The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like many of Bishop’s poems, “The Map” exemplifies her mastery of organic form. The poem’s structure grows out of and also contributes to its expression. The rhymed stanzas (1 and 3) reflect precision, balance, and elegance—they have a life of their own, exactly as the map lives its life “unperturbed,” existing “under a glass,” independent of the viewer’s scrutiny. The controlled pace of these stanzas helps to create the tone of careful exploration and tentative suggestion that the poet’s observations convey, especially in the first stanza.

The map is, furthermore, an inanimate object made animate by the personification of land and sea. For example, “the land lean[s] down” and lifts and tugs, the waters “lend,” and the profiles of land investigate. The rhymed stanzas are also the question stanzas, in which the poet asks (and never answers) questions about what she sees and imagines in the map. These unanswered questions shape the poem, propel it forward, and frame it with a tone of uncertain yet determined speculation.

The long, unrhymed stanza is a close description that seems to start at the top and move southward, as if the poet were running her fingers down along the map’s colored lines. A running commentary of metaphors animates and finally personifies the peninsulas as women. Bishop uses a very natural word order, the same order of words one would use in a good sentence. This technique welcomes the reader...

(The entire section is 470 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Boland, Eavan. “An Unromantic American.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 14 (Summer, 1988): 73-92.

Fountain, Gary. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

MacMahon, Candace, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-1979. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Motion, Andrew. Elizabeth Bishop. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Longwood, 1986.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Schwartz, Lloyd. That Sense of Constant Readjustment: Elizabeth Bishop “North & South.” New York: Garland, 1987.

Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

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.