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Last Updated on July 22, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

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"The Fish" is one of Elizabeth Bishop's most frequently studied and anthologized poems. It details the speaker's encounter with an aged fish—whom, the speaker soon discovers, has been captured several times before by humans, but has escaped.

The Interaction Between Humans and Animals

The poem touches upon the way in which we, as humans, impose ourselves upon nature to the point where we are unable to imagine nature as a separate thing. The clearest symbol of the way humans have embedded themselves in nature is in the fishhooks literally embedded within the mouth of the captured fish, which have "grown firmly in his mouth" and are part of him. Humans have damaged this animal through their interactions with him, and he has been forced to grow around those invasions. But there are other elements, too, where this theme becomes clear, as in the way Bishop compares the fish to manmade things such as "wallpaper" (repeated twice) and "tinfoil." The manmade has become so much a part of us that we now think little of making it a part of the animal kingdom, too—even in areas where our interference does not belong.

Age and Wisdom

The fish is extremely old, and much of the poet's description is devoted to indicating that it is "battered," "brown," "speckled," "in strips," "tarnished," and otherwise extremely damaged by the difficulties of a long life. However, it is also clear that the fish is far from weak—although he does not fight when he is captured, he has clearly fought before, with the old fishhooks being compared to "medals" in his mouth, creating a "five-haired beard of wisdom." Age has not simply battered the fish; on the contrary, it has taught him everything he knows.

Appearance versus Reality

This theme is connected to that of age and wisdom. Although the fish at first appears very old, "infested," and "ancient," and although it does not fight the speaker, closer inspection reveals that this "tremendous" fish has been a warrior in his lifetime. The hooks in his mouth are the evidence of the fight that was once (and may remain) inside him: he has fought human intervention for many years, grimly growing around the fishhooks thrust upon him and swimming on towards his freedom.

At the end of the poem, the speaker takes the fish out into the open water and releases him. This seems to be the result of guilt for the actions of humanity toward the fish specifically and toward nature as a whole; it indicates, too, some element of rewarding the fish for all the fight he has mustered throughout his long life, even if he no longer has it in him to fight at the end.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

This poem contains three significant themes: the integration of subjective and objective observation, an almost feminist definition of victory, and the active involvement of the reader in the experience recreated in the poem. These themes also appear in much of Bishop’s other works. Bishop felt strongly that to discover the truth or reality of anything, one must become self-forgetful, totally caught up in the apprehension of what one is concentrating on. She illustrates this poetic tenet in many of her poems, like “The Fish,” which is essentially a lyric meditation. It is the combination of her close objective examination of the fish and her richly speculative subjective interpolation from what she sees that enable her to grasp intuitively the qualities inherent in the fish she has caught. For a brief, but intense moment, she is at one with nature as represented by the fish and at one with the values he embodies.

As she stares and takes in the reality of the fish, “victory filled up/ the little rented boat.” The adjective “rented” indicates her own fragility. Just as the fish is being held partly out of the water, its natural home, so she is in a sense equally out of place on the water in a boat she does not own. The victory filling up the boat is not her victory over the fish she has caught, but victory over the tenuousness and precarious mystery of the human situation brought to her in her interaction with the fish, transformed in her imagination into a veteran fighter. It is a victory brought about by and belonging to both combatants. She turns the tables on those who believe that victory entails a winner and a loser.

The perceptive reader is also included in this victory. For Bishop, the poet who conceives a certain truth through a real or imagined experienced must convey this truth to the reader. Bishop does so here by making the reader participate in the narrator’s discovery by working through the imagery. It bears in upon the reader’s consciousness just as the actual observation of details works on the consciousness of the narrator, allowing her to see the fish in a new light. Though the narrator carefully suppresses any emotion until the last lines of the poem where they burst out in ineffable triumph, the reader is impelled through a series of emotions through the power and vividness of the imagery. The last line, “And I let the fish go,” appears almost anticlimactic for the narrator, who cannot do anything else, but the action signals a release of emotion for the reader. “The Fish,” firmly places Bishop in the tradition of Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore in her insistence on the need for acute observation of the ordinary, strict rhetorical control over imagery and description, and the poetical authority to convey the truth of an experience to perceptive readers.