The Fish Themes
The main themes in “The Fish” are the interaction between humans and animals, age and wisdom, and appearance versus reality.
- The interaction between humans and animals: The poem touches on the way in which we, as humans, impose ourselves on nature to the point where we are unable to imagine nature as separate from ourselves.
- Age and wisdom: Age has not simply battered the fish; on the contrary, it has taught him everything he knows.
- Appearance versus reality: Although the fish appears very old, and although he does not fight the speaker, closer inspection reveals that this “tremendous” fish has been a warrior in his lifetime.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"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.