The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” is a narrative poem of 168 lines. Its twenty-eight six-line stanzas are not rigidly structured. Lines vary in length from four to eight syllables, but those of five or six syllables predominate. The pattern of stresses is lax enough almost to blur the distinction between verse and prose; the rhythm is that of a low-keyed speaking voice hovering over the descriptive details. The eyewitness account is meticulous and restrained.

The poem concerns a bus traveling to Boston through the landscape and towns of New Brunswick. While driving through the woods, the bus stops because a moose has wandered onto the road. The appearance of the animal interrupts the peaceful hum of elderly passengers’ voices. Their talk—resignedly revolving itself round such topics as recurrent human failure, sickness, and death—is silenced by the unexpected advent of the beast, which redirects their thoughts and imparts a “sweet sensation of joy” to their quite ordinary, provincial lives.

The poem is launched by a protracted introduction during which the speaker indulges in descriptions of landscape and local color, deferring until the fifth stanza the substantive statement regarding what is happening to whom: “a bus journeys west.” This initial postponement and the leisurely accumulation of apparently trivial but realistic detail contribute to the atmospheric build-up heralding the unique occurrence of the journey. That event will take place as late as the middle of the twenty-second stanza, in the last third of the text. It is only in retrospect that one realizes the full import of that happening, and it is only with the last line of the final stanza that the reader gains the necessary distance to grasp entirely the functional role of the earlier descriptive parts.

Now the reader will be ready to tackle the poem again in order to notice and drink in its subtle nuances. Bishop’s artistry will lie plain, particularly her capacity to impart life to a rather unnerving redundancy of objects and to project a lofty poetic vision from a humble, prosaic incident.

The Moose Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Description and narrative are the chief modes of this poem. Nevertheless, at critical moments the actual utterance of the anonymous characters is invited in (“Yes, sir,/ all the way to Boston”). The binder of these varied procedures is the speaker’s tone of voice: calm, subdued, concerned with detail and nuance, capable of a quiet humor, in sovereign, though unassuming, control.

The thirty-six-line introduction is the most sustained piece of writing in the poem. It forms a sequence of red-leaved and purple Canadian landscapes through which the blue bus journeys. Then, in smaller units, for another thirty-six lines the bus route is reviewed, main stops mentioned, and further details concerning the passengers, the weather, and the scenic sights duly recorded. Day is replaced by evening, and light gives way to darkness. The eleventh stanza brings in a climactic moment of equilibrium and economy of design. Beginning with the thirteenth stanza, the first quotes are used, as they will again be in the twentieth, twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth, and, finally, in the twenty-seventh stanza. Stanza 14—the moonlight episode—is the very center of the poem. This section is rhymeless, though this is amply compensated for by the triple epithets in the third line, and it marks the transition from the outer, natural world to the inner, human concerns of the second part of the work, which includes lines 85-129. Usually unchronicled and unheroic human tragedy...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

The Moose Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Boland, Eavan. “An Unromantic American.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 14 (Summer, 1988): 73-92.

Fountain, Gary. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

MacMahon, Candace, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-1979. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Motion, Andrew. Elizabeth Bishop. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Longwood, 1986.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Schwartz, Lloyd. That Sense of Constant Readjustment: Elizabeth Bishop “North & South.” New York: Garland, 1987.

Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

Wylie, Diana E. Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.