Powerfully Subdued: An Analysis of the Romantic View of Nature in “The Fish”
Nature often horrifies and frightens us. Whether it is a snake that has the potential to kill with one bite or a raging flood that can destroy an entire town in a matter of minutes, the natural world often causes us to cower in sight of its abilities. However, what we truly fear is not an animal lacking legs or a gross amount of water; we as humans dread the inalienable power that nature holds, and this fear often turns into a desire to control, subdue, and destroy. Nevertheless, artists during the period of Romanticism in the 19th century worked to conquer the destructive desires surrounding nature and in doing so recognized the immense awe and respect the world could draw out of a person thanks to its inherent beauty. Though written after Romanticism had come and gone, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” reflects much of the period’s ideology regarding the power of and appreciation for nature. While humans may have the power to restrain and even vanquish certain aspects of the natural world, Bishop, through the image of the fish, portrays nature as resilient and commanding and in the end reveals that we can often find much more of a reward in letting it be.
Often times we view nature in the same way that the fisher in the poem originally sees the fish. She notes that the fish’s “skin hung…like ancient wallpaper…stained and lost through age.” The narrator understands that the fish once had power, though only a glimmer of what it was still exists due to its old age. Similarly, as humans have created ways to subdue nature such as a pesticide to protect crops or a dam to block a river, we connect the world with a fading, timeworn power. Drifting to a focus on technology and industry, we grow farther apart from nature which only further decreases its ability in our eyes. The fisher continues to comment on aspects of the animal that make it out to be less than desirable such as how it is “infested with tiny white sea-lice.” At this point, she chooses to see the bad and disagreeable of the fish that hamper it and its abilities. We too often perceive only the negative aspects of nature and therefore regularly view it as weighed down and burdened, and we often applaud our own inventions and intelligence for having brought that weakness about. Though humans fail to recognize it at times, nature has immense power that we will never be able to fully control.
Though the fish may appear subdued, Bishop’s use of language helps its strength and impressive nature shine through. After the fisher has spent some time assessing her catch, she realizes that “five old pieces of fish-line [and] …all their five big hooks [have] grown firmly in his mouth.” The fish has not only been caught once and lost or let go, but an astounding five times. As the fisher recognizes how much the marine beast has survived and endured, she begins to understand its resilience and starts to describe it in much more admiring terms. Similarly, the Romantics see through the curtain of insignificance that humans attempt to place over nature and instead comprehend it in light of all of its history and all that it has prevailed over. In her new perception, instead of seeing the multitude of hooks and lines as a detriment to the fish, the fisher views them as “medals with their ribbons.” The afflictions that once held the animal back now serve as a reason for esteem. Further testifying to the resilience of the fish, the prizes it bears paint the many encounters it has endured in a positive light. Likewise, in Romanticism, the triumphs and grandeur of nature are taken into account rather than the times when its abilities have not pleased humans. With this new favorable assessment of the fish and of nature, the fisher and we as humans can find much more pleasure in the two than we can by simply condemning them.
In the end, the fisher realizes that the most beneficial use of the impressive fish is to let it be. In the beginning, the fisher focuses on the multitude of colors that make the animal uglier and more uncomfortable to behold; with the different perspective, she now shifts her concentration to another mix of hues in which “oil ha[s] spread a rainbow.” In changing her attitude in how she perceives the fish, the fisher no longer notices the unpleasant aspects of the beast but instead something that people everywhere view as beautiful. When looking at the natural world with a Romantic view, our focus as humans also shifts from the obnoxious features that we once sought to destroy and control to the wonderful ones that inspire joy and awe. As “victory fill[s] up” and all that the fisher can observe is rainbow, she “let[s] the fish go.” The fish triumphs just as it has five times before and just as it will continue to do. The fisher could kill and keep it, but understands that much more pleasure can be found in releasing it for others to experience. With the same logic, why would anyone want to stem the bliss and amazement nature brings?
Just as in the fish written about by Bishop, humans often have the desire and ability to overpower nature; however, if we focus less on domination and more on admiration of the beauty it has to offer, we as humans gain much more in the end. The Romantic view of nature seeks to convey that if we alter our perception as the fisher does, we have the means to esteem the power we once feared. Many people believe that the period of Romanticism started and ended in the 1800’s, yet can we not see reflections of its perception of nature in the Environmentalism of today?
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