Analysis of “The Shark” and “The Fish”

July 25, 2018 General Studies

In human nature, there is compassion and gentleness but there is also maliciousness and mischievousness and sometimes appearance can either make the intentions of someone distinguishable or potentially disguised. The poems “The Shark” by E.J. Pratt and “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop display a theme revolving around mindsets of individuals using the symbolization of aquatic creatures. E.J. Pratt’s poem “The Shark” portrays a shark as a fierce creature that is conniving yet quiet as it swims through the water. On the other hand, “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop shows the fish in a state of helplessness and frailty as she holds it in her hands out of the water. A comparison of the shark’s fatality versus the fish’s defenselessness shows that mankind has a diverse range in attitude that may or may not be expressed through the exterior of each individual.

In the poem “The Shark” by E.J. Pratt, a shark is used as a symbol to define characteristics of humans and their darker essence within them. The speaker of the poem observes a content shark beneath the shallows of the water as the shark naturally continues with its daily routine. Pratt conveys the shark as undefeatable “as though he was the king of the underwater kingdom,” (PaperNerd Contributor).

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The poet’s description of the shark gives admiration to its intense look but it is acknowledged in a negative manner. Particularly in this poem, the devious behavior is not obvious since the shark “so leisurely […] swam” (2) when he “stirred not a bubble / as [he] moved / with [his] base-line on the water” (7-9). Whether or not “the dark side” can be hidden well, it is still bubbling beneath the surface of morality and ethics. The shark suddenly “turn[s] / and snap[s] at a flat-fish that was dead and floating” (14-15). Once this sly nature is released, it is hard to contain and too obvious to repress. A “flash of a white throat / and a double row of white teeth” (16-17) is exposed representing the cruel, true intentions that mankind hides.

Afterwards, the shark – pleased with his actions – leisurely swims away “with that three-cornered fin” (21) which resembles the pride of his own “latent and impersonal power” (Gunton 380), whilst the speaker of the poem is shocked and appalled. When someone does right by others, it is over looked but when wrong is committed, the act is questioned since humanity is unforgiving.
Overall, the manipulative ways of a person can be overlooked if the looks are adequately deceiving.

In contrast to the aggressiveness of the shark in “The Shark,” the poem “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop uses a fish to symbolize the vulnerability in society. The poet catches a “tremendous fish” and is observing him as she holds him with her “hook / […] in a corner of his mouth,” (3-4). As she held the fish, “he didn’t fight” (5). The fish is “battered and venerable and homely” (8-9) portraying the powerlessness in a person as they are being dominated. He was half out of the water as “his gills were breathing in the terrible oxygen” (22-23).

This represents the void in opinion of someone’s when an opposing majority overwhelms and suppresses their voice. “What could be worse than to be left ‘gasping’ in an alien atmosphere desperately trying to tear sustenance from a cruelly implacable world” (Gellert 90)? However “the frightening gills” (24) pose a threat on the speaker yet “fresh and crisp with blood” is a “reminder that fish has just been caught and is teetering on death” (Shmoop Editorial Team). The fish is finally able to break loose and victoriously flails all over the boat and the poet “let[s] the fish go” (76). Letting go of the fish “accounts for the extraordinary sympathy” (Witalec 6) that Bishop expressed after seeing the struggles that the fish had. Considering that the fish may have appeared to have asked for mercy and did not receive it, his hidden willpower and determination was satisfactory and he was able to free himself.

These two poems had a similarity when the theme was considered to be that mankind has a specific attitude towards one another. However, the two poems contrasted each other because Pratt’s poem revolved in darker and heavier scenario while Bishop’s poem was more light and buoyant. Moreover, the contrast within each poem itself showed that there could be a definite separation between the appearances that people possess versus the actual personality of that person. “The Shark” gives the idea that someone who may look more reserved and relaxed can be extremely cunning and unkind.

In “The Fish,” the idea displayed is that someone who seems scrawnier or less powerful than another may actually have a strong stubborn attitude that will be used to their advantage. With both of the poems considered, “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop seemed to have more insight and depth when viewing the theme as deceiving looks and personalities. It is clearer in the descriptions of the fragile state that the fish is in while being forced out of its comfort zone and suddenly realizes the strength it has to overcome the situation. “The Shark” is slightly contradicting when the shark slowly glides through the water but looks violent – therefore it is suspected that the shark may potentially do something harmful.

All in all, the comparison between “The Shark” by E.J. Pratt and “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop shared a theme in attitudes displayed by mankind but differed in which attitudes are expressed. These poems both also shared another factor, which a creature that live sin an aquatic environment is used as a symbol. “The Shark” expresses the theme in a more grim fashion meanwhile “The Fish” uses a more optimistic approach to express the theme. The diversity of human nature is clear, and this means that not all of society looks alike nor acts similar but more likely that there is nearly a black and white scenario to this relationship.


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