On Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish"

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

The Fish

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 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 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 on their strings, the gunnels—until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! And I let the fish go.

Quick Comment

This is Elizabeth Bishop's wonderful poem about observation, personification, great physical detail, and an all too common occurrence turned into a morality play. Catching the fish was no great accomplishment for her (or the speaker) until she noticed the emblems of the other times the fish had been caught and either escaped or had been thrown back. These mundane reminders of past struggles and victories cast a doubt in her mind about the value of her accomplishment. What is the victory for the fisherwoman with all her advantages? What torment does fishing inflict? What treasure can she cherish?

All these questions demonstrate Bishop's great insights into the hollow capture of an innocent, unwitting victim. Then, with the oil spill from her boat seeping past, we behold the further pollution of the natural habitat of the fish. And this is no imaginary harm. Not only is this creature harassed by hooks and lines, but its captor, unwillingly perhaps, ruins the natural space where the fish could escape, and once set free, flourish.

"The Fish" is typically praised for its physicality, which is strong. But simile and metaphor humanize the fish and render its being caught an empty ritual, with great destructive overtones. This poem bears re-reading and is second only to Bishop's "One Art," a masterpiece about losing. Read all of her work, and you will continue to be amazed.

-- Arlice W. Davenport

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