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...

(The entire section is 647 words.)