‘The Fish’ by Elizabeth Bishop

The Fish

by Elizabeth Bishop

Upon analysing a poem, I like to decode it in a particular way. I like to read the poem as if it were a story. This helps me to generate an understanding of both the poet and the poem’s context.  The following notes outline the story of ‘The Fish’. Once an understanding of this poem’s story has been established you will then be able to more effectively create your own opinions and observations.

The Story of the Poem

  1. The poet catches a ‘…tremendous fish…’.
  2. The speaker is surprised, given it’s enormity, that it didn’t put up any resistance when it was caught ‘He didn’t fight, he hadn’t fought at all.’
  3. The fish is old, ugly and ragged. Bishop employs her keen eye for detail in order to express both the fish’s beauty, and it’s flaws.
  4. In particular Bishop focuses on the fish’s eyes ‘…which were far larger than mine but shallower, and yellowed.’ The speaker acknowledges that herself and the fish never make eye contact, instead the fish’s eyes tilt toward the sun.
  5. The attention of the speaker then shifts to the structure of the fish’s jaw. She notices ‘…five big hooks…’ lodged firmly on the lip of the fish. These hooks are like ‘…medals with their ribbons…’
  6. The Epiphany/Moment of Awareness – Seeing these hooks has an overwhelming effect on the speaker. Bishop realises that she is looking at something remarkable, something to be celebrated. 
  7. The fact that the fish has overcome adversity fills Bishop with an intense sense of victory. Her outlook on the world is suddenly transformed. 
  8. A powerful image heightens the impact of this epiphany – an oil pool on the floor of the boat reflects the sunlight and provides the speaker with a rainbow coloured mirage/visual (celebratory, inspiring and uplifting).
  9. This visual provides an element of colour in the otherwise grim setting of the poem. It, perhaps momentarily, suggests that Bishops world has been injected with a sense of hope.
  10. The speaker obtains an undeniable moment of inspiration from the fish’s ability to overcome adversity in the face of danger (represented through the five hooks which have ‘…grown in his mouth.’ Bishop admires the fish’s ability to withstand life’s obstacles and it’s inherent ability to endure life’s hardships.
  11. A respect is formed and the speaker decides to ‘…let the fish go.’

*Anthropomorphism: giving an animal human qualities. 

Strong Imagery:

  1. ‘…battered and venerable and homely.’
  2. ‘…infested with tiny white sea-lice.’
  3. ‘…with all their five big hooks grown firmly in his mouth.’
  4. ‘Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering.’
  5. ‘…- until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! 

Use this Poem When Discussing:

  • Bishop’s keen eye for detail
  • Bishop’s ability to find beauty in everyday objects/places
  • Bishop’s love for nature
  • Bishop obtaining moments of awareness/epiphanies
  • Bishop’s ability to reflect on human existence 
  • Bishop’s tendencies to make profound observations on life


As always, don’t hesitate to ask any questions you may have.

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