The Fish

through black jade.
        Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
        adjusting the ash-heaps;
                opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
        The barnacles which encrust the side
        of the wave, cannot hide
                there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
        glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
        into the crevices—
                in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
        of bodies. The water drives a wedge
        of iron through the iron edge
                of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like green lilies, and submarine toadstools, slide each on the other. All external marks of abuse are present on this defiant edifice— all the physical features of ac-
cident—lack of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and hatchet strokes, these things stand out on it; the chasm-side is dead. Repeated evidence has proved that it can live on what can not revive its youth. The sea grows old in it.


  1. In the final stanza, Moore further unveils the relationship between cliff and sea. The cliff persists by the sea—that which “can not revive its youth”—and the sea “grows old in” the cliff. The cliff and the sea define one another as they break one another down. Moore personifies these figures, imbuing them with mortality. Ultimately, this characterization reflects on us, and on the shortness of our own lives. For, unlike us, the cliff and the sea will carry on their struggle indefinitely.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Moore employs personification in two ways here, giving both the cliff and the sea human characteristics. The cliff, that “defiant edifice” with its “lack of cornice” takes on a human-made quality. Moore also uses artificial imagery—”burns, and/hatchet strokes”—to describe the sea’s assault on the cliff. There is a human violence to the scene.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. Moore makes us hyper-aware of language: how it sounds and how it is constructed. One example of this is in her deconstruction of “accident,” which represents the destruction of the cliff face. In our reading of these lines, we come to the realization that “accident” contains the linguistic fragment “ac-,” which rhymes with “lack.” As in much of the poem, the words become objects to be played with. The entire poem is tactile in this way. As Moore’s words create images and scenes, they also whir and click mechanically.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. In the phrase “defiant edifice,” notice how the first two syllables of each word are identical, but reversed. The fragment “edif-” sounds like “defi-” pronounced backwards, syllable by syllable.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Moore uses line breaks to create moments of expectation and surprise. In the line “of the cliff; whereupon the stars,” we imagine stars, in the astronomical sense, shining upon the cliff. The vast break between stanzas leaves this reading untouched. When we arrive at the image of “pink/rice-grains,” it becomes clear that the stars in question are sea stars. Yet this twist does not negate the image of starlight, for the initial meaning of “stars” receives its own poetic moment.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. Moore uses “sea” in a peculiar way here. The subsequent line break leaves the literal meaning of the word in mind, which makes sense given the poem’s marine setting. However, the start of the next line complicates “sea,” so that it metaphorically refers to a group of bodies. Also, the rhyme in the first two lines forces us to reconsider our pronunciation of “the.” Only upon re-reading these lines can we appreciate the double pronunciation of “the” and the double meaning of “sea.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Moore’s remarkable wordplay becomes self-referential: “split” describes the splitting apart of the poem’s language just as it describes the sunlight.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. Moore’s use of consonance and assonance are worth attention. Notice the continual use of s and l sounds, and the way “spun” reiterates “sun” while borrowing the p from “split.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. Moore’s use of enjambment—the splitting of a statement over multiple lines—creates a rhythmic counterpoint. “Spun” receives a stressed pronunciation, but so does “Glass” at the beginning of the next line. The pause between these two stressed words builds tension, holds it for moment, and finally releases it.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. Moore’s approach to rhyme in “The Fish” is innovative. In each stanza, the first and second lines rhyme, as do the third and fourth. The fifth line is unique. In metered poetry, the end rhymes usually land on the final stress of the line, and so our ears anticipate the rhymes. In Moore’s syllabic verse, the lack of consistent meter means the rhymes are often subtle and surprising.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. Moore’s approach to versification in “The Fish” is unique. The poem is neither metered nor free verse. In other words, the lines do not have specific beat counts, nor do they run free. This is instead known as syllabic verse. In each stanza, the first line has one syllable, the second line three, the third line nine, the fourth line six, and the fifth line eight. None of the verses deviate from this pattern. This structure creates a fixed form but allows for rhythmic variation.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. In another twist of image and language, Moore refers to the dark mussel shells as “crow-blue.” Because a crow’s plumage is primarily black, the use of “blue” evokes an image of black with shimmers of blue, which turns out to be an accurate description of a mussel shell. In a testament to economy of language, Moore accomplishes all of this with two syllables.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. Moore carefully controls the poem’s imagery. By comparing water to “black jade,” the image becomes earthy and tactile. The metaphor is fresh in that the comparison crosses states of matter, from liquid to solid.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. Marianne Moore uses the title as part of the poem’s opening lines. In other words, the full statement would be “The fish wade through black jade.” This is a wonderfully disorienting choice. First, we read the title as a singular fish, and the word “wade” as a command. However, when put together, both of those readings turn out to be false.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor