The poem The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop combines both an everyday experience and a feeling that approaches an almost mystical ecstasy. Indeed, the central thrust of the poem lies in the way in which Bishop is able to generate this intensity of feeling out of careful interaction the details an movements of everyday life, as focused on the act of gazing at a fish. This paper will explicate this claim by considering key aspects of the poem’s content and technique.

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According to one Tosete, several aspects of Bishops poetry revolve a conception of looking and being looked, in particular she manifests a deep interests, and even a nostalgia, for ‘gaze’ which is able to communicate in a way that communicates without dominating what is being looked at (2002, 204). This conception of a gaze that, while it may once have been to communicate freely is now doomed to being incomplete is central to the poem The Fish. Indeed, after having described that fact that she caught a fish one day, Bishop maintains the rest of the poem as a long description of a simple act of looking. She writes in way that demonstrates that the fish offers itself up to her gaze, and in doing so she describes it as an almost stately human figure: ‘He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all. / He hung a grunting weight, / battered and Venerable / and homely’ (1995, 930). The short, self contained sentence in these lines serve to generate a collection of predicates and action which generate the fish as both a passive figure with regard to movement, but also one with an detailed personal history. The weight of this history ‘hangs’ on the fish, despite that the fact that he doe not fight or move. In this way, the poem shows the fish as dense but hopeless before the gaze of the one viewing it.

The poem works through details in order to build a complete description of the fish itself, and then describes a key moment in which the the speaker looks into the eyes of the fish which, although they may appear to be alive, cannot communicate in the way in which she hopes: ‘I looked into his eyes / which were far larger than mine / but shallower and yellowed, / the irises blacked and packed / with tarnished tin foil / … They shifted a little / but not to return my stare / It was more like the tipping / of an object toward the light’ (931). The tight prosody and one internal rhyme within these lines serve to generate again a collection of predicates that build up to a vivid image, and one which attempts to position the fish as a similar subject to the speaker of the poem. However, this connection is both suggested and denied as the speaker states that the fish moves its eyes, but only as an object would move them. In this way, the speaker appears disappointed that they are unable to communicate with fish as if it were a person. However, this disappointment is mediated by the consistent objectification of the fish which takes place throughout the poem.

The final lines of the poem makes this paradox clear as the poet states that her boat was suffused with ‘victory’ as the oil from the boat that she was in turned the water her into rainbow colours. The poem ends with two lines both affirm this victory and also suggest that it is ephemeral and temporary as it is conducted over something that is more object than subject. Bishop writes that all around the boat; ‘was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go” (932). The penultimate line generates a sense of ecstasy in the everyday and the victory over the fish reaches its limit, however immediately following this moment the poem is returned to time and the fish swims away, unable to reciprocate or fully understand the gaze of the viewer, with the bathos of the moment emphasized by the soft rhyme between the lines.

In conclusion, therefore, one should see The Fish as elaborating a complex discourse on the subject’s relationship to nature and its desire for communication. This discourse centres around a gaze that objectifies and desires reciprocity in the same instant.

  • Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Fish.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama. Sixth Edition. Edited by X. J. Kennedy. Harpercollins: New York, 1995. pp. 930-932.
  • Tosete, Ernesto. “And Looked Away Our Infant Sight.” Nostalgia for the Innocent Gaze in Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry. Atlantis 24 (2). 2002. pp. 203-213.