The Fish (Marianne Moore) Summary
The poem opens with the fish wading through the black jade water while mussel shells open and close like "injured fans." The sun begins to illuminate the hidden spots beneath the ocean's surface revealing a bunch of sea creatures that were previously unseen. Then we see the water breaking against the surface of a cliff that's been beaten up over the years. Meanwhile, underwater all of the sea creatures are sliding over one another.
through black jade.
- We're off and running, and it looks like we're already wet. What's wading through "black jade," you ask? It sure looks like we have a predicate in these first two lines—but no subject.
- But when you include the title in these two lines ("The Fish"), they become the ending to a complete thought. Moore liked to do this on occasion by purposely leaving that first word in lowercase ("wade"). Oh those tricky modern poets…
- Okay, so we get that "the fish" are the ones wading through black jade. But wait, what is the speaker referring to when she references "black jade"? What kind of fish swim through rocks?
- It looks like the speaker is giving us some figurative language here that's getting at some bigger ideas associated with this "black jade." We're not meant to see the fish literally swimming through rocks, but maybe we're supposed to instead see these waters in a way that's cold and hard, stone-like if you will.
- But why is the ocean being depicted here as cold and hard? For right now, it seems as if the speaker is setting up some aquatic scenery that's not supposed to be romantic or sentimental. In other words, she's not looking at the water and reminiscing about grandma and the beach picnics she used to have.
- Also, we've got some rhyming going on here ("wade" and "jade"). So already we have a perfectly-rhymed couplet. Let's see if this is setting a pattern for the rest of the poem's stanzas...
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
- First up, a form note: these lines are indented, moving away from the opening lines and creating a kind of curve to the stanza. In a way, just looking at these stanzas on the page—without reading the words—gives a sort of fishy appearance in a visual sense.
- They all seem to be pretty regular in shape. We might get an impression of the movement of a fish "wad[ing] through black jade."
- (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on this.)
- Content-wise, we notice that we're still in the ocean, below the surface where some "mussel-shells" are hanging out. They have that dark "crow-blue" color that fits well with the dark, cold "black jade." So the speaker is being consistent in her depiction of this underwater world. It's so dark, it seems shiny.
- But what's all this about "adjusting ash-heaps"? We should consider lots of different ideas since we know Moore isn't about to hand-deliver a bunch of answers for us.
- Maybe we have a reference to death early on here—"ash" reminds us of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," etc. Perhaps they're resting on the ashy remains of other shells and life forms ("heaps"). We also know that "one keeps/ adjusting" these heaps. We can imagine a mussel, surrounded by a bunch of sea debris, opening and closing and disturbing the clouds of silt around it.
- Immediately, then, we get the sense of life and death coexisting in these lines.
- Of course, we've also got some ambiguity here, since the speaker's not specifying exactly what that "one" is. Perhaps she (we're just assuming our speaker's a she) is referring to a fish instead, picking over these mussel-shells. Maybe that "one" is hinting at some sort of metaphor to represent people and the "ash-heaps" we also "adjust" when we encounter death. In other words, while we don't like to think about it, we're often in the midst of death, even in the prime of life.
- Bear in mind that we're dealing with the time period of 1921, when we had just finished the first world war. We're talking about a lot of death on a global scale that was previously unimaginable. Folks were trying to make sense of it all. So we may have some references to war and death occurring in that "ash-heaps" imagery.
- And just like we saw before, we have another perfectly-rhymed couplet here ("keeps" and "heaps"). (Check out "Form and Meter" for more.)
opening and shutting itself like
- A-ha—we get a bit of ambiguity relief in the last line of this stanza. "Itself" here is key, since it takes us back to that mysterious "one" from line 3. Whatever this "one" is, we can say at the very least that it's an… well, an it.
- At the same time, we know that whatever it is is "opening and shutting." Given the earlier mention of those "mussel-shells," then, it's safe to assume that the thing "adjusting the ash-heaps" is another mussel.
- So how is it managing to do so much adjusting (mussels tend to be pretty stationary critters, after all)? Well, it's opening and shutting its shell, which would force water out and kick up bits of silt or "ash." (Try this at home by opening and closing your hand in a sink full of water—hours of fun for the whole family.)
- It's doing that just like… just like… like what? We're going to have to jump to the next stanza to find out…
- After an enjambment that carries us from the first stanza to the second, the simile is now complete. One of the shells is "opening and shutting" like "an injured fan"—pretty cool if you imagine it underwater opening and closing in that hesitant sort of way, little by little. It sort of looks like an "injured fan," since it's not moving in a fluid or consistent manner.
- But that word "injured" also carries a lot of connotations: imperfection, hurt, disability. Given those associations, this mussel may also be part of a metaphor for the way we get along in the contexts of life and death. In other words, we're "injured" by our closeness to death (the ultimate "ash-heap") and the suffering that goes along with it.
- But cheer up Shmoopers, because it looks as if we have a recurring pattern going on in the second stanza. Line 6 has 1 syllable while line 7 has 3 syllables, just like lines 1 and 2 in the first stanza. These lines are also structured in that same sort of fishy, symmetrical way that we saw earlier.
- What's more, we have yet another perfectly-rhymed couplet ("an" and "fan").
- We might also hear some waves moving up and down with the procession of these syllables. Check out "Sound Check" for more.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the
- What's all this about barnacles encrusting the side of a wave? We thought they only encrusted whales and rocks. Obviously we have some more figurative language here. But why "encrust" the wave?
- Maybe we're meant to see those barnacles as part of the water and the waves, so they're never really "hidden" on some rock or a whale. In other words, this is all one big ecosystem in which nothing can ever really be isolated by itself.
- In that way, we get what the speaker means by barnacles encrusting waves. They don't get their own VIP section on the bottom of the ocean floor. Everything and everyone is together here, whether we're talking about life, death, barnacles, or waves.
- Why can't they hide? Well, it seems to have something to do with some "submerged shafts." (Here, you should read "for" as meaning "because," as in "I have no money, for I spent it all on slushies and corn dogs.")
- We'd love to tell you more about these shafts, but we're cut off at the end of this stanza—just like we were in stanza 1.
- Before we head on, though, we'll just note that we've got another perfect couplet ("side" and "hide") here. So our rhyme scheme looks something like this: AABBC. We'll talk more about that in "Form and Meter."
split like spun
- So what's illuminating those barnacles on the waves? Why, it's our old pal the sun, of course. That all-powerful light doesn't let anything out of its sight, so to speak. Even if those "shafts" of light are "submerged," they're still getting through.
- Notice all of the alliteration we have here? We've got "submerged," "shafts," "sun," "split," "spun"—phew. It's a regular snake dance going on in our mouths. But why all the S sounds?
- For one thing, the "submerged shafts" back in stanza 2 set us up for all of the sun imagery we get in the beginning of the third stanza and accents the appearance of that all-powerful light. It's everywhere, literally.
- And it also seems that the speaker is reminding us that nothing can hide in this giant ecosystem under the sea.
- So what about the imagery of the sun's rays being "split"? We're not encouraging you to stare at the sun too long, but if you do, you'll notice that those rays look as if they're split into different parts. So we're getting Moore's ideas here even more that there's no hiding, even beneath the sea, since there's always a nearby ray to light things up.
- And since we have a simile, comparing the rays to "spun glass," we know there's even more reflection and lighting up of hidden places. When glass catches the sun's rays, things tend to light up, and heat up, pretty quickly (thanks, Wilderness Survival 101).
- And since the glass is "spun," we've got the added bonus of imagining blown glass with all those delicate threads of glass woven into each other.
- Just like the previous stanzas, we have the same sort of rhyme scheme happening with another couplet ("sun" and "spun"). We can also assume Moore will be repeating that AABBC pattern throughout the poem, just with different rhymes. Again, it's all about symmetry, both in the appearance of the lines and sound of the words. (Check out "Form and Meter" and "Sound Check" for more.)
[…] move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices-
in and out, illuminating
- Remember here that our speaker's still on about those shafts of sunlight, way back in the last stanza. So, light moves pretty quickly, right? (All you Trekkies out there know what we're talking about.) Those shafts of light are moving with "spotlight swiftness" (we get more S sound alliteration to emphasize the appearance of that swift spotlight). There's no escaping those shafts of light.
- And not only are those rays swift, they're also getting into all those "crevices" that were previously hidden. So whatever's hanging out in those dark spots is suddenly getting the light shone on it.
- That light's effective, too. It moves "in and out, illuminating"… well, it illuminates something, but once again we're cut off at the end of the stanza. Suffice it to say that this is one set of effective spotlights.
- At this point we see that Moore has moved from the dark and cold imagery of "black jade" to something lighter and more illuminating, like "spun glass." We've done a 180 turn with all this bright language, but why?
- For one thing, maybe the speaker is purposely breaking things up, both visually with those fishy looking lines and contextually with the differing language. So, just when we think we've got things down pat, the speaker dissolves it all and brings us into a new image or thought. And hey, you have to admit it's kind of fitting when we consider the theme of life and death announced by those "ash-heaps." Phenomena like "in and out," light and dark, life and death are constantly dissolving into one another, right?
- Babies are born and older folks die—lots of dissolving and rebirth going on. (Go here for more on this idea of interconnection.)
- So the ocean's ecosystem is part of this extended metaphor of life and death. Even the ocean's waves mimic the patterns we see in life, rising up and down with the tide.
of bodies. […]
- The enjambment that we keep getting between the stanzas moves us along as readers. In that way it mimics the continual motion of the waves, propelling us forward.
- So what are those shafts of light illuminating? Well, we have more ambiguity here so we can't say for sure, but since those "bodies" are in the sea, we're guessing we've got more sea creatures.
- Usually the word "bodies" is used to describe (usually dead) people, so again we may have more ideas here related to life and death in a people sense. Maybe we also have an allusion to the wartime dead again. Let's keep reading…
[…] The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,
- Okay, so by line 20 we notice that we're no longer under the sea, chilling with the fish. We're now looking at a cliff that's being pummeled by the water.
- So the ocean isn't just about those "turquoise bodies" and "shafts of light" anymore. Moore is dissolving things again by moving us out of the light and water language and into this more rigid "iron" language.
- Notice Moore's choice of language here (that's called diction in the poetry biz): "wedge," "iron" (twice), and "cliff." What comes to mind when you think of these words? Besides violence, maybe there's something cold, indifferent, and even dangerous when you think of being on the "edge" of a cliff. Also, by repeating "iron" twice, the speaker emphasizes the power, inflexibility, and indifference of the water as it pummels the cliff.
- At the same time, the cliff also has an "iron edge" to it. Both elements of nature, then, are rigid, cold, and in conflict.
- That idea of interconnectedness pops up again, then. It's as if the sea and cliff are locked in combat here, eternally clashing like a battle between two Mother Nature's heavyweights, where the water meets the rock.
- Then another natural element enters into the scene: the stars. It's as if the camera is panning upward here, first underwater, then at wave-cliff level, and now upward into the sky.
- And these stars… well, they must be up to something. "Whereupon" just means right after something, so just as the water and cliff duke it out, the stars—stanza break. Let's read on to find out what they get up to…
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.
- So we're back to the pretty language again. Here again, Moore is dissolving one setting into another pretty smoothly by connecting the last idea of one stanza into the first idea of the next.
- So, it looked like we were headed into the sky at the end of the last stanza with the mention of stars, but we might have been given the slip with some poetic misdirection. Sure, stars may look like "pink/ rice-grains" if you squint at them long enough, but we doubt that you'd see anything in the sky that resembled "ink-/bespattered jellyfish." Storm clouds maybe? Alien ships that have come to invade earth? Those are both possible (we welcome you, new alien overlords), but another possibility is that this poem has zigged when we thought it zagged.
- Don't forget that we've been or near the sea so far. So what kind of star might live as easily under the water in the sky? Yup, starfish might—and pink ones at that. So here we might actually be back under the sea, chockfull of figuratively depicted starfish ("stars, pink rice-grains"), jelly fish, and crabs among others. And they're all getting along rather nicely in a connected sort of way, "slid[ing] each on the other."
- So not only do we have a change in scenery (from sea to cliff to sky—er, nope, back to sea), but also a change of mood. We ended the previous stanza on a rather violent note and here things are looking pretty peaceful, even ready for a cameo in The Little Mermaid.
- To heighten the peace, everyone getting along kind of mood, the speaker lists off all the different creatures in a highly vivid way, one after another. Again, this is not totally dissimilar to the kind of song you'd hear in a Disney movie.
- And each description is a figurative whirlwind of images, from "rice-grains" (like the spots on the starfish) to "ink-bespattered" jelly fish (probably dark or splotchy). The "submarine toadstools" might be another wartime allusion to the violence and death that is always a part of life.
- Notice too that, with this new setting, we're kind of moving in circles since we started in the ocean, moved to land, and now we're back in the ocean. So, even the changes of scenery mimic the undulating movement of the ocean's waves as we go back and forth.
- Oh, and we ended this stanza with a period, which is a bit different from all the enjambment we've seen so far. This tells us that this particular thought has come to a full stop and perhaps the next stanza will therefore focus on something different. Only one way to find out…
marks of abuse are present on this
all the physical features of
- And, just when we were happily back in the water, it looks like we're now back on the cliff ("this/ defiant edifice"). An edifice is just a fancy word for a structure or building of some sort. And since we haven't seen any other structures, it's safe to assume we're looking at that beat up cliff again.
- Okay, so those "marks of abuse" are pretty easy to spot (they're "All […] present"). And we know that most of them are likely caused by the water driving that "iron wedge" into it. Again, this is all figurative language, so the takeaway point is that the cliff has endured a lot of abuse. Even with its own iron edge, the scars are easy to see.
- But just like we saw before, the edifice is "defiant" and withstands the abuse. "Abuse"—that's a funny way to put it, don't you think? We mean, who ever heard of cliff abuse? People tend to be more what we think of as victims of abuse, so the speaker here is making an extended metaphor in which the cliff seems to stand for humanity (and not just guys named "Cliff").
- Also, by using the word "edifice" instead of "cliff" here, we get the sense that there's a man-made vibe to this structure, since the word "edifice" usually relates to a building of some sort.
- Notice too that the speaker specifically says "external marks," rather than just leaving it at "marks." So there might also be a suggestion that there's more abuse that we can't see with our eyes, internal maybe.
- For now, though, we're focused on what can be seen, the "physical features" of… of… yup, it's time for more stanza enjambment.
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns and
hatchet strokes, […]
- We get more emphasis here on the "physical features" of the edifice-cliff that get a little more specific in the seventh stanza. And all the details sure sound very human-like and man-made, like a missing "cornice" (a fancy word for molding), "dynamite grooves," and "hatchet strokes." All of this damage would be made or caused by people, not the ocean, right?
- Okay, so until the ocean starts learning how to use a hatchet, we can assume the speaker is focusing on human abuse. So now that cliff-edifice is getting beat up by both sides: nature (ocean) and man (dynamite). We guess that, as something that's both natural (cliff) and man-made (edifice) itself, that stands to reason.
- But what did that cliff ever do to anyone? Well, the same could be said about any number of people who suffer abuse, especially during wartime. So it's not so much about why this is happening, but rather the focus is that it is happening, whether we like it or not.
- You're probably wondering about the funny break up of the word "ac-/cident." The purpose here looks to be more about keeping with Moore's initial stanza pattern rather than some deep meaning. "Ac" rhymes with "lack," nice and simple, and keeps the rhyme scheme intact.
- Notice too that this list of damage look a bit like that catalogue of sea creatures we saw earlier. The only difference is there's nothing peaceful and nice about these words. So yet again, Moore is establishing a sense of connection: life and death, earth and sea, resistance and damage, humanity and nature.
[…] these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is
- What's more, there's no hiding all the marks of abuse on that edifice-cliff. They "stand out."
- It's almost as if we can't even appreciate what beauty it might have had because of all of the damage. Notice we only get the perspective of the damage, rather than the parts that are still intact.
- Fancy word alert: "chasm" is just a deep hole or cut of some sort. In this case, the chasm is caused by both nature and humanity.
- It's also… gah, on to the next stanza we go.
- Ah, it's also dead—good times. Well, since the "chasm-side is/ dead" we can safely guess that all of the damage killed that part of it. So although the "defiant" edifice-cliff looked as if it was holding steady, part of it just couldn't survive the abuse.
- Now, since we have some suspicions that the cliff is part of the extended metaphor about humanity withstanding abuse, we know that these lines aren't just about a cliff and its chasm. Instead we understand that, just like the cliff, humanity might also lose a part of itself (iron edge or no) after so much abuse.
- Again, this is all figurative language, since we know parts of people don't literally die, just like cliffs can't die either. But the language heightens our sense of looking at life and death from many different angles, not just in the literal sense of living things dying.
- Also, we have another rare period at the end of line 36 that tells us to stop and consider what we just read. This is the first time we've actually seen the word "dead" used, so it's fitting that we take a moment to think about the severity of the word and how it's being used.
- So what do we think? We're nearing the end of the poem, so perhaps the speaker is beginning to wrap things up in a way that's a bit more direct than we've seen so far. Death is, well, pretty direct, and since it relates to the idea of abuse, we know that there are some heavy ideas to consider.
- One thing we might consider is the idea that, out of the two kinds of abuse we've seen, one can be controlled (the abuse perpetrated by people). The ocean can't control how it damages the cliff, but people don't need to take hatchet strokes to it and blow it up with dynamite, right?
- So we're dealing with the same sort of idea when we imagine people in the contexts of "natural" abuse (like aging, disease, etc.) and "manmade" abuse (like violence, war, etc.). The latter can be controlled but not the former.
evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. […]
- Hmm, so what can live on something that can't "revive/ its youth"? Good question. Let's start with clarifying the subject. The "it" in line 38 is presumably the edifice-cliff, but since the "chasm-side" is dead, we can assume we're looking at another part that's still alive.
- So we know for sure now that this is no ordinary cliff and is definitely a symbol for something human. Words like "live on," and "revive its youth," convince us that we're dealing with issues of life and death through a human perspective, since animals aren't usually concerned about reviving their youth.
- But what does it mean? Again, we have more ambiguity here, so we can entertain lots of different ideas.
- Maybe the still-living side of the cliff that's resting on the ocean realizes that the ocean can't fix it or "revive its youth." And still it "live[s] on" this very substance that can't do anything for it.
- And since the cliff is a symbol for humanity, we can imagine how people live in a similar way. As we age, we realize the things we consume can't turn back time and make us healthy and young again. But we endure and keep living on.
- Alternatively, in a more spiritual sense, the things we "live on," whether it's a faith of some sort or belief in something, can't revive our youth either. And yet we continue to live with these beliefs and keep on trekking through.
- A third way to see these lines is to pinpoint exactly what the speaker's on about with "what can not revive its youth." What might that thing be? One idea is experience. Experience is something that you only gain by getting older. By definition, it cannot revive your youth. So the scars and abuse that the cliff-edifice-symbol-of-humanity are markers of experience, knowledge and wisdom that allow it to continue on in the face of hardship.
[…]The sea grows old in it.
- Moore's very last line is equally compelling as the previous ones and can bring to mind lots of different ideas.
- Here's one: If the cliff lives on the sea that can't revive its youth, it makes sense that both things would continue to grow "old" no matter what. In fact, the entire planet grows old too (approximately a few million years and counting).
- So "old" here doesn't necessarily relate to wrinkles and brittle bones. Rather the word appears to be pointing more towards the idea of endurance. The "defiant" cliff continues to live on despite a part of it being "dead."
- So if the cliff is a symbol for humanity, we get the sense that man and nature are being portrayed here as one big family. And no matter how much abuse occurs, humanity continues to survive and endure, just like nature.
- When we put everything together, including the poem's form, rhythm, and dissolving imagery, we see even more this idea of everything working together in some sort of order. Sometimes things are serene, sometimes they're violent, but no matter what humanity and nature continue to endure it all.
- And though we may expect things that are orderly to also be meaningful, Moore convinces us by the end of "The Fish" that the two may not be the same. Sometimes recognizing the order and moving with it (like those fish wading through black jade) is enough.