Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

The simplicity of the title promises a straightforward description of an object—a real map—which the poet delivers with fine-tuned and surprising nuances. One is soon aware, however, that the description is both objective and emblematic. That is, a real map is very carefully and faithfully described, but the map is also a symbol capable of suggesting meanings or connections beyond itself.

For one thing, the map is an emblem of imaginative promise. It might show its reader how to get to a specific place, or it might lead to hidden treasure. Because the images on maps are by definition constructions of the mind, perhaps the map represents the mind attempting to plot a landscape so that it can find its way.

By placing “The Map” first in both North and South (1946) and The Complete Poems (1969), Bishop also suggested that “The Map” may lead to a way of understanding her work, especially her sense of how an “objective” work of art may embody an artist’s subjective experience. As early as the second line of the poem, for example, Bishop’s subjective kind of seeing becomes apparent. Her fanciful images—the “clean cage for invisible fish” and “Norway’s hare”—suggest that what one sees depends on how one looks or uses her imagination.

As with the ever-changing relationship between land and water, the concept of subjective perception arises often. The poet’s unique and often whimsical account of the map reveals her uniqueness of vision—her way of experiencing the world and of expressing that experience. While the questions in stanza 1 first introduce the idea that individual perspectives can differ, the lines in stanza 2 suggest that individual perspectives—and not the external world itself—may in fact determine what is real.

In “The Map,” Bishop is in fact exploring the imagination rather than the landscape. The poem might even be read as a rumination on the value or status of poetry. “The Map” is not about actual geography but about refusing to standardize the images each person projects onto a place. Bishop is trying to revive and renew sight, to make images new.

Expressing the imagination’s own way of seeing, while retaining one’s sense of the real world, is the challenge the artist accepts and struggles with. The question of whether empirical truth or imaginative truth is more valuable in humankind’s efforts to chart the world around it is unanswerable. Probably, both perceptions are required. The poet, however, uses more delicate, more powerful colors to paint the facts with a sharper and subtler stroke; they give reality a beauty and form that the historians’ literal black-and-white representations cannot approach. The map-maker’s images are fragile, yet keen and subtle, the results of a particular imagination shaping the real. That expression—the delicate “map-makers’ colors”—comprises the poet’s varied, rich, and peculiar ways of seeing.

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