Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Monument” is about the nature and existence of a work of art. On that theme, Bishop has surprising things to say. For example, the material of the monument is wood rather than the expected granite or marble. This suggests that art is made of everyday material and experience rather than great matter that is wrought into a fixed position. The monument also has an unexpected and irregular shape. For Bishop, one definition of a work of art might be that which defeats expectations and grows out of ordinary material into a shape that is very much its own.

A work of art is also very different from nature. The naïve speaker complains of the artifice of the monument and wants it to be more like nature, to mirror the form of natural elements rather than becoming a thing in itself. One source for Bishop’s view is Wallace Stevens’s poem “Anecdote of a Jar.” Stevens’s jar and Bishop’s monument are unmoving. They do not ape nature but dominate it, although they are connected to it by analogy. “The Monument” also insists that a work of art does not prove anything or make a statement. Any meanings it may have seem to be accidental or to grow out of its nature. What is inside is not intended to be seen. “The Monument” seems to embody the famous dictum of Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica”: “A poem should not mean but be.” “The Monument” also suggests that a work of art cannot be limited to one reading or interpretation. The words “might” and “may” recur several times in the poem. To fix the work is exactly what the naïve speaker is trying and failing to do.

The poet-speaker makes clear what the monument stands for at the end of the poem: “It is the beginning of a painting,/ a piece of sculpture, or poem.” It represents any work of art. Significantly, it is only the beginning of that work. It cannot come into existence unless a reader becomes aware of its nature and brings it into being. Readers must understand any work of art on its terms rather than on their own. That is why the reader is urged at the end of the poem to “Watch it closely.” By giving oneself up to the work of art, the reader can watch it come into being.