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The Fish

The Fish


by Elizabeth Bishop

Lines 16-21 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 16-17

He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,

  • This fish has got some serious pattern and texture combos going on. He's brown, but spotted and has stuff growing on him up the wazoo.
  • These lines are more descriptions of how old the fish is, they're just in disguise. Anything that hangs out long enough underwater to grow barnacles is certainly old. (Not sure what a barnacle looks like? Check out this picture of barnacles on a whale.)
  • Back to roses again, but this time a little different. Rosettes are simply patterns or shapes (sometimes on the skin) that look like roses. So Bishop is getting more specific now.
  • By "lime," Bishop doesn't mean the citrus fruit. She means the alkaline substance (naturally occurring), so totally reasonable to be on an old, barnacled fish like this one.
  • Keep in mind how Bishop uses seemingly beautiful language to describe sort of nasty things; "fine rosettes of lime" seems delicate and beautiful, like that ancient wallpaper, but once we step back and realize what Bishop is really describing, it seems a little icky.

Lines 18-19

and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,

  • Gross. We're off roses now and back to the nitty-gritty.
  • Line 18 is pretty short which draws attention to it. Is there a shift coming? Are the roses and ancient wallpaper descriptions drawing to a close?
  • Sea lice, by the way, are marine parasites that feed on fish. They're totally nasty, and they can itch/sting humans too.

Line 20-21

and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.

  • Further description of a rough and tough old fish.
  • The seaweed hanging from the fish really supports the "master of his environment" image that Bishop has been working to create
  • Green introduces another color into the poem. Color is important to Bishop in "The Fish." Keep that in mind as you read on.

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