Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
“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 moonlight, “neither warm nor cold,” create a strange, lonely setting for events to follow.
The man pays little attention to the moon, in comparison to the Man-Moth, who emerges unseen in the second stanza, crawling from under the city sidewalk and beginning his climb toward the moon that he imagines “is a small hole” in the night sky. The Man-Moth is fearful and nervous but determined to “investigate.”
His brave but naïve effort to crawl through the moon is doomed, however; there is no hole in the sky, and he cannot escape the city. He falls back down to it, where he must try to cope with the frightening apparatus of city life, particularly embodied in the subway train and the dangerous electrified third rail.
Images of the Man-Moth struggling to deal with the subway doors, riding backward so that he cannot see where he is going, and worrying that if he does not sit still and keep his hands in his pockets he will do something to hurt himself are easily recognized by anyone who has tried to get around in a large, modern city and has not found it easy. The Man-Moth is almost childlike in his vulnerability. These are all images of a loss of control, and like a sensitive child who must navigate the world of adults, the Man-Moth fears losing that control.
At this point in the poem when the Man-Moth seems most human, Bishop slightly adjusts the viewpoint by speaking to “you,” distancing the Man-Moth from the reader. Casually, as a naturalist telling someone where to find bird’s eggs or edible mushrooms, she describes the process for using a flashlight to get the Man-Moth to surrender his “only possession.” The eye of the Man-Moth is mysterious, dark, and nonhuman—the eye of an insect. Fixed by the light, it closes and secretes a tear. Like a magician or street performer, he will try to palm or hide it, but Bishop tells the reader to pay close attention and “he’ll hand it over”—a prize of cool water “pure enough to drink.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477
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 person who catches the Man-Moth and stares into his black eye with a flashlight to see the elusive tear.
Bishop also uses irony as a dramatic device. The first example is the title itself, which is customarily printed with an asterisk, leading the reader to a footnote explaining that the title was based on a mistake in a newspaper. The powerful original word “mammoth” provides ironic contrast with the trembling vulnerability of the Man-Moth. There is also dramatic irony in the lack of awareness in the man presented in the first stanza. Though he stands in his own small shadow, a shadow cast by the moon, he is only slightly aware of the moon’s mystery and its effect on him, and he is not at all aware of the mysterious Man-Moth whose life parallels his own. Finally, the Man-Moth’s attempt to escape through the hole in the sky, which is the moon, is ironic because it is both brave and foolish, an act doomed to failure. Elizabeth Bishop’s view of the individual in the modern world clearly seems ironic.
The poet also uses Surrealist imagery for strong emotional impact. The Man-Moth is an irrational dreamlike figure acting out an existential dilemma that is difficult to express. Bishop mentions “recurrent dreams” in the poem, making a connection with Surrealist and Symbolist work that incorporate dreamlike images and evoke the subconscious.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176
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MacMahon, Candace, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-1979. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.
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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.
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