Study Guide

The Fish Lines 22-33

By Elizabeth Bishop

Lines 22-33

Line 22-23

While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen

  • This is probably the first point we realize how dire the situation is for the fish – as the speaker is holding him out of the water, he's dying (fish can't breathe out of water).
  • So we get a sense that time is important, and the life of the fish is really in the speaker's hands.
  • This is a big shift for us. Bishop did such a good job describing how tough the fish is, we didn't realize until now how vulnerable he is.

Line 24-26

—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—

  • Another turnaround! Bishop is creating a little power struggle between the speaker and the fish. In the previous lines the speaker is clearly in charge of the situation (and of the fish's life), but in these lines Bishop notes how the fish's gills can cut (thus posing a threat to the speaker) – a vicious push and pull.
  • However, (we hate to jerk you around like this) Bishop writes "fresh and crisp with blood," reminding us that the fish has just been caught and is teetering on death.
  • And just to place you back in the scene, 26 lines into the poem, the action is no different: the speaker is still holding the caught fish next to the boat.

Lines 27-28

I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,

  • The speaker begins to imagine what isn't immediately visible.
  • Bishop uses another simile that describes the fish as something perhaps more beautiful than what it is (white feathers are probably more beautiful than fish meat, right?).
  • For the first time, too, the speaker seems to be looking at the fish and thinking of it as food.
  • And, if you're keeping track, we have a new color: white.

Lines 29-31

the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,

  • Blood and guts. Bishop is not afraid of the gross stuff.
  • Also, this shows how carefully the speaker is considering the catch, and probably thinking of the process of preparing the fish to eat (removing the guts, slicing the meat off the bone…).
  • More colors! How many is that now? Five?

Lines 32-33

and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

  • Color number six.
  • More organs.
  • And another comparison of an aspect of the fish to a flower. Remember the roses in the beginning?