The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Moore said in an interview that what she wrote “could only be called poetry because there is no other category in which to put it,” but her writing uses the forms and devices of poetry to produce interesting effects. Visual description and careful attention to a formal structure of syllables and rhymes devised by the poet for the particular poem are poetic devices Moore uses in “The Fish.”

In metrical verse, the poet pays attention to which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed. In syllabic verse, the poet creates a pattern by simply counting the number of syllables in a line. In “The Fish,” the syllabic pattern is one syllable in the first line of each stanza, three syllables in the second line, nine in the third, six in the fourth, and eight in the fifth. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is aabbc. In the version of “The Fish” published in Observations (1924), the stanzas were six lines long. Moore moved words to create five-line stanzas for the version in Collected Poems (1951) and subsequent editions of her work.

The description in “The Fish” is more visual than auditory, and the appearance of the poem is as important as its sound. Fish are not usually described as “wading,” which suggests shallow water, as does the solitary word “wade.” The phrase “split like spun,” appearing between “sun” and “glass,” mimics the split the lines describe. With “ac-,” Moore uses...

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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

In his biography of Moore, Charles Molesworth speculates that “The Fish” was influenced by the poet’s interest in color theory and in...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Syllabic Verse
“The Fish” is written in rhymed syllabic verse: organized in eight five-line stanzas, the poem is rhymed...

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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1920: Grand Canyon National Park is dedicated.

1980: Environmental and conservationist groups find that, over the...

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Research the history of the world’s oceans, paying particular attention to how long certain species of fish have existed. Then pick one...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

Moore reads her poems on Caedmon Treasury of Modern Poets Reading Their Own Poetry, released by Caedmon/HarperAudio in 1980.


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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Moore’s collection of essays Predilections, published in 1955, contains essays on major poets such as Wallace Stevens, William...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Abbott, Craig S., Marianne Moore: A Descriptive Bibliography, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.


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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Hadas, Pamela White. Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1977.

Joyce, Elisabeth W. Cultural Critique and Abstraction: Marianne Moore and the Avant-Garde. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Miller, Christine. Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Molesworth, Charles. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. New York: Atheneum, 1990.

Stamy, Cynthia. Marianne Moore and China: Orientalism and a Writing of America. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Stapleton, Laurence. Marianne Moore: The Poet’s Advance. 1978. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Tomlinson, Charles, ed. Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Willis, Patricia C., ed. Marianne Moore. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999.