My Literary Evaluations

Of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.”

The Fish (1946)

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.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely.  Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wall-paper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wall-paper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rages of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
–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.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine.
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed adn 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 weapon-like,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
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.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
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.

My criticism begins here.

 This poem is about a fish.  The fish is also a symbol of Christianity. 
It is this symbol that condenses multiple meanings of the fish.  First, the fish
is an allusion to the whale in the Bible.  Jonah was swallowed by a whale.
But his engorgement is almost seen as protective; it’s not a bad experience.
God spares him.  After three days and three nights, God causes the whale to belch Jonah out from inside the belly of the whale.  He is temporarily reprieved from God’s persecution. 
          The second allusion is to Melville’s Moby Dick.  In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is hell-bent on killing the white whale for revenge.  He had to punish it for taking his leg.  The whale is death; its whiteness suggests an immeasurable or timeless history.  Although harpooned, the whale does not die.  It submerges with Ahab tethered to him.  In Ahab’s pursuit of personal justice against the whale, collateral damage is expected.  Most of the crew of the Pequod die, begging the question whether the forgiveness might not
have served the beleagured Captain.   

Silvia Plath’s Mirror
 
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
 
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me.
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
          The third allusion of Elizabeth Bishop’s fish is to Sylvia Plath’s “The Mirror,” in which a woman feels dread toward a bleak old age.  Perceiving her youth consumed by worry and her future overlayed with images of loneliness, her bitterness and resentment are condensed into the image of the “terrible fish” that “Rises toward her day after day.”  The poem ends with the lines, “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.”  Where Plath’s poem ends with tremors over cumulative grief, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem starts.  Plath was considered a confessional poet, one who used her poetry to revolt against the veneer of perfection and reveal the awful.  Bishop attempts to deflect bitterness and regret from our most sacred traumas,
disspelling our feelings and justification for pessimism, for self-loathing, masochism, or confessional complaints, but instead tributes to our survivability.  Bishop’s poem opens with the line
“I caught a tremendous fish . . . .”  Tremendous describes the size of the fish, a clear allusion to a whale of a fish, as well as a whale of a tale.  We use the word tremendous to also describe wonderful and marvelous things or experiences.  The Latin “tremendus” is a gerudive of “tremere,” which means
to tremble.  Bishop tells us that the fish is capable of causing one to tremble.  In this light, the unusual features of the fish will make sense.  The first unusual feature of the fish is that “He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all.”  The fish does not fight because it is under the hand “. . . held him beside the boat / half out of water. . .” or comprehension of the narrator.  She has this narrative under control, by which she intends that she examines it at her own pace, the focus is selective, and connects each facet of the fish away from the traumatized memory to a victory in the narrator’s life.  Besides its uncharacteristic placidity, the fish “hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable.”  [This is unfinished.]

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