Study Guide

The Fish (Marianne Moore) Analysis

  • Sound Check

    You might get a little seasick with all the up and down movement of the speaker's voice. But since it's not too long of a poem, it shouldn't be that bad. The poem's syllabic verse (check out "Form and Meter" for more on that) adds to the wavelike movement of the lines as we move predictably back and forth from one stanza to the next. And since it's called "The Fish," it makes sense that we'd have a poem that sounds like a fish moving through the water with the waves.

    But beyond these wavy moves, the poem also has some alliteration in the third stanza with all those S sounds in "submerged," "shafts," "sun," "split," and "spun." The emphasis on the S helps accent the sun's role in this stanza and moves us more quickly from the cold and dark imagery of the previous stanzas. All of the enjambment we see also keeps the transitions smooth and fluid, without any interruptions from punctuation. So suddenly things are looking and sounding a whole lot brighter and energetic—kind of like life, which tends to move in waves from high points to lower ones.

    These sound effects, taken with the speaker's objective, detached tone (meaning she's not getting all emotional on us), make "The Fish" sound like an aquatic ecosystem, naturally flowing from one stanza to the next without too much emotional involvement.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Titles are very important to Moore's poems. We see her using the title of "The Fish" in a way that is directly connected to the poem's body. In fact, without it, we wouldn't really know the subject of what's "wad[ing] through black jade." But that lower case "w" in the first line alerts us to the fact that the poem actually begins with the title, literally.

    And when we think about some of the life-stuff questions the poem asks, we may find the title even more fitting. There's not much in the way of overt religion in this poem (though you could argue that any writing that tackles life and death and meaning has a connection to religion). All the same, by throwing out a well-known symbol of Christianity in her title, Moore is certainly calling to mind a big, cosmic picture before the poem even gets going.

    But beyond clarifying the poem's subject, the title also sets us up for that symmetrically fishy form that we get. The poem actually looks and sounds like a fish wading through black jade with those funny, but perfectly-ordered, lines. So it makes sense that Moore would use a title that focuses our attention on the body and image of a fish.

    Take a look at some of these other Moore poems (here and here) that also work with their titles in a direct way. You'll notice she does this a lot.

  • Setting

    We're under the sea in "The Fish," but then we're above the water for a moment checking out a beat-up cliff that's also "defiant." And then we're in the sky—nope, make that back in the sea. So, although we're constantly moving from one setting to the next, the poem all takes place in pretty much the same vicinity, with related settings dissolving into one another. And when we consider ecosystems more generally, we understand that settings and creatures constantly rub elbows.

    The "black jade waters" are hitting the "defiant edifice" that's on land, so nothing is ever that separate. People in the natural world work the same way. We may think we're on opposite sides of the globe, but there's always some sort of interaction to be had. At the same time, we're also inextricably linked to natural settings, no matter how urban our experience might be. The point is that this whole "man versus nature" thing is a lot less cut and dry when it comes to setting.

    In this poem, the wavy movement of the lines helps make our transitions between settings run a bit more smoothly and keeps everything together under the sun. And since the poem looks like a fish that is itself on the move, the changes don't feel all that out of place. At the end of the day, we understand that, like those sea creatures, we all "slide each on the other" (25).

    Chronologically, we get some subtle allusions to wartime here. When this poem was published, after World War I, life was as confusing as ever. There just weren't many simple answers to be had as to why all the violence, which occurred on a previously-unimaginable scale, was happening. So the references to cycles of life and death make a bit more sense in that context.

  • Speaker

    At first glance, our speaker may sound like she's kind of all over the place with the constantly shifting moods, subjects, and imagery. But when we actually get through the entire poem, we see that all the transitions are happening for a reason and aren't caused by a personality disorder.

    In fact, the dissolving images add to the wavy movement of her word choice that mimics the sound of the ocean and the swimming fish. After all, the ocean doesn't stand still, so why should the speaker's voice?

    So the speaker is an omniscient observer that takes us from one setting to the next in a dispassionate sort of way. There isn't a whole lot of emotion behind her voice since she's just an observer, which only adds to the natural sound of the poem and speaker. Nature doesn't usually get worked up over things, right?

    In that way, our speaker is also mimicking the somewhat indifferent and emotionally uninvolved way that nature does its thing. And all that indifference helps to emphasize some of the poem's themes that deal with life, perseverance, and the natural world. Sure it may sound cold, but nature doesn't take into consideration all the kind deeds you've done over the years when it's time to send a little hardship your way. Everyone lives, dies, and hopefully perseveres in the natural world. Cycles are maintained and life goes on, without any worked-up commentary or special treatment.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    We've got plenty of lines in "The Fish" that can be a bit difficult to decode, what with all the ambiguity we see. That's not to mention some not-so-obvious symbolism that makes the poem more meaningful than just a fish swimming through water. And to top it all off, we know that Moore is a modern poet, so she's not going to shout answers at us. All in all, we've got our work cut out for us, but since "The Fish" looks and sounds so cool, it's worth the challenge.

  • Calling Card

    Modern and Moving

    Moore can be considered the poster child for "modern" poetry, the sort of style poets were experimenting with after World War I. The aesthetics of her poems meant a lot to the overall appreciation of what she was actually saying. In other words, the actual appearance of the words on paper largely contributes to how we interpret the poem.

    So, what we often get in her work is a lot of playing with language both contextually and aesthetically. Her titles are very important too, since they often play a big part in the introduction of ideas and subjects. And of course she was an expert at maintaining movement in her work, whether through patterns in rhyme or simply the ways in which one word or idea leads us to the next.

    Check out some of these gems (like this or this) that really define what Moore was all about.

  • Form and Meter

    Syllabic Verse with Couplets

    Okay, maybe the Count wouldn't love this poem as much as we do with all the flip-flopping number of syllables, but that form serves an important purpose here. By using syllabic verse, Moore is able to mimic the sound of the ocean's waves moving up and down, in and out. Without that wavy sounding verse, the poem wouldn't be nearly as cool or rhythmic.

    What do we mean? Simply put, syllabic verse is a form that assigns a specific number of syllables to each line of each stanza, and then repeats that pattern throughout the poem. There isn't a set rule as to how many syllables each line should get, so poets are free to make up whatever pattern they want. Check it out Moore's version in the first stanza of this poem:

    wade
    through black jade.
         Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
         adjusting the ash-heaps;
              opening and shutting itself like
     (1-5)

    In terms of syllables we have 1 in line 1, 3 in line 2, 9 in line 3, 6 in line 4, and 8 (if you read "opening" as two syllables) in line 5. Now let's check out the next stanza:

    an
    injured fan.
         The barnacles which encrust the side
         of the wave, cannot hide
              there for the submerged shafts of the
     (6-10)

    Same syllabic pattern? Same syllabic pattern: 1, 3, 9, 6, 8. Check out the other stanzas too; they all fit. So… why choose this approach? The most obvious reason is to maintain the poem's wavy rhythm in order to emphasize those perpetual cycles of life and nature. But even aesthetically (what it looks like), the choice is one that mimics the look of a fish's scales or even the appearance of it moving through the water. Just take a look at the first two lines: "wade/ through black jade." It's like the first word sounds like a fish darting forward and then the next line sounds like its tail whipping itself back and forth through the water.

    We also noticed that the poem is organized with perfectly rhymed couplets that have a rhyme scheme of AABBC, where each letter represents a particular end rhyme. At times, this pattern is enforced pretty dramatically, as in

    ac- A
    cident—lack
    A (31-32)

    Who breaks up the word "accident" like that? Someone who's really trying to keep to a set rhyme scheme, that's who. So, despite the constant motion we get in these lines, there is also a reassuring regularity, a wholeness to the way this poem is put together.

    And that kind of makes sense when we consider the poem's ideas and themes related to life and death. Sure, there may be a lot of variation happening from start to finish, but ultimately the cycles of life and death are orderly ones. There is a predictability to it all—waves come in, waves go out; lives begin, lives (unfortunately) end.

  • The Sea

    When you've got a poem about fish, there's no escaping the significance of the sea. In Moore's poem, the sea is more complicated than we may initially think. On the one hand it's pretty and serene and on the other it's violent and old. We just can't make up our minds. So in a lot of ways the sea symbolizes all the different cycles and perceptions of life. Here are some key cameos that sum it all up:

    • Lines 1-2: The fish are wading through "black jade," which tells us the speaker's perception of the sea at this moment is rather cold, hard, and dark. The water here doesn't strike us as something easy and peaceful. 
    • Lines 15-18: Here it's a "turquoise sea of bodies," which sounds a whole lot different from the cold and dark imagery of the previous stanzas. At this point we get a new perspective, one that's light and filled with life (though we're not sure what kind of life just yet, thanks to all the ambiguity going on). 
    • Lines 18-20: Yet another shift in mood and perception occurs here with the water "driving an iron wedge" through the cliff. At this point, things are looking pretty violent and nothing like the peaceful sea we saw just seconds ago.
    • Line 40: If you think grandma is old, you better believe the sea is way older. Here it "grows old" in the cliff, suggesting that there's something ancient and enduring about the sea and nature.
  • The Edifice-Cliff

    Maybe the cliff has an identity crisis, maybe not. But either way that edifice-cliff thingy is very important to "The Fish." In fact, it may be a symbol for humanity, enduring constant abuse from both nature and man. Even if a part of it dies, the thing still keeps on living. And you thought waiting at the DMV was bad.

    • Lines 18-20: All the figurative language here gets us thinking that nature can be awfully violent at times as the water drives an "iron wedge" through the cliff. The cliff is all scarred up by nature here, but it's got an "iron edge" that suggests it's tough and will endure all the abuse.
    • Lines 26-29: There's no hiding all the abuse with those "marks" showing up on the cliff's surface. However, it's "defiant," which gets us thinking even more that the cliff is a symbol for humanity, "defiant" in its own way despite all sorts of wear and tear.
    • Lines 33-34: Here the cliff is getting beat up by man and his "dynamite" and "hatchet strokes." So we get the sense that abuse comes in many forms, both in nature and man. But we also may think that one of these abusers can be controlled (hint: we're looking at you, humanity). 
    • Lines 35-36: After all the abuse it's taken, the cliff's "chasm-side" is dead. Here we get the sense that there are real consequences to these constant beatings. Though we have more figurative language here, the takeaway point seems to be that a part of humanity may be lost or killed because of all the abuse. 
    • Lines 37-40: We know these lines aren't about to shout answers at us, but we get the sense that the cliff "live[s] on" things that can't make it young again, whether those things are real, spiritual, or abstract (like experience). And still it endures, just like people.
  • Sea Creatures

    Under the sea we've got a whole host of fishy creatures making cameo appearances. We have actual fish of course, as well as starfish, jellyfish, mussels, and some crabs. It's a regular Red Lobster buffet. But on a more symbolic level, all those creatures represent different life forms living together in one big aquatic ecosystem. They're kind of like us, interconnected and trying to get along in the big world.

    • Lines 1-2: First we have the title "fish" swimming through "black jade" waters, which tells us there's nothing easy about this aquatic life. All the figurative language makes the fish's movement seem more challenging than free.
    • Lines 3-4: Then those mussel-shells keep opening and closing like "injured fans" while resting atop "ash-heaps" that are presumably other dead life forms. So we begin to sense that these creatures represent more than just themselves. In fact, they look more human and vulnerable than anything else.
    • Lines 15-18: It's a "turquoise of bodies" at this point, but with all the ambiguity we sense that those sea creatures may be symbols of human "bodies," both dead and alive. We might also have an allusion to wartime here too, bearing in mind the time period.
    • Lines 20-25: Everybody's getting along and "sliding each on the other," so we get the sense that things are looking pretty peaceful at this point. Everybody is working together—good times.
    • Steaminess Rating

      G

      The fish aren't having any sex in this poem, so we're keeping things G rated. And since Moore is getting at a lot of profound ideas associated with life and death, there's even less of an occurrence of sexiness. We're feeling pretty serious in "The Fish," but also kind of inspired to think about life-stuff—you know, without the sex part.