The Fish Summary and Analysis by Elizabeth Bishop

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About the author: The twentieth century American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, is celebrated for her elegance, her use of explicit imagery, short and precise language. Her poems revealed her thoughts and filled her work with the places and emotional states that that are influenced by various aspects such as nomadic travel, lesbianism, depression and alcohol. She has several accolades attached to her name, she was Consultant in Poetry to the Liberty of Congress from 1949 to 1950, she was also the winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1956, and she also bagged the National Book Award in 1970, as well as the recipient of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976. She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, United States. Losing her father to death at the age of eight months, institutionalization of her mentally ill mother, thereafter, she had a mournful childhood. She lived with her grandparents on a farm in Great Village, Nova Scotia, a time she often mentions in her works. Her mother remained in an asylum until her death in 1934. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1934. Later her paternal family gets her custody and she moved to Worcester to live with her father wealthy family. Her time here is accounted in her poem “In the Waiting Room”.

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Poetic Devices:

METAPHOR: Line 10: the skin of the fish is compared to “ancient wallpaper” to denote that his skin    is old and has patterns like old wallpapers.

Line 17: the word lime is used as equivalent to some alkaline substance.

An important poetic device used is the colours. There are colours like green, red (rose wallpaper), yellow, brown, pink, “red and black”, orange has been used and finally the “rainbow”. The colour gets more vibrant as the poem proceeds. The rainbow comes after the build-up of all the colours which coincides with the action of the poem. The appearance of the rainbow is immediately followed by the release of the fish, putting together of all the colours mentioned previously can be corresponded to the captor collecting all the pieces together and coming to the decision of letting the fish go. 

Summary of the poem The Fish

Bishop quite straightforwardly starts the poem saying “I caught a tremendous fish/ and held him beside the boat”. This makes the setting of the poem clear to the reader- on a body of water in a boat. The speaker has caught the fish; the third and fourth line is worth noticing as the poet writes “my” hook in “his” mouth, thereby drawing a relationship between the fish and the fisher which is more personal. The fact that the fish “hadn’t fought all” is indeed sad, and will be significant later into the poem. The following lines are interesting as the fish still lies immobile without any sign of resistance. The poet uses two words “battered and venerable” which are usually identified with war fought soldiers and veterans. There is a sense of respect that the fisher has for the fish probably for its decision to not fight. Bishop gets all poetic in describing the skin of the fish which is “brown” hangs “in strips/ like ancient wallpaper”.

Just like wallpaper it has “pattern of darker brown”; like the ancient wallpapers the skin of the fish too has a roses like pattern. The poet further elaborates on the pattern on the fish- “He was speckled with barnacles, / fine rosettes of lime”. There is a shift in the description of the fish in line twenty and twenty one, where the poet ceases the mention of the praiseworthy rose rather there the mention of the filthy seaweed that has grown on the fish. All this while the fish was celebrated as strong and tough is now, in line twenty two, introduced as a vulnerable being affect by the “terrible oxygen”. From line twenty three onwards the reader feels the turmoil that the speaker is going through; all this time she was confident and proud of the catch but now the situation and the condition of the fish is deliberately making the fisher think. The poet moves on to talk about the beauty of the fish that is unseen to the mortal eyes; she uses her poetic imagination to propagate the same. The mention of “big bones and the little bones, / the dramatic reds and blacks/ of his shiny entails” displays the new closeness that the fisher feels for the fish.

Line thirty four and thirty five holds absolute importance, as finally the fisher “looked into his eyes”; finally the two opposite components of the same situation has made an interaction. The captor of the fish is literally interacting with the fish through eyes in line forty one to forty four, where the eyes of the fish “shifted a little, but not/ to return my stare. / -it was more like the tipping of an object toward the light”. The captor is gradually losing the initial confidence. This is proved by the following line where the captor admire “the sullen face, / the mechanism of his jaw,” The “five ol pieces of fish-line,” that hung “from his lower lip- if you could call it a lip-“ tugs hard at the heart of the reader as well as the captor. The speaker treats the fish once as again as a martyr mentioning “medals with their ribbons/ frayed and wavering,”. There is once again a shift in the tone of the poem. The captor reposes his focus from the fish to the surrounding, hence the mention of “the pool of bilge/ where oil had spread a rainbow”. In the final line the reader is informed that he has “let the fish go”. Finally the reader is left with the question that who gets to experience the feeling of “victory”? Is it the fish who like the past five times once again escapes the horror of death? Or is it the captor who for some unknown reason lets the fish go?

Analysis of the poem The Fish:

The poem though written in a simple language seems to hide a much deeper meaning within itself. At the initial stage the poem is a simple narration about what happened on a particular day. The speaker is obviously a fisher who has caught a big fish. The sense of detachment that prevails in the initial lines of the poem is evident in the lines where all that matters to the captor is the size of the fish but this sense is also mixed with a trace of respect that this captor has for the fish. As the fish doesn’t resist neither does it put up any fight against the capture, the captor dedicates several lines to praise the wisdom of the fish. The poem can either be read as the ecosystem awareness of the poet which is reflected in the last few lines where “the pool of bilge/ where oil had spread a rainbow.

There can be another interpretation of the poem. Presumably the captor after the initial praising of the fish must have found some connection with it. The captor either because of the tremendous respect that he has for the fish or because he could she similarity between the fish and himself, where both are stuck in the world and has been surviving in spite of all pain and changes. The perceptible attitude of the captor toward the beginning experiences a gradual change during the poem. The captor eventually feels for the fish, from respect it moves to a sense of empathy; perhaps this influences his decision to let the fish go. Perhaps the captor too has been through hardships and now waits to be free just like the fish.

Tone of the poem: The tone of the poem though superficially changes in the course of the poem but the core theme remains unchanged. The beginning of the poem is marked by the captor’s appreciation of the fish, and it ends with the captor releasing the fish for some untold reason. The reader is left to decide why he let the fish go. The poem has remarkable aspect where the poet magnifies onto the smallest of the features of the fish both physical as well as this not visible to a regular person who lacks the poetic feelings.

Conclusion: One of the principal attribute of this poem is the various components that it has. The spilling of the oil and the rainbow colour that the water holds to the ripped and battered condition of the fish reminds one of the ecosystem; the polluted water and its adverse effect on the water ecosystem. On the other hand the entire poem can be read as the captor meeting another self in another species who, may be, just like the captor has been through a lot; hence the captor feels his pain and lets him go. The poem is carries the traces of Bishop’s poetic excellence.

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