The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 553 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

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.