Ronald E. McFarland: On "The Fish"

Readers of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" commonly pose objections which concern opposite ends of the critical spectrum. One objection is to the integrity of Bishop's fish: it does not seem realistic; it is too ugly; what kind of fish is it supposed to be anyway? Another objection is to the conceptual limitations of the poem: the imagery is admirable, but that is not enough (certainly not enough to be worth spending extensive time on); after close examination of ugly old fish, fisherman releases it - so what?

The first objection, which Richard Moore touches upon en passant in an essay published twenty-five years ago, is the easiest to deal with. Noticing the lack of fight in the huge fish, Moore flirts with the notion that must occur to many sophisticated readers of poetry upon encountering this poem: "perhaps the fish seems so realistic and factual because it is not a 'real' fish at all. Moore adds, parenthetically, that "indeed, the reader never learns what species of fish it is." Of course some will immediately argue that the species of fish, whether identifiable or not, is irrelevant to the meaning of the poem; but it seems to me that considering Elizabeth Bishop's close associations with the sea (she had moved to Key West in 1938 after a childhood spent in a fishing village in Nova Scotia and in Boston), the fish might be supposed to be representative of an actual species.

At any rate, as a quondam Florida fisherman I have always supposed that Bishop's fish emerged from the salt waters of actual experience (the poem first appeared in Partisan Review in 1940, while she was living in Key West, and Bishop did enjoy fishing) and that it must be some sort of grouper. The Fisherman's Field Guide describes grouper as "broad-headed, thick-bodied, bottom- or reef-dwelling, predatory sea basses with very large mouths, protruding lower jaws, caniniform teeth, and scales that typically extend onto the bases of some or all fins." The fact that the grouper is a bottom feeder would likely account for the "rags of green weed" which cling to Bishop's fish (I. 21), and the hook-pierced "lower lip" (I. 48) is appropriately prominent. More specifically, the fish's coloration suggests that it is a large red grouper (Epinephelus morio), a type common to Florida and Caribbean waters. Weighing up to forty pounds, the red grouper is described as having a "squarish tail and a brownish-red or rusty head and body, darkly barred and marbled. Often, it has scattered white spots." Did Elizabeth Bishop mistake these spots for "tiny white sea-lice"(I. 19)? At that point, I think, the literal description of the fish interferes with the fish as the poet re-creates it. She wants the sea-lice in order to emphasize the ambiguous image created by the fish, which is simultaneously ugly and beautiful, a point to which we will return herafter.

Rube Allyn's Dictionary of Fishes, an angler's guide, adds some information about the grouper which is pertinent to the fifth and sixth lines of the poem, about which most commentators have something to say (more, perhaps, than is necessary). "In the traditional battle between man and fish," Nancy L. McNally writes, "the old and decrepit fish ... has simply refused to participate." Moore insists that the lines reinforce the size of the fish "by explaining how so huge a thing could be caught" and that they also "make the fish more interesting and mysterious." In his anglers' dictionary Allyn observes of the red grouper that they offer little resistance when hooked and are not considered a 'gamey' fish." Of its big brother (the largest on record weighs 735 pounds), commonly called the "jewfish," a modification of "jaw" similar to that in "jew's-harp," Allyn writes, "They immediately sulk when hooked and use all their energy in pulling straight down."

One other observation about the grouper is worthy of note: "They have bladders that are adjusted to depths they inhabit and when hauled in these bladders often expand and burst." Did Bishop know of this when she drew attention to "the pink swim-bladder/like a big peony"(II. 32-33)? If so, those lines, and indeed the whole poem, acquire a special significance - the marriage of beauty and death. This, like the blending of the beautiful with the ugly, is implicit at various times in the poem. Death is at the edges of Bishop's poem if only because the speaker has the power of life and death over the fish. Her portrait of the entrails, after all, is probably based upon actual fish-cleaning experience. (I am assuming a female persona in the poem, though nothing in the poem demands it. As a rule I think the speaker's sex should be identified with that of the poet, unless there are grounds to think otherwise.) As Wallace Stevens wrote in a quite different context, "Death is the mother of beauty." I take it that Stevens's provocative phrase means that beauty is definable at least partly in terms of its evanescence. Such beauty as Bishop's fish possesses is certainly waning.


From "Some Observations on Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’" Arizona Quarterly 38:4 (Winter 1982)


Title Ronald E. McFarland: On "The Fish" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ronald E. McFarland Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Sep 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Some Observations on Elizabeth Bishop’s "The Fish"
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Contexts No Data Tags angler's guide, Wallace Stevens

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