The Fish by Marianne Moore: Summary and Analysis

The Fish by Marianne Moore is an Imagist poem where the visual element dominates the poem. It is not only about the fish, but also about the stunning and yet, distressing view of the ocean, its various creatures, and the life and death cycles.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

In the first part of the poem she just presents the visual and the second part is the justification of those visuals. This poem uses fish as an opportunity to meditate on the human barbarism. The human being has lost the essential humanity and the norm of civilization. The shoreline setting of the poem reflects the inhumanity and barbarism of human beings. Instead of the swiftly flowing sea, we can see all the external marks of abuse in the shoreline, ‘lack of cornice dynamite grooves, burns and hatchet strokes’ are some of the evidences of human barbarism. In the different excuses, we are abusing the shoreline and destroying the natural habitat of innocent sea creature. We are ceasing their right to live, so the fish has suffered like the injured fan and even the barnacles are being gradually displaced. We even get the hint that she is slightly changing its route. The Fungus sliding on the side of the wave stands for this fact. The shoreline has lost its youth and she has become its witness.

Marianne Moore's The Fish uses imagery to paint an animal picture of wildlife, using various colors and shapes to stimulate the reader’s perception of the ocean. In the first image one fish is adjusting in the ash heaps and it looks like an injured fan. The second image is of the barnacles which generally remain on the side of the wave cannot remain in there and move swiftly, swim towards the other places. In the third image we see the fungus/toadstools, jelly fish, and crabs sliding on each other in the iron edge of the cliff. The ‘black jade’ water, ‘ash heaps’, and ‘injured fan’ are some images that create the damaged seashore. The wave of the water is like ‘iron’ that hits the cliff to death. This image triggers the image of the battlefield. The creatures of the sea slide on each other without any wish and they are like puppet here. It seems that the water and the seashore are having war and the creatures residing in it are innocent victims without any faults.    They move as per the waves of the sea. The seashore is shown dead, broken and forlorn with the negative imagery in the poem.  

The title itself should be read together with the first line of the first stanza to form the line, "The fish wade through the black jade..." This continuation invokes the thought of connectedness. Just like the oceans are connected to form one big body of water, the first line is connected to the title of the poem to form a stanza. This connectedness resonates throughout the entire poem, as when the last line of a preceding stanza continues on to the first line of the next stanza, using a series of enjambment lines. Thus, all the stanzas of poem interact, as one cannot be read without the other.

The poem goes over different animals and the activities that they do to show their interactions with one another and the environment. One example is a mussel's "adjusting ash heaps," showing how the mussel's actions directly change its immediate surroundings. The "ash heaps," which is a metaphor for sand, makes the mussel a part of something bigger. That is, its actions affect the ocean itself, where the starfish, jellyfish, and crabs also live.

As the poem is more about the shoreline than the fish itself, the speaker goes on showing the ‘defiant edifice’ where various creatures live. The words such as ‘burns’, ‘hatchet strokes’, ‘abuse’ clearly depict the  destroyed state of the edifice. However the damaged edifice, the water creatures all live together in fear of dying alone. This shows again the theme of connectedness: living beings prefer live together irrespective to the harm they do to each other and to their habitat. They feel secure when together, but feel dead in isolation.  

The poem is important for its form. To create one specific form like the wave of the sea, each stanza begins with the single word.  Each stanza flow, build and break like the wave of the sea that creates the naturalness of the sea. The title itself is the starting line of the poem. One should start the poem reading from ‘the fish wades through black jade’. The words are kept in such a manner that they are visually tempting and creates an abstract like painting in the mind of the reader.

Though many interpreters find negative connotations in this poem, some critics see beyond that view. The form and the visual of the poem creates a kind of pleasure to the eye. The sea may grow old and the cliff may be damaged like dead, but there is always sunlight.  Both the sea and cliff are symbolically stand for the endurance and patience. Though there is death, there is life after death and it is the cycle of life. The sunlight is there to bring brightness in the dark corner of the sea and cliff. The sea is not only the dumping site of dead creatures, but also the origin and source of life.

Related Topics

A Jellyfish: Summary and Analysis

Marianne Moore: Biography