Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 480 words.)