Study Guide

The Fish (Marianne Moore) Stanza 1

By Marianne Moore

Stanza 1

Lines 1-2

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...

Lines 3-4

     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.)

Line 5

          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…