Study Guide

The Fish (Marianne Moore) Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    In poems about the natural world, it's usually safe to assume that the speaker isn't just talking about how cool the ocean and fish look. Usually there's some sort of symbolism, or deeper meaning, going on. "The Fish" is no different, with the ocean and the cliff representing cycles of life and humanity in all its moments of peace and struggle.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Why do we get so many different perspectives of the natural world in "The Fish"?
    2. What kind of language does Moore use to describe all the aquatic scenery? Can you pick out specific adjectives that look rather human-like?
    3. How does the poem's form add to this theme of man and the natural world? How do its wavy lines mimic humanity in the natural world?
    4. How is life and death portrayed in the natural world? Do the two work together? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    "The Fish" is about more than just sea creatures, gang. It's a look at life in all its forms getting along in the universe.

    Human life can be summed up in the movement of a fish swimming through "black jade waters." All of us will face some challenging, but natural, obstacles.

  • Perseverance

    You'd think that with all the "dynamite" and "hatchet strokes" the cliff would have had enough and given up by now. But not our cliff. In "The Fish" that symbolic structure endures all the abuse and perseveres, even if a part of it is dead. So we understand that it's kind of like us trekking through the hard times and maybe even surprising ourselves by proving that old phrase: what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. How does the natural world appear to persevere in this poem, despite various forms of abuse?
    2. Why are the mussel-shells described as "injured fans"?
    3. What do the "ash-heaps" represent in the poem? How do you know?
    4. What are the two types of abuse the cliff endures? How are the types different and why does the speaker distinguish between the two?
    5. If the cliff's "chasm-side" is dead, how can it possibly live on? How can one part survive without the other?

    Chew on This

    Nature is one tough cookie (mmm, cookie). Since it is so closely connected to human life in "The Fish," though, we can assume that humanity is just as tough.

    Hang in there, everyone. To persevere is to adapt, and the beat-up cliff proves that anything can adapt to even the harshest of circumstances both natural and manmade.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    When we talk about life-stuff, we often end up with more questions than answers. "The Fish" also asks lots of life-stuff questions but doesn't give us any big "A-ha" moments. Instead life and death appear to just get along without much fuss. "It is what it is" seems to be the prevailing tone of the poem, and what it is is one big continuous, connected cycle of life. Cue The Lion King.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. How does the speaker's tone contribute to the theme of life and existence? What does she sound like and why does she sound this way?
    2. With everything sliding "each on the other," what are we to make of life and all its forms? According to the poem, is there any order here or is just one big aquatic mess?
    3. How does Moore's syllabic verse contribute to the poem's ideas about life and existence? What's the point of having such a form without a specific meter?
    4. What do you make of the final line, "the sea grows old in it"? What does it have to do with life and existence?

    Chew on This

    Good news, bad news: our world, like the ocean in "The Fish," is like an ecosystem that looks orderly but doesn't necessarily provide any life-changing answers.

    It's not that there aren't any answers to our life-stuff questions, it's just that the answers are so simple in "The Fish" that it's hard to notice they're even there (deep, right?).