The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Man-Moth,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop, is an early work; it was written when she first lived in New York City in 1935. The idea for this poem came to her from a misprinting of the word “mammoth” as “manmoth” in a newspaper. She was inspired to imagine what sort of creature this might be. The Man-Moth of the poem is a mysterious nocturnal inhabitant of the city—half man, half moth—whose fearful, obsessive actions represent the city’s interior, imaginative life. The poem is a dreamlike fantasy that works as a fable or allegory of modern city life. It is interesting to put this poem into its historical context and to imagine the world in which the young Elizabeth Bishop, recently graduated from Vassar College, was writing, for this was during the Depression; moreover, events in Europe were already leading to World War II. Both the hopes and the darkness of the time seem reflected in the poem, which is tragic in tone.

“The Man-Moth” is a free-verse poem divided into six stanzas of eight lines each, with the short first line of each stanza indented. Each of these indented lines announces a different stage in the Man-Moth’s story. In the first stanza, Bishop depicts not the Man-Moth but a man, seen from above, “battered moonlight” shining on the worn surfaces of city buildings and on the self-engrossed man himself. Images of light and shadow, the man as “an inverted pin,” and the palpable sensation of...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bishop uses a regular number of lines in each stanza so that the poem has a formal appearance on the page, though it is in free verse. She does make use of irregularly placed consonant rhymes for emphasis and musical effect, such as the t sound at the end of “moonlight” and “hat,” and the s sound at the end of “properties” and “thermometers” in the first stanza. She also uses consonant sounds within lines for musical resonance, such as “on,” “pin,” “moon,” and “Man,” also in the first stanza. Reading the poem aloud, one becomes aware of the musical interweaving of repeated vowel and consonant sounds throughout the poem. Although the sound patterns in the poem are irregular, these sounds give a fullness to the language and help pace the reading of the poem, which is slow and sonorous.

Strong visual imagery is extremely important in this poem. Images of light and dark create a sense of heightened drama and suggest the gritty realism of early black-and-white films set in city landscapes or black-and-white photography of the period. She describes the Man-Moth’s shadow at one point as being like “a photographer’s cloth,” referring to the cloth photographers use to shut out light when using old-style view cameras. The photographer, with his head under a black cloth, looking through the round lens of the camera, is somewhat like the Man-Moth under the black sky looking at the round moon overhead or like...

(The entire section is 477 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.