“The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop: Analysis

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“The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop

Text of the selected poem:

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.1
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely.2 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.3
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 oxygen4
— 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.5
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,6
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.7
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,8
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.


  1. These two lines make the poem’s mood sad and even hopeless, showing a parallel between a miserable fish and some humans who, after overcoming many obstacles, finally give up and decide to accept their death.
  2. The two epithets, “venerable and homely,” help the author anthropomorphize the creature and show that the lyrical hero starts to perceive it as having its own history, as well as an animal deserving of respect, adding a tone of nostalgia.
  3. Even when looking at the most distant animals that live in a completely different environment, people strive to find in them echoes of something understandable and native. These epithets, similes, and metaphors help the author show their changing attitude towards their catch.
  4. One may wonder how oxygen, the necessary air element, can be ‘terrible.’ This is a rather interesting epithet that shows that what we need can also kill us. This fish needs oxygen to live, but if not taken properly, the same oxygen becomes useless.
  5. Nature is amazing in its forms, and when comparing parts of the fish with a bird’s feathers and different flowers, the author again highlights numerous similarities between living creatures and flora.
  6. The captured fish is a fighter who has escaped its death several times, and this fact surprises the lyrical hero and makes them change their mind.
  7. These hooks are indeed like medals or souvenirs reminding the fish of its victories. Similarly, many humans have scars or other proofs of their former fight, symbolizing their experience and wisdom.
  8. As one of the best and most powerful feelings in the world, victory can be felt physically, even when it belongs to one of the smallest creatures.


While Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” may seem too simple or meaningless, only describing the lyrical hero’s fishing experience, it is actually a quite deep and impactful literary work. The poem illustrates how an ordinary situation can change one’s views or intentions. All living creatures, even different kinds of animals, can have their own history and a number of personal victories. Therefore, in some situations, people may want to respect the life experience of a fish or another creature.

Work Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Fish.” Poetry By Heart, 1946,