The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647

“The Map” is a descriptive poem divided into three stanzas. The first and last are eight-line stanzas with repeated Petrarchan rhyme schemes (abbacddc), while the longer central stanza is written in free verse.

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In “The Map,” Elizabeth Bishop records her thoughts on the nature of a map’s relationship to the real world. Implicitly, the poem asks why maps fascinate people so much. The poet suggests that the human fascination with small-scale representations of land and water has to do with the imagined worlds maps can offer, the images of far-off people and places that maps can bring to mind. More precisely, maps excite the viewer’s imagination. “The Map” celebrates the mapmaker’s (or poet’s) power to create illusion and fantasy as well as new ways of looking at what is real.

The poem begins with shapes and colors—what most people first notice about maps. For example, land is “shadowed green,” and it “lies in water,” which is blue. Here, however, all certainty ends, and a series of provocative but unanswered questions begins. The poet sees “Shadows,” not sure if they are “shallows.” Also uncertain is whether the line on the paper indicates the land’s edges or “long sea-weeded ledges.”

On first looking at the map, the poet sees water surrounding and supporting land. The second half of the first stanza, however, suggests a relationship between the land and the sea that is mysterious and unexpected. The land is active—it seems to lean, lift, and draw the water around itself. The poet asks, “is the land tugging at the sea from under?” Because these questions go unanswered, the reader begins to understand that not everyone interprets a map the same way.

In the long central stanza, the map receives the close inspection for which Bishop’s poetry is well known. Newfoundland (perhaps “new found land”) suggests that the imagination can create new territory, new realities. In Labrador, “yellow, where the moony Eskimo/ has oiled it,” the dreamer, the “moony” imaginer, paints the land to suit her vision of it. Stroking the lovely bays “under a glass as if they were expected to blossom” suggests the map’s magical quality as well as its aesthetic beauty. Perhaps “blossom” suggests how one’s expectations grow while studying a map.

The poet also inspects the carefully printed names, which “run out to sea” and “cross the neighboring mountains.” The juxtaposition of the artificial (printed names) with the “real” (sea and mountains) reminds the reader that the map is a man-made object. For the poet, it is a representation by which to compare reality with perception. Stanza 2 ends with a playful image: The peninsulas are “thumb and finger/feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.” The poet seems to prefer her fanciful perception to the real places the map represents. This image also looks again at the relationship of land to water.

Examining that relationship further, the poet suggests in stanza 3 that the “waves’ own conformation” is what determines the shape of the land, rather than the land’s outlines determining how far the water lies. The poet sees Norway running south in the shape of a hare, and then, getting back to the art of cartography, casually wonders, “Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?” These three observations suggest questions of perspective. For example, how one sees an object—such as this map—is a very personal experience. The poet’s (unrevealed) conclusions are her own; there are no definitive answers, no “favorites.”

That is why the cartographer’s representations and use of tools, records, and perceptions are “More delicate than the historians’.” The historian attempts to deal with facts, and chronologies of events, objectively. Although she...

(The entire section contains 1293 words.)

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