The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

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.

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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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

Description and narrative are the chief modes of this poem. Nevertheless, at critical moments the actual utterance of the anonymous characters is invited in (“Yes, sir,/ all the way to Boston”). The binder of these varied procedures is the speaker’s tone of voice: calm, subdued, concerned with detail and nuance, capable of a quiet humor, in sovereign, though unassuming, control.

The thirty-six-line introduction is the most sustained piece of writing in the poem. It forms a sequence of red-leaved and purple Canadian landscapes through which the blue bus journeys. Then, in smaller units, for another thirty-six lines the bus route is reviewed, main stops mentioned, and further details concerning the passengers, the weather, and the scenic sights duly recorded. Day is replaced by evening, and light gives way to darkness. The eleventh stanza brings in a climactic moment of equilibrium and economy of design. Beginning with the thirteenth stanza, the first quotes are used, as they will again be in the twentieth, twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth, and, finally, in the twenty-seventh stanza. Stanza 14—the moonlight episode—is the very center of the poem. This section is rhymeless, though this is amply compensated for by the triple epithets in the third line, and it marks the transition from the outer, natural world to the inner, human concerns of the second part of the work, which includes lines 85-129. Usually unchronicled and unheroic human tragedy receives an indirect presentation, culminating with the moving and dramatically rendered twentieth stanza. The third part of the poem begins, appropriately, in mid-stanza with line 130. The encounter with the moose—the climax of the entire poem—is allotted two descriptive stanzas (the twenty-fourth and the twenty-sixth). The remaining two stanzas form a kind of a coda, bringing the poem to an end with a powerfully ironical twist obtained by juxtaposing the “dim smell of the moose” to the “acrid smell of gasoline.”

The diction of the poem modulates in accordance with the needs of its plot. Thus the first part, devoted to the landscape, is richly descriptive, replete with qualifying epithets that, toward the end (in line 75 and in line 81), come in by threes, like beads on a string. In the second part, dealing with the passengers’ plight, learned, latinate words such as “divagation,” “auditory,” “hallucination,” “eternity,” and “acceptance” signal the presence of the narrator-commentator. In the third part—the one reserved for the moose—epithets return. In the climactic twenty-fourth stanza, the most distinctly poetic devices—explicit comparisons—are bestowed on the protagonist: “high as a church,/ homely as a house.” Moreover, the four additional epithets lavished on the moose contribute to the grandeur of its appearance: “towering, antlerless,” and “grand, otherworldly.”

By careful calibration and timing of her tropes, Bishop succeeds superbly in achieving her ends. Contrast is attained by her control over all compartments of language, and her austere, restrained tone and strategy of deferral and understatement are dramatically effective.


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Last Updated on May 5, 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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