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November 11, 2004

Repeating of, and discourse concerning, Popping Culture's favorite poem.

Elizabeth Bishop, 1948

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 like strips
like ancient wall-paper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wall-paper:
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 like 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 weapon-like,
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 on their strings,
the gunnels - until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.


[By the midpoint of the poem] [t]he poet does not simply relinquish her desire for imaginative contact with the fish. But her attention shifts from spatial to historical imagining. History is no longer distant and figurative but "still attached" in the form of "five old pieces of fish-line, / or four and a wire leader / … with all five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth." Five wounds on a fish make him a Christ figure, but the epiphany he brings the poet has nothing otherwordly about it. The domestic images at the beginning of the poem, followed by the battered body of the fish, evoke the poet’s unconscious life, the uncanny return of the repressed which can "cut so badly." But Bishop can entertain such self-reflection now within the larger context of the life of nature and the beholder’s tentative grasp of it. She no longer has to define a discrete interior space through dream or symbolic abstraction in order to explore her subjectivity; she has brought the self out of nocturnal seclusion and explored its relation to everything under the sun.

There is also a pervasive but ambiguous sexual quality to the fish. An untamable, corporeal energy violates the domestic world of wallpaper and roses. The fish, a he, hangs like a giant phallus, yet as the beholder imagines his interior, its "pink swim-bladder / like a big peony,? He takes on a female aspect. Indeed, the hooks in his mouth suggest that phallic aggression is the fisherman’s (woman this time) part. This hermaphroditic fish challenges the conventional hierarchical antithesis of female nature and male culture. Here there is no struggle, and the victory is not exclusive.

For Bishop, nature mastered as static knowledge is a fish out of water. Its beauty and venerability belong to time. Yet it can be entertained, with a certain humility and lightness (such as simile registers), for its figurative possibilities. The poet "stared and stared" even though the fish did not return her stare. Her imagination transforms a "pool of bilge / where oil had spread a rainbow" into an ecstatic (and perhaps deliberately excessive) "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" Such an epiphany, set as iut is in the highly ephemeral space of the rented boat with its rusted engine, must be of mortality. The grotesque is the style of mortality not because it makes us turn away in horror but because it challenges the rigid frames of thought and perception through which we attempt to master life. All the conceptual and emotional contradictions that emerge within the description of the fish point to the letting go.

-from Bonnie Costello, "Attractive Mortality," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 63-64.


Throughout her work, she subverts the conventional Romantic trope of world-as-woman by insisting upon the indeterminate nature of nature--now female, now male, now ungendered other. And, as we might expect, Bishop is most subversive at her most Wordsworthian moments. In "The Fish," for example--strikingly Wordsworthian in its evocation of almost religious awe and joy in the presence of embodied nature--Bishop refigures the usual Romantic figure, making us see nature as a "He," a sort of finny five-star general:

But even as she develops her own alternative figure, Bishop holds it up to question. She introduces this fiercely independent, masculine version of the fish with a contrasting version--domestic, and (as a result of the poet's sly adaptation of the timeworn girls-as-flowers trope) suggestive of the feminine:

Determinedly "unpoetic" in her prosy rhythms, her patient agglomeration of seemingly random details and associations, Bishop here avoids poetic presumption, subjective sway. She acknowledges the tenuous relation of figurative language to reality with the tentativeness of simile ("Like medals"; "shapes like full-blown roses"; "like a big peony"). Humorously, she undercuts her own anthropomorphism ("--if you could call it a lip—"). And with a pile-up of arresting particulars, she tips the scale toward quizzical observation rather than controlling allegory.

Nevertheless, Bishop's frequently anthologized "The Fish" gradually accrues more allegorical point than most of her poems (one reason why it is a teachers' favorite). It slowly builds, as I have already suggested, toward a more Wordsworthian--more emotionally rounded, end-rhymed, and almost visionary--conclusion:

Bishop avoids Wordsworth's egocentric, centripetal action by externalizing, focusing outward, as the title of her poem tells us, on "The Fish." Whereas Wordsworth internalizes and subsumes a naturalized human being (the almost moss-covered leech-gatherer), Bishop attends to a separate, natural creature: first by "catching" the fish both literally and figuratively (by hooking it and simultaneously "capturing" it with self-conscious anthropomorphic comparisons), and then by letting the fish--together with any suggestion of co-optive figuration--go. Her perceptions lead not merely to imaginative conquest or introspection, but to a sense of mutual "victory" and a specific action. She saves the creature's life. The undeniably serious conclusion with its Noah's Ark-like rainbow still has about it her very quiet, and very un-Wordsworthian, touch of humor (in what is, after all, a kind of elaborate "fish story").

-From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.


Readers of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" commonly pose objections which concern opposite ends of the critical spectrum. One objection is to the integrity of Bishop's fish: it does not seem realistic; it is too ugly; what kind of fish is it supposed to be anyway? Another objection is to the conceptual limitations of the poem: the imagery is admirable, but that is not enough (certainly not enough to be worth spending extensive time on); after close examination of ugly old fish, fisherman releases it - so what?

The first objection, which Richard Moore touches upon en passant in an essay published twenty-five years ago, is the easiest to deal with. Noticing the lack of fight in the huge fish, Moore flirts with the notion that must occur to many sophisticated readers of poetry upon encountering this poem: "perhaps the fish seems so realistic and factual because it is not a 'real' fish at all. Moore adds, parenthetically, that "indeed, the reader never learns what species of fish it is." Of course some will immediately argue that the species of fish, whether identifiable or not, is irrelevant to the meaning of the poem; but it seems to me that considering Elizabeth Bishop's close associations with the sea (she had moved to Key West in 1938 after a childhood spent in a fishing village in Nova Scotia and in Boston), the fish might be supposed to be representative of an actual species.

At any rate, as a quondam Florida fisherman I have always supposed that Bishop's fish emerged from the salt waters of actual experience (the poem first appeared in Partisan Review in 1940, while she was living in Key West, and Bishop did enjoy fishing) and that it must be some sort of grouper. The Fisherman's Field Guide describes grouper as "broad-headed, thick-bodied, bottom- or reef-dwelling, predatory sea basses with very large mouths, protruding lower jaws, caniniform teeth, and scales that typically extend onto the bases of some or all fins." The fact that the grouper is a bottom feeder would likely account for the "rags of green weed" which cling to Bishop's fish (I. 21), and the hook-pierced "lower lip" (I. 48) is appropriately prominent. More specifically, the fish's coloration suggests that it is a large red grouper (Epinephelus morio), a type common to Florida and Caribbean waters. Weighing up to forty pounds, the red grouper is described as having a "squarish tail and a brownish-red or rusty head and body, darkly barred and marbled. Often, it has scattered white spots." Did Elizabeth Bishop mistake these spots for "tiny white sea-lice"(I. 19)? At that point, I think, the literal description of the fish interferes with the fish as the poet re-creates it. She wants the sea-lice in order to emphasize the ambiguous image created by the fish, which is simultaneously ugly and beautiful, a point to which we will return herafter.

Rube Allyn's Dictionary of Fishes, an angler's guide, adds some information about the grouper which is pertinent to the fifth and sixth lines of the poem, about which most commentators have something to say (more, perhaps, than is necessary). "In the traditional battle between man and fish," Nancy L. McNally writes, "the old and decrepit fish ... has simply refused to participate." Moore insists that the lines reinforce the size of the fish "by explaining how so huge a thing could be caught" and that they also "make the fish more interesting and mysterious." In his anglers' dictionary Allyn observes of the red grouper that they offer little resistance when hooked and are not considered a 'gamey' fish." Of its big brother (the largest on record weighs 735 pounds), commonly called the "jewfish," a modification of "jaw" similar to that in "jew's-harp," Allyn writes, "They immediately sulk when hooked and use all their energy in pulling straight down."

One other observation about the grouper is worthy of note: "They have bladders that are adjusted to depths they inhabit and when hauled in these bladders often expand and burst." Did Bishop know of this when she drew attention to "the pink swim-bladder/like a big peony"(II. 32-33)? If so, those lines, and indeed the whole poem, acquire a special significance - the marriage of beauty and death. This, like the blending of the beautiful with the ugly, is implicit at various times in the poem. Death is at the edges of Bishop's poem if only because the speaker has the power of life and death over the fish. Her portrait of the entrails, after all, is probably based upon actual fish-cleaning experience. (I am assuming a female persona in the poem, though nothing in the poem demands it. As a rule I think the speaker's sex should be identified with that of the poet, unless there are grounds to think otherwise.) As Wallace Stevens wrote in a quite different context, "Death is the mother of beauty." I take it that Stevens's provocative phrase means that beauty is definable at least partly in terms of its evanescence. Such beauty as Bishop's fish possesses is certainly waning.

-From "Some Observations on Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’" by Ronald E. McFarland. Arizona Quarterly 38:4 (Winter 1982)


"The Fish" [NS], Bishop's most frequently anthologized poem, relies upon a Wordsworthian spiritual exercise to justify a rowboat transformation from plunderer to benefactor. The collapse of distinctions between land and sea, the air and earth of the speaker, obscures the borders between life and art. Bishop perceives the fish in land-language of "feathers" and "peonies" and "tinfoil" and "isinglass." Even as she works those changes, however, the fish works reciprocal wonders of its own. Passive resistance deprives the fishing poet of her triumph: "He didn't fight. / He hadn't fought at all." She soon understands that her knowledge of the fish is inaccurate.

Evidence of past encounters—"two heavier lines, / and a fine black thread / still crimped from the strain and snap / when it broke and he got away"—tells of a different fish. Earlier seen as "battered and venerable / and homely" (the line-break softening the accuracy of description), the fish now assumes the mock-role of tribal elder and hero:

Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.

Deprived of the fight, the poet must contemplate her position as the harbinger of death. The "little rented boat" marks a closed world wherein the speaker represents the moral force of her species. Taken by the incongruity and insignificance of the colloquy, the reader is swept from the sensuous into the psychological, then moved beyond earthly particulars to a spiritual whole:

[lines 65-76]

As in the Christian parable, the oil upon the waters brings peace. It also engenders communication with the otherworldly. Through a rare Wordsworthian "spot of time," a genuine epiphany, the poet admits, somewhat reluctantly, a momentary conventional wisdom. This leap from perception to wisdom signals the arbitrariness so characteristic of the epiphany.

Though "The Fish" is certainly central to her canon, Bishop's boredom and dissatisfaction with the poem suggests a fear that the poem settles into sentiment instead of expanding into true wisdom.

-from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language by C. K. Doreski. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP


Perhaps nowhere else in Bishop's poetry is the eye's journey so celebrated as in her much anthologized poem "The Fish," The journey begins with the external, in the realm of the unseeing self, with the prosaic opening lines:

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.

The first word, "I," a pun on the self and the self that sees, preludes the opening--and flowering--of our eyes and our language. The direct and graphic description of a situation remains a moment when we look but are not yet actively and imaginatively engaged. We are external and separate since we have no connection with the other.

While Bishop examines the fish, she also begins to enter the body of figurative language:

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.

The simile creates depth: we enter the house of language, where things stand behind things and each is dependent on the others--for they are linked by the trope's marker "like." By repeating the wallpaper simile, the apparent domesticity of the narrator is revealed and there is a convergence of two distinctly different worlds. Implicit in this convergence is a revelation of decay and mutability through the lucidity of her observation of the fish's patterned and peeling skin.

After continuing the examination of the exterior of the fish with an increasing degree of metaphor and precision--barnacles are "fine rosettes of lime," the fish is clothed with "rags"--the poet is rhetorically self-defined and imaginatively penetrates the fish:

I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers, [. . .]
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

The power of observation and looking resides in and rises with the power of imagining. We move closer to the certainty we believe lies in the tactility of physical presence--be it fish or rhetoric. At each of these liminal moments transformation takes place, since we cross the abyss between the two halves of a metaphor or simile.

The movement into the fish also initiates self-interrogation. Through the use of self-reflexive tropes, the narrator crosses the threshold of exteriority--where objects remain either marginalized or idealized discretes--into a realm where objects are interrelated not only among themselves but with us. The narrator stares into the fish's eyes, only to have the fish "not / ... return my stare" and deny any anthropomorphic pathos and sympathy. Self-reflexivity at this moment becomes transparent: the narrator acknowledges her own regard, seeing herself in relation with the other as two beings, rather than a subject distanced from (and desiring appropriation of) an object. The aside that qualifies the event--"It was more like the tipping / of an object toward the light"--qualifies the perception and makes presence more provisional. The fish mediates between the narrator and a language with which she can picture herself. The description of the wallpaper, the flower imagery, and the metaphors of ornament and clothing comprise a taxonomy that composes the speaker and creates the mystery of the speaker's presence. She is both present in these details and absent, in that the details are metaphors whose other term is left unstated. Figurative language becomes the common and defining ground that both the fish and the speaker, in their mutual mysteriousness, share.

The narrator implicitly acknowledges the limitations of language through the use of such asides as "if you could call it a lip." In using language, we impose it upon the world either to bring the world and ourselves into renewed relation or to subject the world to discipline, thus imprisoning the world and refiguring language as disciplinary. Yet figurative language also subverts the subjective and repressive qualities of language. To realize this double bind becomes a form of transcendence, though not the hierarchical transcendence of unicity. Transcendence here is the process of the dialectical movement of figurative language. The sharpening of observation, exemplified by the correction of "five old pieces of fish-line" to "or four and a wire leader / with the swivel still attached," reflects the process of reifying the self, the other, and language. Speculation is transformative and interminable, as exemplified when the fishing equipment becomes medals of valor "with their ribbons / frayed and wavering," before they are transformed again into "a five-haired beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw." The fish can never be defined or gazed upon as a totality--any definition of any particular is exchanged for another. The generation of metaphors, one displacing another, grants language its continuation and life; thus, the narrator is caught in an interminable process of focusing her vision--but at some point the vision can no longer be sustained; instead it must be relinquished.

Bishop's imperative in "The Monument" ("Watch it closely") echoes "The Fish" ("I stared and stared") and describes this potentially interminable movement of perception, which is tantamount to the poem. During the process of increasing attentiveness, the speaker glimpses a provisional fullness:

I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
[. . . ] until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

The fish fills with language until it can hold no more. It is at this moment that the generation of language can go no farther. The fish must be discarded and replaced. The self has also reached its own limits of creation and definition. Artifice, if it is to remain coherent, finds itself limited. Still unanswered is whether nature is equally limited, or if it is that which remains limiting and unapprehendable. The rainbow of oil leaking onto the water's surface replaces the fish and allows discursive connections to continue. This dispensation, however, is ironic: it takes place in a grubby rented boat, where the language wears out, indicated by the repetition of "rusted" in two successive lines. The "victory" is the rainbow of a thin film of oil spreading across the bilge waters, overrunning the "pool of bilge," to spread over everything. Similarly, the rainbow draws together the multitude of colors found throughout the poem, which parallels a rainbow's concordance of the undistorted visible colors of the spectrum. The rainbow spreads over the boat and over language "until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" Though it is tempting to read the final lines as an ecstatic moment that marks the narrator's full recognition of the fish and interconnectedness, such a reading remains naive, for the poem has come to describe the generative and metonymical functions of language. Jerome Mazzaro considers these final lines a parody of "God's restoration of dominion to Noah" in which Bishop's wry evolutionist stance suggests that humans' dominion is only by accident and technology. Although the rainbow reflects a new dispensation, it is one that inscribes, as Mazzaro argues, departure and uncertainty. The simple rhyme of "rainbow" and "go" underscores the provisionality of any interconnection, since it recalls the passage and loss of childhood. We must let go any notion of totality or synthesis, either rhetorical or existential. Instead, the materiality of language and time comes to be emphasized; the poem lets go of the symbolic, and reinvents the relational. The poem moves toward transcendent closure with "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow," but opens up and initiates a new, though unfigured, process that subverts closure and death: "And I let the fish go."

-From The Still Performance: Writing, Self, and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets by James McCorkle. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.

Posted by Dan at November 11, 2004 07:49 AM

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