Imagery and Irony in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”
Small details are instrumental in seeing the bigger picture. This is apparent when reading “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop. Most often the reader experiences visual imagery in poetry. In this poem the reader encounters visual, auditory, and sensory imagery. “The Fish” is filled with minute details that paint a picture for the reader. With each new element that is introduced, it becomes easier to visualize the fish. The speaker is able to show the reader the beauty as well as the ugliness of this creature with her vivid imagery. The imagery used is so distinct that the reader can envisage being the fisherman and catching this fish. Another important element involved in this poem is irony. The reader might ask “why would the speaker take the time to catch the fish, only to set it free”? To begin it is important to show the differentiation of the types of imagery used in this poem.
As stated above imagery is the key aspect to this poem. The first aspect of imagery to examine is visual imagery. The speaker begins the poem by introducing the reader to the fish by saying “I caught a tremendous fish” (1). With the use of the word tremendous, it is easy to visualize a large fish. The next lines that create an image are “He hung a grunting weight, / batteredand venerable, / and homely” (7-9). An illustration of a heavy, beat-up, ancient, and ugly fish is created in the readers mind by those three lines. The speaker then says; “His brown skin hung in strips, / like ancient wall-paper” (10-11). In this description it is easy to imagine the skin of the fish being rough, scaly and dark colored.
The imagery begins to become more defined as the poem progresses. For instance, she states “He was speckled with barnacles, / fine rosettes of lime” (16-17). A barnacle would be considered an ugly crustacean attached to the fish. The use of the imagery here allows the reader to take a closer look and see the beauty in the barnacle. “And underneath two or three, / rages of green weed hung down” (20-21). Colors are also used again when the speaker states “The dramatic reds and blacks” (30). Yet another line using color states “and the pink swim bladder” (32).Using color makes the parts of the fish pop out to the reader. The entire poem is filled with visual imagery, but there are also lines that give the reader auditory and sensory imagery as well.
To elaborate, the reader can not truly hear what is taking place in the poem, but does get a sense of being able to hear what they are reading. For instance when the speaker says “While his gills were breathing in” (22), the reader can almost hear the fish breathing. The speaker again stimulates the auditory senses when she says “and a fine black thread, / still crimped from the strain and snap” (58-59). Again the reader can virtually hear the sound of the line snapping. The next aspect of imagery that needs to be examined is the sensory imagery. An excellent example of sensory imagery is found when reading the lines “It was more like the tipping, / of an object toward light” (43-44). These lines can give an almost unbalanced feeling to the reader as they conceptualize these words. Imagery is not the only important element used in this poem. As stated earlier, irony is an important component involved in “The Fish”.
To expand, the reader must delve closer into the poem in order to discern the many illustrations of irony throughout the poem. One instance of irony is when the speaker states that “He didn’t fight, / He hadn’t fought at all” (4-5). Irony to those lines comes near the end of the poem when the speaker says
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And then I saw
That from his lower lip
Hung five old pieces of fish-line
Or four and a wire leader (47-48) (51-52)
This showed the reader that the fish had fought back at least five times and was not caught. The speaker caught the fish and it did not put up a fight. Another case of irony about this is when the speaker declares that she feels victorious. This contradicts itself in the fact that the fish did not fight, but she considers herself the winner. These aspects of irony leave many questions that need further scrutiny.
In conclusion, this poem is very vivid in detail; the reader is affronted with visual, auditory and sensory imagery. Each component of the poem brings the fish to life for the reader. They actually feel like they are in the boat watching the story unfold before their eyes. There are important elements used throughout the poem such as; imagery, and irony that make this poem so interesting. Although the poem is interesting it does leave the reader wanting more. With that said, there are many questions left unanswered to the reader that may never be answered. For instance; why would the speaker take the time to catch the fish, only to set it free? Why did the fish not fight back after the many battles it had fought and won? Is the speaker victorious, or is the fish the real winner? Why would the speaker feel victorious for catching a fish that never gave her a fight? In many poems there are hidden meanings to be deciphered. This is true for “The Fish” as well as countless other poems. Discovering these meanings is part of the enjoyment a reader takes when reading. The answers are there to find, it just takes the use of imagination.