The real confrontation is the speaker’s internal struggle: should she keep the fish or throw it back? In a moment of illumination, she does the latter. Bishop’s poem endows its fish with an awareness not very different from human awareness. That this is a poem of “twofold consciousness,” to use Robert Bly’s term for poems that “grant nature an enormous amount of consciousness” , is indicated by Bishop’s calling the fish a “he” instead of an “it. ” This is not mere personification, for she treats the fish as a sentient being, with feelings not unlike those of a human being.
She admires the fish’s “sullen face” as his eyes tip “toward the light,” light which for us humans would symbolize consciousness but which for the creature of the water symbolizes the unconsciousness of death. The narrative may be summed up quickly, for what happens happens more quickly than the time it takes to read the poem. The speaker, out in a battle-worn, rented boat, catches the old fish, holds it “half out of water, with my hook / fast in a corner of his mouth.
After examining the fish closely and sympathetically, she has, ironically, a moment of recognition or an epiphany and tosses the fish back into the water: “I let the fish go. ” Summarized, the poem is ordinary enough. What makes the poem extraordinary is the way the experience is related: the structure is shaped by the language of the poem . Bishop’s images appeal to all the senses: sound (“He hung a grunting weight . . . his gills were breathing in / the terrible oxygen)”; smell (“shapes like fullblown roses .. . rags of green weed hung down”); touch (she holds the fish); taste (“I thought of the coarse white flesh”); and of course sight (the “green weed,” among many other examples). Combining simile and metaphor, Bishop creates sympathy for the fish. The “five old pieces of fish-line . . . with all their five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth” are Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw.