Study Guide

The Fish (Marianne Moore) Form and Meter

By Marianne Moore

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.

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