Commentary / Elizabeth Bishop / Essay / Fish-herring / I love you. / poetry / Relationships / Uncategorized / William Shakespeare

On Saying “I Love You”


“I Love You.” F.P.; Am Ostbahnhof. Creative Commons License, Flickr.

A common phrase extolling emotional urgency due to the “attractive qualities” of another; “deep affection”; a conveyance of “benevolent attachment” and “fondness.” [1] To say “I love” is also an exaggeration of the “you” or any detachable noun or pronoun:

I love you!

I love this dress!

I love pasta!

You understand. I love is a cliché, a lie, a social need; a sadness. The you is the risk, but might also be part of the lie. You is the reference. Love supports the you; the you becomes the referent:

love,n.2. Any one set of transverse beams supporting the spits in a smokehouse for curing herring. [2]

I’d rather love be a stirring rather than a “set of transverse beams” used to assist in curing herring. I’d rather be the you that is not a spineless silvery fish. I don’t have anything against spineless silvery fish, but if I hear and feel the “I love you” from another maybe it should not matter what I am. After all, poet Elizabeth Bishop included the “beautiful herring scales” (line 22) in her poem “At the Fishhouses”:

The big fish tubs are completely lined

with layers of beautiful herring scales

and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered

with creamy iridescent coats of mail,

with small iridescent flies crawling on them. (lines 22-26)

I immediately want to exclaim my love for these lines each a delicate layering of one image after the next. Bishop uses two receptacles, “big fish tubs” and “wheelbarrows” to hold or support the lamina. At first I consider the repetition of “iridescent” with disdain


“Herring.” Jacob Bøtter. Taken on July 19, 2007. Flickr Creative Commons License.

as the term appears in one line after the next, but Bishop’s own exultation recaptures the “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” from another poem about cold-blooded vertebrae, “The Fish.” Bishop’s jubilance is not “I love you” but the repetitive color image followed by exclamation conveys an emotional excitement perhaps impossible to describe. Love is like that. We find substitutes or ways to attempt expression of the overwhelming emotional joy (or, sadness) that accompanies select terms represented vocally and/or visually. We say “I love you” but sometimes terms are excluded and delivered through image like a fish, or heart drawn at the end of a letter.

Love engenders commitment and responsibility; the care for some thing or person living or gone. After my pepé died, my memé often said aloud from her chair in her living room, “I love you, Bob.” Many times I sat nearby watching her gently rock forward and back, eyes closed, head leaning slightly right and release that phrase into the wood-paneled room. What image of love encapsulates such feeling? I imagine she conjured the image of my pepé, but I cannot say for sure what she envisioned behind the closed eye lids of her consciousness. Maybe she saw color. Love is a red color, but for Bishop it was iridescent, luminous. My friend says my love for another is not love but nostalgia, and although this love is often accompanied by a homesickness it is not a yearning for the past. The exploratory nature of love as a memory confines; the return of love to the present is a vessel. Finally, love that never disappears is a number. I do not mean “143” but “number” as in “more than one.”

But “Love makes fools of us all” [3] and in the end I am one too, attempting to stretch definitions across timelines, aggravating emotion and ignoring logic. Maybe “I love you” is just a phrase spray painted across a brick wall. But someone made the effort to publicly profess the weight of such language, whether unrequited or shared, and language, like image, holds and supports meaning over time.



[1] See “love, n.1” OED Online.

[2] See “love,n.2” OED Online.

[3] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “At the Fishhouses.” Poetry Foundation.  Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

————————-. “The Fish.” Academy of American Poets. 2011.  Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

“love, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017,

“love, n.2.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, Accessed 7 January 2018.66. Accessed 7 January 2018.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. MIT Shakespeare.  Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.



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