The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

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Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Monument” is written in seventy-eight lines of free verse with a few significant breaks for verse paragraphs. The title is important in that it defines the object that is being described and discussed by the poet. The poem is narrated by a knowledgeable and perceptive speaker who describes the monument and tells the naïve reader, an otherwise undefined “you,” how to see it and read it. This speaker asks, “can you see the monument?” with some interest and urgency. It is of prime importance that readers see what is immediately before their eyes, that they understand what it is and what it does.

The word “monument” suggests a memorial or sacred object that holds special significance to a group of people or a nation. The word will acquire other connotations and denotations as the poem proceeds. The monument is made “of wood/ built somewhat like a box.” Immediately, there is a clash between readers’ expectations about the object and the material of which it is made: One expects a monument to be made of marble rather than wood. The poet-speaker then describes its shape and size. It is not stately but seems to be jerry-built “like several boxes in descending sizes/ one above the other.” It does, however, have a form: It has four sides, and four “warped poles” hang from it like “jig-saw work.” The speaker then shifts to the monument’s context. It is “one-third set against/ a sea; two-thirds against a sky.” The perspective is also significant: “we are far away within the view.” The sea that it is set against is also a human-made object: It is made of “narrow, horizontal boards.”

At this point, the person who is being instructed objects: “Why does that strange sea make no sound?” It is not natural to the naïve reader, who asks if “we’re far away.” The tone of the poet-speaker changes at this point. She more directly insists on the monument’s nature and significance. It is from “an ancient principality” with an “artist-prince” who might have intended it to be a tomb or boundary. The naïve reader is still not satisfied: “It’s like a stage-set; it is all so flat!” It does not meet the reader’s predetermined and limited expectations of art and nature. The poet-speaker becomes even more insistent. She points to its existential nature: “It is the monument.” However, the naïve speaker continues to object and asks, “what can it prove?” Apparently this speaker wants art to be useful and to do something.

The poet-speaker has the final word. She says, “It is an artifact,” not a thing of nature. It is organic: “It chose that way to grow and not to move.” Its uniqueness “give[s] it away as having life.” It is not limited by intention or one meaning; it may be one thing or another. What is inside, perhaps its meaning, “cannot have been intended to be seen.” Its existence, rather than any meaning ascribed to it, is what is significant. The poet finally defines the monument as a work of art: “It is the beginning of a painting,/ a piece of sculpture, or poem, or monument,/ and all of wood. Watch it closely.” The poem begins with the demand that readers see the work and ends with it becoming active and alive, something that must be watched closely.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394

Bishop is a poet noted for her use of description, and, in “The Monument,” this technique is especially important. Description, in her poetry, tends to replace the use of such traditional poetic methods as metaphor. The poem is a detailed description of an object that acquires significance as the poem develops. It is written in free verse with many run-on lines, very few lines that end with a period or semicolon, and sentences that are long and meandering. This construction mirrors the indirect nature of the argument that Bishop constructs in the poem.

The diction and tone of the poem are especially interesting since it has two very distinct speakers who use very different language. The naïve speaker’s sentences are all questions, while the poet-speaker uses direct declarative and imperative sentences. The tone of the naïve speaker is querulous and complaining, while the poet-speaker’s tone becomes more insistent, demanding that readers see the monument and see what is significant about it. There are also some important juxtapositions of words in the poem. There is, for example, the clash between “artist” and “prince” in “artist-prince.” Furthermore, the monument is always described as an object made of wood while readers and the naïve speaker expect it to be made of marble or granite.

There is a good deal of imagery in the poem, although much of it is set against readers’ expectations and the connotations of the monument. There is a lot of wood imagery: “grains,” “splintery,” and “whittled.” In contrast, there are a number of images associated with artifice: The monument is a stage-set and, most important, an artifact. There are also the very different images of light and growth at the end of the poem. There is no specific use of metaphor; however, the monument becomes, through the detailed description, a metaphor or symbol for a work of art. The poet-speaker insists that readers be aware of the nature and existence of that work of art and to see what significance it does and does not contain. To do this, the poet must show readers what a work of art is not: It is not a thing of nature, and it does not prove anything. Bishop’s approach is indirect, but the poem begins to grow from mere description into an exemplification and definition of the nature of art.


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