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.)