Elizabeth Bishop is known for using the same recurring themes throughout her thought-provoking poetry. Some of these themes include childhood experiences, travel, the natural world, loneliness, detachment and the art of writing itself. Each of these themes has introduced themselves to her by means of personal experiences throughout her life. In her poetry, she shares these particular issues with the reader by means of different styles. Some of her poems offer hints of certain themes, but are not obviously prominent on the first read, While many of her other poems are based solely on a particular issue throughout the whole poem. These elements of theme and style make her poetry a very interesting read. In my essay, I am going to discuss the themes and style throughout six of Bishop’s poems; “The Fish”, “The Prodigal”, “Questions of Travel”, “Sestina”, “First Death in Nova Scotia” and “Filling Station”. Elizabeth Bishop was once quoted to have said “I like painting probably better than I like poetry.” “The Fish” is certainly a very visual poem. I believe one of the predominant themes in this poem is the natural world. Her love of the natural world and its creatures is evident throughout as she describes the fish. Bishop catches this fish but does not carry out the norm of what any other person would do with the intent of catching a fish and succeeding to do so. Instead, she studies the fish. She looks and it, and looks closer until she can come up with some kind of conclusion about the animal. She uses clear visual detail to describe the fish and paint a vivid picture in the reader’s head of what this fish looks like and what it has been through. “Here and there his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper, and its pattern of darker brown was like wallpaper.” “He was speckled with barnacles, fine rosettes of lime, and infested with tiny White Sea lice, and underneath two or three rags of green weed hung down.” Another theme that I noticed throughout this poem is the admiration for a survivor of life’s battles. Bishop personifies the fish in many ways throughout the poem, portraying it to have human-like traits and characteristics and that it is like a human in its ability to suffer and learn from that suffering. “A five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw”.
The word wisdom makes me think that fish has been through many ordeals throughout its life and has become wise from having learnt how to deal with the suffering it has endured. Bishop makes the fish look honourable. She appreciates this fish and looks up to it for surviving life’s battles. “Like medals with their ribbons’.
She is referring to the old pieces of fishing line hooked onto the fish as rewards and proof that this fish had the strength to deal with the terror it had been through. I also noticed an element of helplessness and defeat throughout the poem. The fish seemed helpless, like it had given up fighting for its freedom, the evidence shown by the hooks in its mouth and its lack of struggle when it was caught. It was as if the fish had accepted defeat once and for all. It had fought as hard as it could throughout its life for its freedom, but there seemed to be no fight left in him. “He didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all.”
Bishop seemed to be helpless in the sense that she could do nothing for this fish. As she sat there, examining every inch of it, realising his experiences and unravelling his pain, there was not much she could do to help him. She had effectively taken away his freedom. Fortunately, Bishop, as helpless as she was, discovered that letting the fish go was the best decision to make. She did not want to make this fish suffer anymore. “Until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! And I let the fish go.”
“The Prodigal” is a poem based on a person who was forced to live among the pigs he...