What Does the Fish in Elizabeth Bishop’s Poem Symbolize: An In-Depth Analysis

The poem “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop has long been recognized as a masterpiece of twentieth-century American poetry. One of the key elements that makes the poem so powerful is its use of symbolism, particularly with regards to the titular creature. For Bishop, the fish serves as a complex representation of both life and death, as well as of the beauty that can be found even in the harshest of environments.

As she describes the fish in detail, Bishop creates an image of a creature that is old and weathered, with many scars and marks from its long life in the water. Yet despite its age and weariness, the fish still possesses a sense of strength and resilience. For Bishop, the fish thus becomes a symbol of the indomitable spirit of life, capable of enduring and thriving in even the harshest conditions.

At the same time, however, there is also a sense of darkness and foreboding that hangs over the poem, as if the fish’s survival is only temporary. The lines “He hung a grunting weight, / battered and venerable / and homely” suggest that the fish is both admired and pitied, a creature struggling on the edge of existence. In this sense, the poem can also be seen as a meditation on mortality and the fragility of life, with the fish serving as a symbol of the fleeting nature of all things.

Bishop’s Life and Influences

Elizabeth Bishop, a prominent American poet, led a life that was marred by tragedies from an early age. She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911. When Bishop was eight, her father died due to kidney problems. Her mother, who struggled with mental illness, was then institutionalized shortly after her father’s death. Bishop was sent to live with relatives afterwards, and this early separation from her parents had a profound impact on her life and works.

In 1933, Bishop graduated from Vassar College with a degree in English literature. She then went on to study at the University of Iowa, where she was influenced by the poet Marianne Moore. It was during this time that Bishop’s own poetic voice began to emerge. Her poems often focused on the natural world and contained vivid descriptions of landscapes and animals.

Bishop’s life experiences played an important role in shaping her poetry. Her travels throughout Brazil, Canada, and Europe exposed her to new landscapes and cultures, which she incorporated into her works. Additionally, Bishop was open about her struggles with alcoholism and depression, which are evident in some of her darker poems.

Influences on Bishop’s Poetry

  • Marianne Moore: Bishop was deeply influenced by Moore’s attention to detail and love of nature. Moore also served as Bishop’s mentor and friend.
  • Robert Lowell: Bishop and Lowell were close friends and correspondents. They often wrote about similar topics and themes in their poetry.
  • Art and Music: Bishop was a lover of art and music, and these interests can be seen in her poetry, which often contains references to visual art and musical instruments.

The Fish as a Symbol

Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is a prime example of her use of the natural world in her poetry. The fish in the poem is a symbol for the beauty and mystery of nature. The poem describes an encounter with a fish that has been caught and then released. The speaker takes great care to observe the fish’s physical appearance and movements, and the poem ends with the speaker reflecting on the fish’s age and past experiences. Through this encounter, Bishop explores the theme of the passage of time and the interconnectedness of all living things.

Bishop’s use of imagery in “The Fish”Example from “The Fish”
“wallowing in the darkness”“…hung five old pieces of fish-line…”
“pattern of brown and yellow”“his brown skin hung in strips”
“a dramatic display of rainbow”“rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!”

Bishop’s use of vivid imagery and sensory details in “The Fish” creates a powerful and memorable portrait of an animal that many would simply overlook. The fish symbolizes the beauty and complexity of nature, and the poem serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness that exists between all living things.

Summary of the poem

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is a descriptive narrative about a fish that the speaker catches and releases. The poem is characterized by vivid sensory details that bring the fish to life before the reader’s eyes. It chronicles the transformation of the speaker’s perception of the fish, which evolves from seeing it as a mere catch to be admired for its physical attributes and the scars of its struggle for survival in the wild.

The poem’s central theme is the idea that any creature, even the lowliest, can be viewed with reverence and wonder when one takes the time to look beyond its outer appearance. This is evident in the way Bishop’s speaker shifts from a detached observer of the fish to someone who acknowledges the mystery and dignity of the fish. The poem ends with the release of the fish back into the water, suggesting that the speaker has gained a newfound sense of awareness and appreciation for the natural world.

What does the fish symbolize?

  • The fish symbolizes resilience and survival in the face of harsh conditions. Its scars and old age highlight the struggles it has overcome in its lifetime.
  • The fish also represents the beauty and wonder of the natural world that often goes unnoticed and unappreciated.
  • The fact that the speaker chooses to release the fish back into the water suggests a respect for life and a recognition of the interconnectedness of all things.

The significance of the imagery used to describe the fish

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the poem is the use of vivid sensory details to describe the fish. Bishop’s choice of words and imagery serves to enhance the reader’s understanding of the fish’s physical appearance and the environment in which it lives. The use of metaphors and similes elevates the fish to something more than a mere object. For example, the fish’s skin is described as “ribbons of green” and its eyes as “like gold hooks,” invoking a sense of wonder and admiration in the reader.

In addition, the poem’s focus on the physical details of the fish helps to illustrate the idea that one can find beauty and value in even the most unremarkable things. The scars on the fish’s body, for instance, are not seen as flaws, but rather as signs of strength and endurance.

Overall, Bishop’s use of imagery in “The Fish” reinforces the theme of the poem and serves to highlight the beauty and mystery of the natural world.

Symbolism of the Fish in Context

In considering the symbolism of the fish in Bishop’s poem, it’s worth thinking about the broader literary and cultural traditions in which it is situated. Fish have been used as symbols throughout history and across cultures. In some traditions, they are seen as symbols of abundance and fertility, while in others they represent spiritual renewal or freedom. One could argue that Bishop’s fish embodies a combination of these different meanings, with its vivid presence in the poem serving as a testament to the enduring power and significance of this ancient symbol.

Symbolic MeaningDescription
Abundance and FertilityFish have long been associated with fertility and abundance, as their reproductive abilities and their presence in many aquatic environments suggest a connection to growth and prosperity.
Spiritual RenewalIn some spiritual traditions, fish are seen as symbols of renewal and rebirth. This is often related to their ability to survive in harsh and changing environments, as well as their association with water, a symbol of life and purification.
Freedom and EscapeFish are also often associated with freedom and escape, as they move freely through water and are difficult to catch or contain. This is especially prominent in the context of human captivity or oppression, where fish may represent a desire for liberation.

By contextualizing the fish as a literary symbol, we can better understand the significance of its appearance in Bishop’s poem and appreciate the complexity and richness of the poem’s meaning and themes.

Details about the fish’s physical appearance and behavior in the poem

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” describes the physical appearance and behavior of a large fish caught by the speaker. The fish is portrayed as a powerful and ancient creature, with details that hint at its long life and numerous battles.

The first stanza of the poem describes the fish’s “battered” and “venerable” appearance. The speaker notes that the fish is “brown” and “grazed” with barnacles, with long “hair-like” strands of algae hanging from its jaws. These details suggest that the fish has lived for a long time, surviving many encounters with other sea creatures and weathering the effects of seawater and sun.

  • The fish is described as “homely” and “infinitely patient,” indicating its unassuming and stoic nature.
  • The speaker notes that the fish has five “hooks” embedded in its jaw, evidence of previous battles with fishermen.
  • The fish’s eyes are described as “larger than mine,” implying that the creature is larger and more powerful than the speaker.

The fish’s behavior in the poem is also significant. Despite being caught and held captive, the fish is portrayed as calm and dignified. The speaker notes that the fish “didn’t fight,” but rather “hung a grunting weight” and “swished in the water.” These actions suggest that the fish is still capable of powerful movements, but chooses to conserve its energy and endure its captivity with patience. This behavior further adds to the fish’s symbolism as an ancient and wise creature, one that understands the cycles of life and death.

Physical appearanceBehavior
Battered and venerable appearanceCalm and dignified behavior
Homely, with barnacles and algaeConserve energy and endure captivity
Five hooks embedded in its jawCapable of powerful movements, but chooses not to fight

In conclusion, the fish in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem symbolizes more than just a catch of the day. Its physical appearance and behavior reveal deep insights into its character, showing the creature as an ancient and wise being that has survived many battles and understands the value of patience. The fish’s symbolism adds layers of meaning to the poem, creating a rich and resonant piece that speaks to many themes and emotions.

Fish Symbolism in Literature and Art

Symbols play a significant role in literature and art, and fish are one of the most popular symbols used. They have been used as a symbol in various forms of art, including poems, paintings, and sculptures. Fish as a symbol can represent various things such as rebirth, good fortune, transformation, and perseverance.

Common Fish Symbolism in Literature and Art:

  • Christianity: In Christianity, the fish is an essential symbol used to represent Jesus Christ as he referred to himself as “the fisher of men” (Matthew 4:19). The fish symbol can also represent baptism, and there is a story in the Bible where Jesus feeds the 5000 with just a few loaves of bread and two fish.
  • Chinese Culture: In Chinese culture, fish symbolize wealth, good fortune, and prosperity. They are also believed to bring good luck and are often included in Chinese New Year celebrations.
  • Native American Culture: In some Native American cultures, fish are symbols of transformation and change. They are believed to bring healing and are often included in healing ceremonies.

The Fish in Elizabeth Bishop’s Poem:

The fish in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” symbolize different things to different readers. To some, it represents the survival instinct, while to others, it represents perseverance. The fish is described as having “five old pieces of fish line” in its mouth, which indicates it has escaped from being caught multiple times. This could symbolize the fish’s resilience and ability to survive even in challenging circumstances. The poem also describes the fish’s physical appearance in detail, which could represent the complexity of nature and how it cannot be easily understood.

Fish Symbolism in Art:

Fish symbolism is also prevalent in art. One example is the famous bronze sculpture “Le poisson” (The fish) by Pablo Picasso. The sculpture features a fish with a human head and is believed to represent the artist’s fascination with Greek myths and the idea of transformation. Another example is Japanese Koi fish paintings, which depict brightly colored fish swimming in water and represent good fortune and perseverance due to their ability to swim upstream.

Le poissonPablo PicassoTransformation
The Great Wave off KanagawaKatsushika HokusaiDanger and power of nature
The Fisherman’s DaughterJean-Baptiste GreuzeLack of choices for women

As seen from the above examples, fish symbolism is diverse and can represent various things in literature and art. The fish symbol will continue to be used in different forms of art, and its meaning can be interpreted differently by different individuals.

The Significance of Water and Fishing in the Poem

Elizabeth Bishop’s renowned poem “The Fish” is a contemplation on the themes of life, death, and the interconnectivity of all things. Through the eyes of the narrator, we witness the immense power of the fish, which represents a fundamental aspect of the natural world. The poem is full of vivid imagery, but no symbol is as prominent as the fish itself. In this article, we will explore the significance of water and fishing in this poem, providing a deeper understanding of the poem’s underlying meanings.

The Fish and the Water

  • The water in Bishop’s poem represents a sense of interconnectedness, the deep interconnectedness of all of life, because all of life contains water.
  • In “The Fish,” the water also represents the memory and history of the fish, adding to the sense of interconnectedness between past and present.
  • Moreover, the water acts as a symbol of transformation and transition; the journey of the fish through the water is a metaphor for the journey of life.

Fishing as a Metaphor

The imagery of fishing is used throughout the poem as a metaphor for the human experience and the pursuit of knowledge. Just as a fisherman studies the habits and movements of a fish, the narrator is studying the fish, symbolizing the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Here, the fish represents the ultimate goal of this pursuit, that is, to acquire a deep understanding of the world around us.

Additionally, fishing in the poem has connotations of the conquest and domination of nature, as a fisherman seeks to catch and control the fish. This relates to the broader theme of humanity’s attempts to control and subjugate the natural world. However, the poem also suggests that this is impossible, as nature is too vast and complex to be controlled.


“The Fish” is a profound exploration of the relationship between humanity and the natural world, using the fish as a symbol of the deep interconnectedness of all things. The water represents memory, history, transformation, and interconnectedness, while fishing is a metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge and the conquering of nature. Through these symbols, the poem provides a powerful commentary on human nature, the vastness of the natural world, and the deep, underlying connections between all aspects of life.

WaterInterconnectedness, memory, history, transformation
FishingMetaphor for knowledge acquisition and conquering of nature
The FishSymbolizes the interconnectedness of all things in nature.

The poem’s symbols work together to craft a powerful and poignant meditation on the interconnectedness of all of life and the impossibility of subjugating nature.

Analysis of the Fish’s Struggle and Suffering

In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” the narrator describes the fish’s struggle and suffering as it is caught and pulled out of the water. This section of the poem symbolizes the idea of survival and endurance in the face of adversity, as the fish displays remarkable resilience and tenacity despite the traumatic experience of being caught and nearly killed.

  • The poem describes how the fish’s “bones are pinioned” and its “gills’ breathing organs” are exposed, suggesting that it is in a state of extreme distress and vulnerability. This image of the fish’s physical suffering emphasizes the cruel and painful nature of humanity’s treatment of other living creatures.
  • The fish is further described as having “five old pieces of fish-line” hanging from its jaw, indicating that it has been caught and released multiple times before. This repetition of trauma emphasizes the fish’s resilience and determination to survive, even in the face of repeated adversity.
  • The narrator also notes the fish’s “venerable” appearance, with its “grunting weight” and “brown skin hung in strips,” which suggests that the fish is both ancient and wise. This image of the fish as an elder statesman of the sea adds to its symbolic significance and emphasizes the importance of respecting and valuing all life, regardless of its age or appearance.

In conclusion, the fish’s struggle and suffering in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” represents the idea of survival and endurance in the face of adversity. The image of the fish as both vulnerable and resilient emphasizes the cruel nature of humanity’s treatment of other living creatures, while also highlighting the importance of respecting and valuing all life, regardless of its age or appearance.

The fish as a representation of nature or the natural world

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Fish,” is a beautiful depiction of nature and the natural world. The poem’s central focus is the fish, and it is no coincidence that Bishop uses this creature to represent nature. The fish symbolizes the natural world and all of its beauty and complexity.

The speaker’s admiration and awe for the fish is evident in the lines, “He hung a grunting weight, / battered and vulnerable and homely.” Despite its physical flaws, the fish is a majestic and awe-inspiring creature, and Bishop uses it as a metaphor for the power and unpredictability of nature.

  • The fish represents the beauty of the natural world.
  • The fish embodies the raw power of nature.
  • The fish symbolizes the unpredictability of nature.

Bishop’s descriptions of the fish are vivid and detailed, painting a picture of the creature’s appearance and movements. She notes the fish’s “brown skin hung in strips,” “shaped like an old bullion coin,” and “its eyes bulged like glassy globes.” Through these descriptions, Bishop captures the essence of the fish and its connection to the natural world.

The poem also touches on the theme of environmentalism, as the speaker admires the fish’s “five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth.” Bishop’s message here is that humans must respect and protect the natural world and its inhabitants.

The fish’s appearance:The fish’s movements:
“Brown skin hung in strips,” “shaped like an old bullion coin,” “its eyes bulged like glassy globes.”“He hung a grunting weight,” “flashed white belly,” “stood upright and steered by his tail.”

Overall, the fish in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem is a powerful symbol of nature and the natural world. Through her vivid descriptions and metaphors, Bishop brings to life the beauty, power, and unpredictability of the natural world. She reminds us of the importance of respecting and protecting nature and its inhabitants and encourages us to appreciate the wonders of the world around us.

The Role of Gender in Elizabeth Bishop’s Poem and What Does The Fish Symbolize

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is a narrative poem that revolves around the speaker’s experience of catching a fish and the realization that the fish she has captured is a majestic creature. Throughout the poem, the speaker contemplates the significance of the fish, which serves as a metaphor for discovering the beauty of life. The poem also explores the role of gender in the poem and how it influences the speaker’s attitude towards the fish.

  • Gender Stereotypes: The poem shows how gender stereotypes influence the speaker’s perception of the fish. The speaker describes the fish as a “he” and refers to it as “venerable and homely”, which means the fish is an old male. Furthermore, the speaker compares the fish’s skin to “ancient wallpaper” and its eyes as “yellowed” which portrays an image of an old, feeble creature. These descriptions are a reflection of the patriarchal society where males are associated with age, authority, and power.
  • Gender Bias: The speaker’s descriptions also reveal gender bias in the poem. She notes how the fish has been “battered and scarred,” which suggests that the fish has had a difficult life. However, the speaker also notes how the fish has “five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth” which implies that the fish is a survivor. The speaker’s perception of the fish as a male hero who has survived life’s challenges draws from the patriarchal belief that men are expected to be strong and persevere through adversity.
  • Masculinity: The speaker’s gendered perception of the fish is not only limited to its physical traits but also its actions. The speaker notes how the fish “didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all.” She portrays the fish as a docile and defeated creature. The speaker’s perception of the fish’s lack of fight contrasts with the stereotype of masculinity, which associates men with aggression and assertiveness.

The symbolism of the fish in the poem is significant as it is a representation of life and its complexities. The fish is more than just a creature that can be caught and killed; it is a powerful symbol of life’s beauty and its importance. Through the speaker’s contemplation of the fish and its flaws, the poem conveys the message that life is not perfect, but it is still beautiful. It also encourages readers to question the rigid gender roles that are imposed upon us, and to challenge the patriarchal norms that we unconsciously perpetuate.

The FishSymbolizes the beauty of life and the complexities that come with it.
Five Big HooksSymbolizes the challenges and hardships that the fish has overcome.
Yellowed EyesSymbolizes the wisdom that comes from age and experience.
Battered and ScarredSymbolizes the imperfections and flaws that make us who we are.

Overall, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” is a powerful poem that explores the beauty of life and the importance of challenging gender roles and stereotypes. The poem encourages us to look beyond the surface and to appreciate life’s complexities. Furthermore, it challenges us to question the patriarchal norms that hinder our ability to see the world in a different light. It is a reminder that we should all take the time to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us, regardless of its gender or flaws.

The fish as a metaphor for the poet’s own struggles

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” is one of her most famous poems. It has been interpreted in many different ways, but one of the most common readings is that the fish is a metaphor for the poet’s own struggles. Here’s an in-depth look at this idea.

  • The speaker of the poem describes the fish as “battered,” “venerable,” and “homely,” just as she might describe herself. The fish’s internal struggle for survival mirrors the poet’s own internal struggles, highlighting themes of perseverance, resilience, and survival.
  • The fish’s “tremendous” size and power are also representative of the strength and potential of the speaker. The fish represents a challenge that the speaker must face and overcome, much like the obstacles and challenges faced in real life.
  • The poem’s images and descriptions suggest that the fish is old and has lived a long life, just as the speaker has experienced many years and faced many challenges. The fish’s “five-haired beard of wisdom” is compared to the “rusted engine” of the boat, emphasizing the idea that both the fish and the speaker have faced wear and tear over time.

In addition to these thematic and symbolic readings of the poem, “The Fish” is also a powerful example of Bishop’s craft as a poet. The poem’s clear and evocative descriptions, intricate use of language and imagery, and profound insights into the human experience make it a true masterpiece of modern poetry.

In conclusion, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” is a poem that employs the fish as a powerful metaphor for the poet’s own internal struggles. By exploring themes of perseverance, resilience, and survival, Bishop creates a work that speaks to the human experience in profound and universal ways.

If you’re looking for more insights into Bishop’s work and the art of poetry, check out her collections of poetry, “North & South”, “Questions of Travel” and “Geography III” or explore other works that deal with personal struggles and resilience like “The Bell Jar,” by Sylvia Plath, or “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed.

The idea of catch and release in fishing and its relationship to the theme of the poem

Fishing is an integral part of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish.” The idea of catching and releasing fish is central in fishing today. It’s a practice that emphasizes conservation. Fish are caught, their size and health are quickly assessed, and they are released back into the water in the hopes of ensuring that they’ll continue to live and spawn.

The practice of catch and release in fishing is the perfect metaphor for the poem’s theme. The speaker in “The Fish” is a fisherman who catches “a tremendous fish.” The fish is old and battered, with lacy strips of skin hanging off it. The speaker has a moment of epiphany while holding the fish in his hands:

“…he hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable and homely. Here and there his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper, and its pattern of darker brown was like wallpaper: shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost through age.”

The speaker realizes the fish’s beauty even though it is old and battered. He empathizes with the fish and decides to let it go.

  • The practice of catch and release is a humane approach to fishing.
  • It promotes the conservation of fish populations.
  • The theme of the poem is also about empathy and choosing to spare the fish.

When the speaker lets the fish go, he also demonstrates his respect for the fish’s life, a life that had always been free until it was caught.

To conclude, the practice of catch and release is a beautiful way to promote balance between fishing and conservation. The poem is a perfect illustration of this idea. The speaker realizes the beauty in catching the fish, but he also empathizes with the fish as a living creature that deserves to be respected. By choosing to let the fish go, he shows that it is possible to find harmony between the human world and the natural world.

The benefits of catch and release in fishing
Promotes conservation of fish populations.
Allows fish to reproduce and maintain healthy populations.
Considered a humane approach to fishing.
Allows anglers to enjoy catching fish without causing harm to their environment.

If more people embraced the practice of catch and release, we could prevent the extinction of some species of fish and ensure that future generations will be able to continue to enjoy the beauty of fishing. The poem “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop is a reminder of the beauty and strength of these creatures that swim in our oceans and rivers and how important it is to preserve their existence.

What Does the Fish in Elizabeth Bishop’s Poem Symbolize?

1. What is the tone of the poem?

The tone of the poem is melancholic and reflective. The fish represents the speaker’s past and the memories associated with it.

2. What does the fish represent?

The fish represents the idea of aging and the passage of time. It symbolizes the idea of holding onto memories and experiences that have shaped us.

3. Why does Bishop describe the fish in such detail?

Bishop describes the fish in such detail to emphasize the idea of its age and the experiences it has been through. The details reflect the wear and tear on the fish and represent the direct impact of time on us.

4. What does the hook in the fish’s mouth represent?

The hook in the fish’s mouth symbolizes the speaker’s relationship with the fish, and how she is able to hold onto it. It also represents the control that the speaker has over her memories.

5. What is the significance of the rainbow in the poem?

The rainbow in the poem represents the combination of colors and experiences that have made up the speaker’s life. It symbolizes the beauty and complexity of life.

6. What is the significance of the speaker letting the fish go?

The speaker letting the fish go represents the idea of accepting that the past is in the past and that we must move forward. It also symbolizes the idea that memories and experiences are not something to hold onto but instead to acknowledge and let go of.

7. How does the poem make the reader feel?

The poem makes the reader feel reflective and nostalgic for their own past experiences. It encourages the reader to embrace their memories and to acknowledge the significance of their own personal histories.

Closing Thoughts

After fully exploring the symbolism behind the fish in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, we can understand the underlying themes of aging, memory, and acceptance. The detailed description of the fish and the memories associated with it aid in the representation of past experiences that have shaped the speaker. The themes presented in the poem encourage readers to reflect on their own life experiences and to embrace the past while using it to move forward. Thank you for reading and please visit again to explore more Literature related topics.