Last Updated September 5, 2023.
“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.
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).
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 fleshpacked in like feathers,the big bones and the little bones,the dramatic reds and blacksof his shiny entrails,and the pink swim-bladderlike 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...
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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.