The Fish By Elizabeth Bishop
‘The Fish’ is a narrative poem, told in the first person, about a confrontation between an amateur fisherwoman, fishing in a ‘little rented boat’ and a ‘tremendous’ battle-worn fish. The narrative can be summed up quickly. The speaker catches an impressive, old fish and holds it “half out of water, with my hook/fast in the corner of his mouth”. After examining the fish closely and sympathetically, she discovers that this interesting animal has a heroic past and in a moment of recognition or epiphany, she lets the fish go. Summarized, the poem sounds unremarkable. To leave it at that would be to commit, what Brooks calls: “the heresy of paraphrase”. What shapes the poem and makes it extraordinary and unique is the way the experience is related.
Bishop is renowned for her powers of observation and her descriptive skill. The poem is packed with adjectives and similes. In the first line she tells us: “I caught a tremendous fish (“tremendous” stands out as a three-syllable word in a monosyllabic sentence), “Tremendous” is not a purely or even primarily descriptive word. The word “tremendous” means ‘big’, but it also means ‘remarkable’, ‘extraordinary’ and ‘impressive’. The word describes more exactly the speaker’s response to the fish than the fish himself. The adjectives “battered and venerable/ and homely’ are similarly connotative. ‘Battered’ suggests signs of repeated violence and is often used to describe sea vessels. ‘Venerable’ has very specific connotations and is barely descriptive at all since it means ‘worthy of respect’. ‘Venerable’ does not physically describe the fish. Is he ‘venerable’ because of his age, or because of his distinguished appearance? “Homely” is a kindly and gentle way of saying ‘ugly’. It seems an affectionate and friendly word and it signals a change in tone. These adjectives are so connotative that they resist closure. They are, in other words, not definitive. I feel that these words are the first hint that this poem charts a very individual response to an encounter with nature, an experience rather than a matter-of-fact description. Such subtle and multiple connotations transform ‘The Fish’ from a descriptive narrative into a poem.
At the outset, Bishop’s tone is quite measured and detached:
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in the corner of his mouth.
The beautifully balanced sentences: “He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all.” sound measured and detached. The rhythm created by the brevity of the sentences and the fact that they are end-stopped registers her surprise at the passivity of the fish. The response of the fish stops her in her tracks. This is a pivotal moment in the poem and the pauses register a change in tone. It is pivotal because it is the fish’s passivity that makes him mysterious and interesting to her. She has expected a battle of wills and is taken aback when the fish refuses to fight. Denied the battle of will, she is forced to confront the presence of the fish. She begins to really look at him and this proves such a rewarding experience that it ends in epiphany and the letting go of the fish.
Three consecutive lines begin with the gender-specific pronoun: “He”. The fish has “tremendous” physical presence and that presence is undeniably masculine and quite human. Following on the short and clipped lines: “He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all”, the sentences become longer, looser and more descriptive. “He hung a grunting weight” establishes a suffering physicality in a very effective way. “Grunting” contributes to the ‘anthropomorphism’ evident in her portrayal of the fish. ‘Anthropomorphism’ involves the representation of a thing as if it had human traits. The repeated use of “He”, and the adjectives “venerable” and “homely” contribute to this effect. “He hung a grunting weight” could obviously describe a human victim. The description inspires pity and disgust. The line itself is heavy-sounding and slow-moving (the assonance of “hung/grunting” is very effective in this respect). The sound and the meaning of these words enact the exhaustion and apparent listlessness of the fish. We can sense her detachment slipping away. Compare the tone of this line to the feeling of detachment and confidence that inform the words: “with my hook/fast in the corner of his mouth”.
Bishop becomes more imaginatively involved with the fish and as she does the sentences become longer and looser and her approach to describing the fish changes. The language becomes more figurative and three similes follow in quick succession. These three similes fill the next six lines:
His brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
All three similes compare the fish’s patterned and peeling skin to fading wallpaper. The description has all the texture and beauty of “ancient wallpaper” It is, of course, an image of decay and change. It is also an image of domesticity. The skin is peeling away in strips and this reminds her of “ancient wallpaper”. The pattern of “brown” and “darker brown” further justifies the comparison.
Finally, there are “shapes like full-blown roses” – not real roses, but roses that are “stained and lost through age”, roses that are fading and barely visible on “ancient wallpaper”. The poet lingers on this comparison. She approaches it three times in quick succession. You could say she insists on it. She certainly works this simile. Can such insistence be justified in terms of bringing the fish alive visually? Each point of comparison is valid and yet her insistence on this simile suggests that she just cannot let it go. Why does she need to justify it on three separate counts? In the end, it seems to lean more towards a description of “ancient wallpaper” than a description of the skin of a fish. One cannot help but wonder why this image means so much to her.
When a poet with Bishop’s deserved reputation for descriptive precision repeats herself in this way, we ought to sit up and listen. One possible explanation is that Bishop likes to build meaning layer by layer. This shows a searching mind at work. By straining to get the description right, she exposes the process of seeing a thing. She does not give us a perfectly finished image. In this sense, peeling and fading wallpaper is a perfect Bishop image. It is only partially visually available; in other words, it cannot be perfectly seen. The fact that the pattern is “stained and lost through age” means that it is visual memory.
Another explanation, and one frequently offered by analysts of the poem, is that the homeliness of this image does not work. Bishop, it is suggested, begins her description of the fish with a simile that is familiar and homely – wallpaper. She is unhappy with this image and goes at it three times in an attempt to make it work. The fish is simply too animalistic and alien to be described in domestic terms. It is according to these commentators a failed image, illustrating the fact that Bishop has not yet come to terms with the fish.
A third possible explanation and the one I prefer is that Bishop is drawn to this image for its own sake. This is because the image is not just an image of domesticity and home, as some suggest, but an image of a dilapidated and abandoned home. For Bishop (whose personal history tells us that she lost her parents and her home) the idea of home is inextricably bound with feelings of loss. For Bishop, home is not a safe haven. Because it is an image of both home and of decay and loss, the “ancient wallpaper … stained and lost through age” is linked to a painful memory of a lost home. It is part of an un-pursued story from the poet’s personal history. It gets under her skin and she cannot let it go. Perhaps this is why it reminds me of the “dim doily/draping a taboret/(part of a set), beside a big hirsute begonia”, “the daisy stitch/with marguerites”. In ‘Filling Station’ these fading, dirty and neglected flowers suggest a trace of an absent mother. The “wallpaper” image in “The Fish” contains within it, the fragment of a story that is part of the past of the poet, and because it is a memory it is both present and absent at the same time.
In the next sentence Bishop focuses on the physical appearance of the fish:
He was speckled with barnacles
fine rosettes of lime
with tiny white sea lice
and underneath two of three
rags of green weed hung down
The language is precise and straightforward. Her choice of language is appropriate to the task she has set herself: to describe this interesting animal in detail. Her growing interest in the fish is reflected in the sudden accumulation of detail. The fish commands all her attention now. He is meticulously described. The element in which he lives determines the texture of his skin, “speckled with barnacles”, “infested/with tiny white sea-lice” and trailing “two or three/rags of green weed”. “Speckled” refers to contrast in both colour and texture. The word itself is beautiful and has wonderful sound texture. The cluster of sounds in “speckled” is echoed in “barnacles”. The repetition of ‘i’ sounds in lines 17/18/19 – “fine rosettes of lime, / and infested / with tiny white sea-lice” – creates a delicate sound that diminishes the distasteful nature of the image. Isolating the word “infested” in a very short line gives it rhetorical stress, and draws attention to this repulsive aspect of the fish. The assonance at work in “fine…lime… tiny white … lice” undercuts the ugliness of the image and counteracts the effect of the word “infested.
She is both repelled and attracted to the fish. Assonance is frequently employed in this poem. Examples thus far include: “half/fast”, “tremendous/held” “fought/all”, “battered/venerable/homely” “hung/grunting”, “skin/strips”, “”blown/roses”, “stained/age” and “green/weed”. The frequent use of assonance lends beauty to the language of the poem. The fact that the poet invests the language with such unobtrusive and beautiful music tells us something of her attitude to the fish. Alliteration: “held/him/half/hook”, “fight/fought”, “skin/strips”), and repetition: (“wallpaper”, “brown”, “hung”) provide subtle sound echoes that are very important to the music of poetry that does not rhyme.
A long sentence follows in which the syntax becomes increasingly complex. We must read five lines before we can discover what happened “while his gills were breathing in/the terrible oxygen”:
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
-the frightening gills
fresh and crisp with blood
that can cut so badly –
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
The “terrible oxygen” seems to disturb her composure. Parenthesis interrupts the flow of the language. She says, “-the frightening gills / fresh and crisp with blood / that can cut so badly-”. Parenthesis is a word, phrase or sentence inserted into a passage that is already grammatically complete. Parenthesis is used for after-thoughts, qualifications and asides. It is the grammatical equivalent of a lowering of the voice or thinking again. It suggests uncertainty. The fact that this observation is in parenthesis suggests that it is forcing its way into the poem because it is inspired by fear. Fear can come suddenly and cannot always be controlled. Parenthesis is an important feature of Bishop’s poetry because she believed that poetry should reflect a mind thinking rather than a complete thought. Parenthesis is a good vehicle for ambivalence. It is ironic that although the fish is “caught”, “held…fast”, although he is a helpless “grunting weight”, “breathing in the terrible oxygen”, he still has these “frightening gills/ fresh and crisp with blood / that can cut so badly”.
Each time the narrator enters the poem with the personal pronoun “I”, (“I caught”, “I thought”, “I looked”, “I admired”, “I stared and stared”, “I let the fish go”) she becomes more emotionally involved with the fish. Each reminder of the narrator’s presence marks an important stage in the progress of the poem. When she says: “I thought of the coarse white flesh”, she means she pictures the fish’s insides in her mind’s eye. It as if the “frightening gills” have so undermined her attempt to humanize the fish that she feels compelled to really look at the fish as a separate, natural creature. The confident and assertive voice of the opening line has been humbled. It seems that though she may have caught him, he has also caught her.
The insides of the fish are lovingly described. The simile: “the coarse white flesh/packed in like feathers” describes the texture of the fish’s flesh. It is an original and striking simile. The description is concrete and detailed, and the impression created is vivid. The use of colour is remarkable. Bishop is inviting us to picture the insides of the fish.
The word “dramatic” tells us that the colour contrast is striking and sudden and interesting (the sound echoes in “dramatic” and “black” is very effective). The remaining adjectives “coarse” and “shiny” are tactile. She is observing minutely and relishing the description. The line: “the big bones and the little bones” is wonderfully balanced and contributes to the unhurried pace of the description. Clearly, she is lingering over these details and enjoying herself. The word “little” carries emotional overtones, telling us that she is no longer just curious or interested, she is emotionally engaged. That the fish has become something she admires is confirmed by the second simile of the sentence: “the pink swim-bladder/ like a big peony” which is quite simply a beautiful image. There is assonance “flesh/feathers”, “dramatic/blacks/packed”, “pink/swim/big/peony”, alliteration (“flesh/feathers”, “big/bones”, “pink..bladder/big peony”) and repetition (“bones”) at work here, creating an unobtrusive musical effect.
Next, she “looked into his eyes”. The fact that she is looking, not ‘at’ them, but ‘into’ them’ suggests that she is trying to establish a relationship. Traditionally, the eyes are viewed as windows to the soul, but when the speaker looks she finds, not identity but difference. The eyes are “far larger than mine/ …shallower and yellowed”. She focuses on difference; “far larger” than her own, the eyes are “shallower and yellowed” and therefore inhuman. The fish does not “return [her] stare” and so denies her the connection she is looking for. The fish that refused to fight now refuses to meet her eyes. The captor looks into the eyes of the captured, but the captured will not yield and remains unknown and mysterious. The fact that the fish does not respond becomes an acquired understanding that supersedes the earlier naïve notion that she has “caught” him. She cannot know this fish. She cannot define him. He retains his essential nature, his independence from her and his mystery. What she can do, and does, is respond to the fish.
Because the speaker acknowledges the mystery of the animal, she is already in a sense letting him go.
David Kalstone wrote:
The poem is full of the strain of seeing, not just the unrelenting pressure of making similes to capture the fish, but the fact that the similes themselves involve flawed instruments of vision.
Looking into his eyes, she notes that “the irises are backed and packed/with tarnished tinfoil/seen through the lenses/ of old scratched isinglass”. Tinfoil may act like a kind of mirror, but in this case, the tinfoil is “tarnished and therefore dull and unreflective. As an image, it is further removed by being “seen through the lenses of old scratched isinglass”. A lens is an instrument of vision. It is supposed to help us to see. But these “lenses”, made from “isinglass”, “old” and “scratched”, will only distort our view. The eyes are subjected to intense scrutiny, but they are impenetrable and layered. In a poem about looking – about observation – the image of the fish’s eyes becomes an image of flawed vision. Bishop is hinting at the impossibility of seeing anything absolutely and clearly.
I admired his sullen face
the mechanism of his jaw
and then I saw …
“I caught”, “I thought” and “I looked” have marked stages in the development of the poem. Lines 44/46 (above) mark a new and pivotal moment in the development of the poem. The sudden and unexpected end rhyme (“jaw/saw”) alerts us to the fact that something momentous is about to happen. Once again, the narrative is forestalled by description. Once again parenthesis seems to interrupt the flow of ideas. She has admired this “sullen face”, which seems very human, but then immediately she speaks of the “mechanism of his jaw” which seems inanimate and machine-like. She then corrects herself, in parenthesis, when she refers to his “lower lip/ – if you could call it a lip-”. For how can something that is “grim, wet and weaponlike” be considered a lip? The use of inanimate objects to describe the body of the fish suggests that she is checking her tendency to humanize the fish. Her hesitations and self-corrections hint at uncertainty and ambivalence. She is sympathetic towards the fish and this inclines her towards seeing him in a human light. When he is unresponsive, she is forced to accept his essential otherness. This self-correction tells us a great deal about her style and her attitude to poetry.
Consider this: a poem is a made thing; a crafted piece of work. It is the product of serious thought and construction. The word “infested” in line 18 replaced the word “lousy” while the poem was still a work in progress. Bishop’s inclusion of amendments in the final draft of the poem is contrived. This suggests that she wished to highlight the search for meaning; the search itself and not just the result. So she offers a word and then retracts it. If her aim were merely to be precise, to get it right, then why would she leave these ‘mistakes’ in the complete work? In allowing us to over-hear her doubts and hesitations, Bishop allows us to hear a mind at work. In lines 51/52, she stated that there were “five old pieces of fish line” and then corrects herself by saying “or four and a wire leader”. Even her corrections are not conclusive, because if we read it carefully, we become aware that we still don’t know which description is the right one. Is it four or five? The “if” of “- if you could call it a lip -” is also inconclusive. She is not saying you can’t call it a lip, she is saying “if you could call it a lip” In correcting herself, she is allowing both versions to stand, settling on neither one nor the other. Bishop is not a God-like author, whose words are written in stone, but one who is searching for meaning. Bishop’s enters the drama of the poem not just as an observer but as a participant.
Each time the poet enters the poem with the personal pronoun “I”, she becomes less detached, more involved. Each one marks a new development. For instance, when she says: “I admired his sullen face,/ the mechanism of his jaw,/ and then I saw”, she is saying that she accepts and admires his stubborn resistance, and recognizes it not as surrender, but as a passive resistance. It is significant that when she finally sees what leads to the emotional climax of the poem, and builds towards epiphany (“I stared and stared / and victory filled up the little rented boat … until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go.”), she is already admiring these qualities in the fish. What she sees tells an unmistakable story:
hung five old pieces of fish line
[or four and a wire leader]
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
where it broke and he got away.
Each of the fish lines is evidence of the struggles the fish has endured and survived. The verbs and adjectives used capture the energy and physicality of the battle: “frayed … broke … heavier … fine …crimped … strain and snap … broke … got away” The language is concrete and accessible and it creates a vivid and immediate impression. The overall effect is of a long, sustained and determined struggle to survive. The effect is such that, although it is a description of the “fish lines … still attached”, it reads like a description of the struggles. This illustrates the degree to which the speaker is being pulled into the drama of what these “fish lines” mean. The language becomes more figurative. The hooks are compared to “medals with their ribbons / frayed and wavering”, because each one represents success in battle, as medals do. She casts him in the role of a decorated war hero and the hooks and lines are medals and ribbons that mark his victory in battle. In transforming his hooks into medals, the poet is putting a value on the fish’s life. The “five-haired beard of wisdom” reminds us of the adjective “venerable” employed early in the poem.
The penultimate sentence begins with the words “I stared and stared”. In a poem that foregrounds the process of looking “I stared and stared” seems appropriate to the climax. ‘To stare’ is not merely to look, but to look fixedly with the eyes wide open, full of curiosity and amazement. The emphatic repetition of “stared” slows down the movement of the line, prolonging it, (a stare is, after all a prolonged look).
We sense that something momentous is happening. A feeling of “victory filled up the little rented boat”. ‘Victory’ is ordinarily understood as combative – somebody must be defeated in order for somebody to be victorious. At the outset of the poem, as the fish “hung a grunting weight”, with her “hook fast in the corner of his mouth”, it is clear that the speaker is the victor. Later it emerges that this “tremendous” fish has a history of victories. In the end, the “victory that filled up the little rented boat” is a feeling and it belongs to them both. It is a feeling of reconciliation with nature, one so strong that everything around the speaker becomes nature, or “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow”.
An epiphany is a sudden illumination. It is a moment of heightened awareness or perception. It is visionary, insightful and illuminating. It is about suddenly seeing something that gives us insight into lives beyond our own. Bishop’s epiphany belongs to the moment, and it changes the light in which she sees the world. It is an experience; it is not about interpreting what one sees, but about suddenly seeing something that changes everything. The “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow” transforms everything “until everything/ was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow”. That her moment of insight is also a moment of great feeling is reflected in the short run-on lines that lend a feeling of drama and excitement. The repetition of “I stared and stared” alerts us to this increased intensity of feeling.
The epiphany has nothing otherworldly about it. It is rooted in the real world, in the unromantic image of oily bilge water. The “pool of bilge/where oil had spread a rainbow” becomes the ecstatic “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow”, but the mention of the “rusted engine/ … the bailer rusted orange/ …the sun-cracked thwarts/ the oarlocks on their strings/ the gunnels” pull us into the “little rented boat”. Just as “victory filled up/the little rented boat”, so too does the rainbow “spread” to embrace “everything”. The multiple prepositions (“from the pool of bilge … around the rusted engine . The bailer rusted orange”) tie everything into a relationship so that the rainbow seems to overflow the pool of bilge and spread over everything.
The letting go of the fish is dramatized by putting it all in the final words and the final line:
And I let the fish go.
The use of rhyme (in a poem that doesn’t rhyme) adds to the mood of exultation and lends closure to the poem. If the ending seems anticlimactic, it is because it is inevitable that she would let the fish go.