On Poetry

Close Reading “The Fish”


The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop introduces two characters and the setting in the first sentence of the piece. The reader is taken to a fishing boat, where the poet has caught a ‘tremendous fish’. This immediately introduces the fish as something special and magnificent, by using tremendous to describe the fish the reader is able to visualize a fish of larger size. In addition by describing the location of the fish to be ‘half out of water’ the poet continues the imagery of the fish’s size by stating it is too large to be pulled completely into the boat. It can also be noted that the poem is being told in past tense, which gives it a reflective and thoughtful tone. As a reader some questions are brought to our mind, such as what does the fish symbolize, if anything and what does the catching of this fish mean? Is our main character the fish, or is it the poet? Is the poet a skilled fisherman or is this a spontaneous outing?

The poem focuses on the poet’s feelings and actions first but then the second sentence shifts to the poet’s observations of the fish; “He didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all.” The repetition of the lack of fight from the fish emphasizes a feeling of hopelessness from the fish especially because when someone goes fishing it typically means the end of life for a fish. The fish seems to be accepting his impending death. This feeling of hopelessness continues in the next sentence by the phrase “he hung a grunting weight, battered…and homely” with the words hung, grunting, battered, and homely. There is a change in the tone though with the word “venerable” which is also used to describe the fish. “Venerable” means to command respect because of great age and impressive dignity, which really contrasts with the other words that have been used to describe the fish so far and gives the fish new characteristics.

In the next sentence the fisherman describes the fish by comparing his brown skin to “ancient wallpaper” and being “stained and lost through age” which reiterates the feeling of age and frailness from the fish. As a reader we are able to see the first introduction of color, and it is not vibrant or positive in any way, but that changes when we move to the next line where lime, white and green are discussed as items decorating the fish. There is a shift here in the fish’s appearance which started out as hopeless and colorless to now growing into delicate “rosettes of lime” and “tiny white sea- lice”.

We are reminded that the fish is slowly dying by “breathing in the terrible oxygen” and continues the sullen mood, there is a shift though of the description from the fish’s outside appearance to thoughts about the fish’s insides. Inside of the fish more colors appear, and there is a comparison to a flower which could lead the reader to believe there is more to this fish than just his outside appearance. This is followed by imagery of the fish’s eyes to be bigger than the fisherman’s which could suggest that the fish has seen more in life and has more wisdom when compared to the fisherman, there is also diction such as “yellowed…tarnished…old” which continue the suggestion of age in the fish.

The fish’s lip stands out because of the hooks that are attached to it, the simile comparing the hooks to medals suggest a prestige from the fish, he has escaped death multiple times in his life and now has come to the end now by being caught and accepting his fate now. We know that unlike the current fisherman the fish isn’t let go because of the imagery from how the hooks are “strained and snap”.

The fisherman swells with victory in a small rented boat which because the boat is rented suggests the fisherman doesn’t go often and is very contemplative of their experience fishing which leads to these thoughts about a wise fish’s life and could possibly show why the fisherman was so moved by this experience they realized it would be better to let the fish go.



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