My thoughts upon reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “At the Fishhouses”.
About the poet:
Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979): An acclaimed American poet:
Pulitzer Prize, 1955
National Book Award in Poetry, 1970
Neustadt International Prize for Literature, 1976.
Online source for profile and poems:
“At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop (c).
This is a poem that I like to read because of the richness of detail in the descriptions, and the turning from observations of the outer physical world to an inner search.
Within the poem, there are stories of the sea, the seashore, and people. The stories emerge from finely drawn descriptions of the physical world, and our personal and emotional responses and connections to that world.
The poem begins on the seashore, with the old fisherman, and the equally old, or perhaps older fishhouses. The passage of time, the memories of days gone by, show in the accumulated silver fish scales on the fish tubs, the wheelbarrows, benches, lobster pots. I imagine the narrator walking along the seashore, stopping to chat with the old fisherman: he was a friend of the narrator’s grandfather. There is “warmth” in this scene near the fishhouses.
Then, the mood of the poem changes: the narrator watches trees being placed at the water’s edge, down into the cold waters. Could any creature live in those cold waters? The narrator recalls singing to a seal that would pop up to the surface, and submerge, again and again, curious. To the narrator, the seal’s immersion into the cold waters is like his or her own sense of immersion, perhaps an inner struggle of some kind.
The turning point for me, the key to the questions that the narrator seems to be pondering over, comes when the narrator speaks of the icy cold sea water as a metaphor for the nature of knowledge itself:
If you were to immerse your hand in the icy sea, or drink the cold sea waters, it would seem more like fire.
Invariably, I end up wondering when is knowledge “icy”? Perhaps when something is elusive or one cannot grasp the essence of something. Knowledge may be fiery when understanding comes so rapidly, you are overwhelmed.
And like the sea, knowledge, one’s thoughts, come and then flow away.
Winslow Homer (American; 1836-1910):
1895; reworked by 1901: “Northeaster”
Oil on canvas painting
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
(This work is in the public domain in the United States)