Vicki Graham: On "At the Fishhouses"

A single line of perfectly regular iambic pentameter divides Elizabeth Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" neatly in half, separating a detailed and restrained description of an old fisherman, the Nova Scotia shoreline, and the tools of the fishing trade from an equally detailed but more passionate description of the ocean itself. In the opening lines, the speaker's voice is calm, her tone impersonal. An acute observer, she carefully maintains her distance from the static scene she describes. Throughout this section, Bishop uses long, free verse lines of three to six strong stresses. The restraint of these first 40 lines culminates in a line of pure iambic pentameter that describes the old fisherman's knife, "the blade of which is almost worn away." In the second half of the poem, the voice changes markedly. The formal pronoun "one" gives way first to "I" and then to the conversational "you." The speaker puts herself directly into the scene, imagining the sea's cold in her bones. The ocean, which was heavy and almost still in the opening, becomes a "transmutation of fire / that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame." No longer contained, it is, like the knowledge Bishop compares it to, "flowing, and flown."

Bishop's use of a perfectly regular iambic pentameter line to present the old fisherman's knife, an essential tool of the fishing trade, merges one of the poet's tools - meter - with the fisherman's. The line's placement at the center of the poem calls attention to the poem's underlying argument, that the poet, like the fisherman, exercises a difficult craft.

Images of work dominate the first half of the poem. The old man sits by the shore weaving a fish net, his shuttle worn smooth by use. He is surrounded by the trappings of the fishing trade, which the speaker describes in detail, moving from the old man's shuttle to the fishhouses and their "steeply peaked roofs," the "narrow, cleated gangplanks," the lobster pots and masts, the fish tubs which are "completely lined / with layers of beautiful herring scales," and the wheelbarrows, "similarly plastered / with creamy iridescent coats of mail." The scene is static, as though painted. The ocean swells but does not break; only the flies move, minute bits of iridescence crawling over the tube. The carefully detailed description of the scene and its radiance suggests, even this early in the poem, that Bishop wanted readers to see that work makes things beautiful.

Twenty-five lines later the speaker turns back to the old man, a friend of her grandfather's. For the first time in the poem she uses a first person pronoun: "we talk of the decline in the population / and of codfish and herring / while he waits for a herring boat to come in." Through the pronoun "we," the speaker inserts herself into the scene, becoming a participant instead of an observer. "We" also identifies her with the old man, not only through family connections, but through their common interest and shared conversation. The section ends with an image of the old man at work:

[. . . .]

As soon as the old man's knife enters the poem, the poem moves into its first line of pure iambic pentameter. The work of the fisherman scaling his fish becomes an analogy for the work of the poet who shapes a perfectly regular line. This line becomes the poet's knife, a tool that allows her to cut through the surface beauty of the shore to the more substantial beauty of the sea. The line simultaneously closes this section of the poem and introduces the next.

Motion predominates in the second half of the poem. Earlier, everything was still and contained; even the sea was heavy, opaque. Now, everything begins to move. But the line of iambic pentameter marks a boundary between shore and water, stasis and motion, which the speaker is reluctant to cross. She has reached, in the line of pentameter, a moment of closure. To go beyond it, she must invent a new rhythm and enter a new realm with a different order, both poetically and thematically. She hesitates, tensed against immersion in the sea, and focuses the next verse paragraph on the water's edge, the place of entrance and exit. Movement into the water is countered by movement out of it:

[. . . .]

The final verse paragraph opens with an image of the sea, "Cold dark deep and absolutely clear," suggesting that the speaker can finally approach the sea. But still she hesitates. Though her tone has become more personal, she interrupts progress towards the sea, distracting herself with a description of a seal who listens to her sing. Then she tries again, repeating the line, "Cold dark deep and absolutely clear," and adding, "The clear gray icy water . . ." (ellipsis hers). Again she interrupts herself, examining the firs behinds her. But, like the seal to whom she sings Baptist hymns, she believes in "total immersion," and in the last part of the poem she finally reaches the sea.

"Total immersion" in the poem, however, is metaphorical; the speaker never touches the water - she doesn't even dip her hand in. But literal immersion is not necessary; what matters is for the poet to bring the poem into alignment with the sea. Once again a regular line of iambic pentameter breaks suspension:

[. . . .]

The suspension broken, repetition and anaphora set up a new rhythm which is as compelling and variable as the sea's:

[. . . .]

The line of iambic pentameter at the center of "At the Fishhouses" suggests that Bishop intended to direct attention to work and to the mastering of craft. She meant us to understand that we can't get to the sea, to knowledge, without work. Adam's curse falls on fisherman and poet alike. Both must labor. Like the old man working in the twilight, the poet must handle her knife precisely, using her craft to release beauty.

From The Explicator 53.2 (Winter 1995)


Title Vicki Graham: On "At the Fishhouses" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Vicki Graham Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication "At the Fishhouses" from The Explicator
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