“The Fish” is a short poem in rhymed syllabic verse; its forty lines are divided into eight stanzas. In this poem, Marianne Moore utilizes elegant imagery and a highly visual structure. Many readers have found “The Fish” obscure, since its primary subject seems not to be fish but the defiant independence of a seaside cliff. Actually, the poem is about the sea, the cliff, and the relationship between them.
Moore often uses the first line of a poem as its title, as she does with “The Fish.” This technique sometimes makes the title less a summing up of the poem than a point of departure. Such titles may also be misleading. “The Fish” starts with a reference to fish, moves through a rich descriptive array of aquatic life, and finally makes a point about a cliff buffeted by the sea. Like the fecund ocean it describes, the poem moves inexorably toward the cliff, but there is more description of beautiful sea life than there is of the “dead” cliff.
The poem begins with an image of fish swimming “through black jade,” which suggests dark, viscous water. Moore goes on immediately to describe mussels, focusing on one mussel in particular, which is stirring the sand (“adjusting the ash-heaps”) by opening and closing itself. The intensely visual description of sea life suggests the force and fecundity of the ocean.
To the observant speaker, barnacles “encrust” a wave of water as they would the hull of a ship. The...
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