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.)