Featured Poem: The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

Fishing Boat

(Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay )

Emily Dickinson once wrote, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.” Now, I am not prone to literary chills, but I do know a thing or two about feeling overwhelmed when one encounters truly wonderful art.

One poem, in particular, never fails to evoke a visceral reaction from me—and that’s The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop. I’ve read this poem so many times, but with each reading, I still find myself inexplicably choked up and teary-eyed. The lines, “He didn’t fight./He hadn’t fought at all,” just gets to me every time.

It’s a beautiful poem rife with riveting imagery and layers of meaning. I can only hope that this analysis will do it some justice.

A Brief Background on Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is one of the most celebrated American poets in history. She began her long and illustrious career in 1946 at the publication of her first book of poems, North & South. The book, which won the Houghton Mifflin Prize for poetry, showcased Bishop’s exceptional writing style—a fine mixture of in-depth and eloquent prose coupled with guarded, almost detached storytelling.

At a time when confessional poetry was on the rise, Bishop stood out as a writer who could write about personal experience while maintaining a certain ‘distance’ from the work. Opting to draw the reader in through meticulous and vivid description, providing visuals so good you can picture and feel the moment, while also maintaining a level of neutrality and objectivity in the narrative. This is something we see clearly in one of her most well-known works, The Fish.

Style and Tone

Written in free verse and first-person, The Fish consists of seventy-six lines. While the poem itself is highly descriptive, each line is made deliberately brief, allowing the eye to linger and process the details of the poem and the intricacies of the fish’s anatomy. The narrator somehow fades into the background. Though it is her voice that we hear and her actions that set the scene—I caught/I thought/I looked/I admired/I saw/I stared/I let the fish go—there is undeniable impartiality to her tone.

We are left to infer how the persona feels about the fish and why she would let such a prize catch swim away. I believe this is intentional. By maintaining some level of distance, our narrator allows us to focus on the fish and to commiserate with its plight. We are given the opportunity to put ourselves in the fisherwoman’s shoes. To see through her eyes why this fish is different, why it deserves to live, without overtly directing us to the answer.

The occasional dash provides an even bigger pause point for the reader, conveying the natural cadence and interruptions of a person’s speech and thought, or rather, afterthought process. This, along with Bishop’s use of alliteration (backed, packed/breathing in, terrible oxygen/caught, fought), repetition (wallpaper, gills, rusted, and rainbow), and internal rhymes, creates a rhythmic and almost musical reading experience.

Further analysis of The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

The poem begins with a straightforward statement—I caught a tremendous fish. In a way, it almost sounds like a brag. It’s as if the persona is telling us with pride that this is a special fish, a prize catch. She goes through the motions of pulling the fish up to reel it into her boat. Then, the tone quickly shifts and slides into mild confusion. He didn’t fight./He hadn’t fought at all.

Now, the reader doesn’t need to be a seasoned fisherman/woman to understand that this isn’t normal behavior for caught fish. Normally, a fish would instinctively thrash and resist its being pulled out of water. But this fish was different. He simply hung a grunting weight, as if it were resigned to its fate. The lack of fight in the fish pushes the fisherwoman to closely inspect her catch.

She first notices its age. This fish was no youngling. She describes the fish as being battered, venerable, and homely, with brown skin like ancient wallpaper, speckled with barnacles and even infested with sea-lice. Notice the curious word she uses to describe the fish—venerable, which means esteemed and revered. Somehow, in her observations, the tone had shifted to awe. Even as she speaks of its frightening gills, its coarse white flesh packed in like feathers, its shiny entrails, and eyes that don’t look so much as simply tip into the light, the persona has already begun to identify with the fish. To see it, not as a catch, but as a living, breathing being, much like herself.

It is when the persona begins to admire the fish’s jaw—grim, weaponlike, but also aching—that Bishop heavily hints at the deciding factor for the fisherwoman—why she let the fish go. In painful detail, she describes the five old pieces of fish-line embedded firmly in the fish’s mouth. She likens them to medals or a five-haired beard of wisdom, thereby conjuring images of a weathered warrior or veteran. This was a fish who had fought time and again for its survival. The fact that it seemed to have finally given up now doesn’t make the realization less poignant. If anything, it heightens the relatability of this poor, battered creature. (For who among us haven’t felt bogged down and beaten by life at times?)

In that shining moment, the fish ceases to simply be somebody’s trophy or the catch of the day. The persona sees it for what it really is—a survivor. A creature that deserves her respect, admiration, and mercy. She identifies with the fish, for its story is a lot like that of mankind’s. A long and painful struggle to stay alive.

Bishop describes this moment of realization as something overwhelming. She writes about how spilt oil, a common occurrence in fishing boats, transforms into something spectacular—Rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! The moment is so powerful that the persona finds herself unable to do anything but bow to this newfound awareness and simply let the fish go.

The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
And held him beside the boat
Half out of water with my hook
Fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
Battered and venerable
And homely. Here and there
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.
He was speckled with barnacles,
Fine rosettes of lime,
And infested
With tiny white sea-lice,
And underneath two or three
Rags of green weed hung down.
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.
I looked into his eyes
Which were far larger than mine
But shallower, and yellowed,
The irises backed and packed
With tarnished tinfoil
Seen through the lenses
Of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
To return my stare.
–It was more the tipping
Of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
The mechanism of his jaw,
And then I saw
That from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip—
Grim, wet, and weaponlike,
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
When it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
Frayed and wavering,
A five-haired beard of wisdom
Trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
And victory filled up
The little rented boat,
From the pool of bilge
Where oil had spread a rainbow
Around the rusted engine
To the bailer rusted orange,
The sun-cracked thwarts,
The oarlocks and the strings,
The gunnels—until everything
Was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.