Online Poems

for Craig White's Literature Courses

The Fish


by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79)

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.                                          (5)
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                    (10)
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.                  (15)
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three                   (20)
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,                       (25)
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                   (30)
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.             [peony: large globular flower of white, pink, or red]
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine                (35)
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.     (40)  [isinglass = semitransparent gelatinic substance from air-bladders of some fresh-water fishes]
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,                            (45)
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,                         (50)
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.                            (55)
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.                   (60)
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared                                       (65)
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge        [bilge: bottom-most part of a boat]
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine                             (70)
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything         [gunnels or gunwales: upper side of boat]
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!                  (75)
And I let the fish go.

Discussion questions:

1. What's Romantic (or not) about the poem?

2. What gothic or sublime elements are identifiable? What mood or tone do they build?

3. Given that the poem is written during the Modern or postmodern era, how may "The Fish" transcend Romanticism to become Modern(ist) or something else (maybe Realistic?)?


peony blossom