaning and how, when one is confronted by it in any given situation, no matter how quotidian and un-grand, it makes one examine and re-examine one’s space and oneself.

Elizabeth Bishop is a master in portraying such illuminating moments framed within hushed scenes. She was expressly resistant to the overt sentimentality and edgy theatrics of the emerging confessional poetry of her time. Of it, she told Robert Lowell, her fellow poet and friend: “I’m not interested in big-scale work as such. Something needn’t be large to be good.” And with that, Elizabeth Bishop let the proverbial fish go.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” is a highly compact meditative lyric of seventy-six free verse lines, relaying a first person narrator’s experience of catching a “tremendous” fish, coming to an empathetic understanding and appreciation of it, and subsequently letting it go. The narrator’s unspoken and self-transforming reaction to this fish, conveyed largely through imagery, contains the poem’s theme and underlies the narrator’s external actions. The poem begins significantly with the fish already caught and the speaker’s awareness that the fish had really not fought her. She holds the fish “half out of water” so that he exists briefly in a liminal area half in and half out of his natural environment. In this place the narrator can examine him closely. Her initial observations are scrupulously objective. Any thoughts that the speaker may have are carefully masked by descriptive imagery which largely targets negative aspects. The fish which is “battered and venerable/ and homely” is also “infested/ with tiny white sea-lice.”

While the verb “I caught” precedes this objective description of the fish, the narrator uses the verb “I thought of” to depart from objective appraisal in favor of interpolating aspects of the fish which she cannot see but which she knows must be present. Here she envisions the flesh that must lie beneath the fish’s skin as well as its bones, entrails, and swim bladder. Her evaluation is not yet complete even after this thorough examination, for she then looks closely into his eyes, contrasting them minutely with her own. Though the speaker has been trying to comprehend the fish, it refuses to return her stare, remaining completely indifferent to her.

At this point the speaker utters for the first time an emotion brought about by her encounter with the fish: admiration for “his sullen face.” It is with this expression of admiration that the narrator is enabled to notice details that her previous painstaking examination failed to uncover, details that will increase her admiration and intensify her experience. Embedded in the fish’s mouth are five additional hooks, trailing broken fishing lines of various weights. After realizing the fish’s earlier successful battles, she “stared and stared.” Her thought process remains unrevealed, but in it there occurs a moment of epiphany, realization, comprehension. It is for the narrator a moment of breakthrough, of seeing something clearly and holistically that was previously unapprehended and which will slip away as the moment fades. For that moment, however, “victory filled up/ the little rented boat.” Even nature cooperates with the inner dynamic of the speaker as oil and bilge water within the boat combine with sunlight “until everything/ was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” It is at this point that she, almost automatically, without the need for thought, releases the fish.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

The narrator’s empathy with the fish arises from her concentrated examination of him. Bishop conveys this empathy to the reader through dense and exacting descriptive phrases replete with similes and metaphors. Every single word serves to convey what the fish is like and indirectly communicates the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. In her initial examination, the speaker compares his skin to strips of “ancient wall-paper,” a homely image that belies her apparent objectivity by depicting the fish in terms of something familiar. As she extends her wallpaper imagery, she stresses the age of the fish, for, appearing on the wallpaper/fish are “shapes like full-blown roses/ stained and lost through age.” While the fish has not fought her, he has not given up for his gills continued to struggle to strain the “terrible oxygen” of the air. The narrator refers to them as “frightening gills” and hints at past experiences in which she discovered that gills “can cut so badly.” The description of the fish is exhaustively thorough; nothing is neglected, not the banal, the possibly disgusting, or the frightening. Though objective, the description alludes to thoughts and feelings and prepares the reader for the narrator’s response.

As the narrator relates those parts of the fish that she cannot see, her desire to do so and her choice of imagery again reveals her growing empathy. She envisions “white flesh/ packed in like feathers,” “the dramatic reds and blacks/ of his shiny entrails,” and even his swim bladder which she compares to a “big peony.” Nothing about the fish disgusts her as she concentrates on what is before her. The narrator devotes more imagery to the eyes than to any other part of the fish. Traditionally it is the eye that conveys much about person or creature. Here too, for the first time, the comparison is not with an outside object, but initially, at least, with her own eyes. Noting that the fish’s eyes are “larger than mine/ but shallower, and yellowed,” she strains for an exact representation, describing the irises as “backed and packed/ with tarnished tinfoil/ seen through the lenses/ of old scratched isinglass.

When the narrator notices the hooks, she notes that they are hanging from a lip that is “grim, wet, and weapon-like.” She describes the hooks and trailing lines as “medals with their ribbons” and a “five-haired beard of wisdom.” Obviously the fish has become a kind of symbol for the human qualities the narrator and Bishop admire: courage, strength, perseverance, shrewdness. Yet it never becomes abstract for these very qualities are inherent in the actual, living fish. Neither is the personification of victory an abstraction as it fills the boat, but it is the very real result of the narrator’s concentration on the unique individuality of the fish. The rainbow at the end of the poem literally takes over everything, making all the faulty and ordinary artifacts of the boat, the “rusted engine,” the “bailer rusted orange,” the “sun-cracked thwarts,” into itself “until everything/ was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” This final image speaks of the transformation taking place within the narrator through an encounter with what appears ordinary to the outward eye. Yet the rainbow, too, preserves its own reality as oil in bilge water. The ordinary reveals the uncommon when penetrated by perceptual imagination.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176

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Boland, Eavan. “An Unromantic American.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 14 (Summer, 1988): 73-92.

Fountain, Gary. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

MacMahon, Candace, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-1979. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Motion, Andrew. Elizabeth Bishop. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Longwood, 1986.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Schwartz, Lloyd. That Sense of Constant Readjustment: Elizabeth Bishop “North & South.” New York: Garland, 1987.

Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

Wylie, Diana E. Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

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