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.

In “The Map,” Elizabeth Bishop records her thoughts on the nature of a map’s relationship...

(The entire section contains 1293 words.)

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“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 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 dares not distort truth, the mapmaker, unlike the historian, deals with possibilities imaginatively, for the artist celebrates the notion that to be completely objective is impossible.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

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 into the poem, which reads as if the narrator were wondering aloud. The long, central stanza also uses first-person plural (“we”), as if to draw the reader further and more intimately into the poet’s speculation on what a map really is and on its ultimate purpose.

In the first stanza, the verbs are very active; the land leans, lifts, and tugs. In contrast, stanza 2 begins with land that “lies flat and still.” The following verbs in the same stanza reflect determined, if cautious, motion: “oiled,” “blossom,” “run,” “cross,” and “take.” These verbs indicate that the poet’s exploration in this stanza is painstaking and precise; she is well aware that details risk being overlooked “when emotion too far exceeds its cause.”

Stanza 3 gathers together what the poet has learned about the map. She looks once more at the relationship of land to water (a recurring puzzle), and she notes other details: hare-shaped Norway and the “profiles” of land that investigate the sea. Yet this final stanza’s main effect is to turn the viewer’s attention away from the map and inward, for reflection. The final question—“can the countries pick their colors?”—accomplishes this shift in perspective because it reminds the reader that whoever drew the map made artistic (imaginative) decisions in its execution. It also introduces the final thematic statement, the poem’s puzzling last line.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176

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.

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