Denotation and Connotation in "The Fish"

It is easier to see the denotative meaning than the connotative meaning of this poem. A woman catches a fish, holds it up for inspection, admires it, and then throws it back in the water. What exists beneath the surface of the poem largely depends on its tone, its rich description, and the emotional transformation of the speaker. Connotation in “The Fish” is subtle, but it should not be overlooked as a primary contributor to the poem’s overall effect.

- line 1 - "I caught a tremendous fish"
Despite the simplicity of the denotative meaning of “The Fish,” words with multiple connotations lend texture to the poem and contribute to its overall effect. Tremendous can mean “big” or “wonderful,” and the fish does exhibit both of these qualities. Another possible definition of tremendous is the capacity to make one tremble, derived from the Latin tremere, to tremble. This connotation of the word helps to explain the speaker’s ultimate response to the fish. “I caught a big fish” would not have the same effect.

- line 23 - "the terrible oxygen"
The word terrible, etymologically related to tremendous from the first line, has multiple connotations. This fish breathes oxygen like people, but this particular oxygen circulating in the air is perhaps “terrible” (as in “bad”) because the fish can’t access it with his gills. There is also something terrible about the fish himself—terrible in the sense of terrifying—that is associated with its attempt to breathe the air, and this sense is immediately reinforced through the speaker’s description of its “frightening gills” in the next line (24). The terrible quality of the fish also increases the speaker’s (and our) awe of it.

Questions for response

1). How does this examination of denotation and connotation change your understanding of how the poem works as a whole?

2). Find other examples in the poem in which denotation or connotation is important. What do they contribute to the work?

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