Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” is a narrative poem of 168 lines. Its twenty-eight six-line stanzas are not rigidly structured. Lines vary in length from four to eight syllables, but those of five or six syllables predominate. The pattern of stresses is lax enough almost to blur the distinction between verse and prose; the rhythm is that of a low-keyed speaking voice hovering over the descriptive details. The eyewitness account is meticulous and restrained.
The poem concerns a bus traveling to Boston through the landscape and towns of New Brunswick. While driving through the woods, the bus stops because a moose has wandered onto the road. The appearance of the animal interrupts the peaceful hum of elderly passengers’ voices. Their talk—resignedly revolving itself round such topics as recurrent human failure, sickness, and death—is silenced by the unexpected advent of the beast, which redirects their thoughts and imparts a “sweet sensation of joy” to their quite ordinary, provincial lives.
The poem is launched by a protracted introduction during which the speaker indulges in descriptions of landscape and local color, deferring until the fifth stanza the substantive statement regarding what is happening to whom: “a bus journeys west.” This initial postponement and the leisurely accumulation of apparently trivial but realistic detail contribute to the atmospheric build-up heralding the unique occurrence of the journey. That event will take place as late as the middle of the twenty-second stanza, in the last third of the text. It is only in retrospect that one realizes the full import of that happening, and it is only with the last line of the final stanza that the reader gains the necessary distance to grasp entirely the functional role of the earlier descriptive parts.
Now the reader will be ready to tackle the poem again in order to notice and drink in its subtle nuances. Bishop’s artistry will lie plain, particularly her capacity to impart life to a rather unnerving redundancy of objects and to project a lofty poetic vision from a humble, prosaic incident.