Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

“The Moose” is ultimately about the human need to be purged and, if possible, cured of selfhood. Self-absorption or narcissism is not only a passing malaise afflicting teenagers. Older people regard themselves in the mirror of their memories; they often run the risk of becoming trapped in despair or self-pity. Hence, the need to forget one’s obsessions and delusions is a pressing one.

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The moose miraculously appears in Bishop’s poem to offer the passengers of the bus, the narrator included, a remedy for their solipsism. Curiosity is stirred in them, and a sweet, joyful sensation supervenes. The author invests her wildlife messenger with an otherworldly or religious awesomeness. The female moose becomes for the nonce Mother Nature—grand, fearless, and unselfconscious. Both like a church and like a house, the moose cow is a prehistoric reminder that humans are not stranded in this world, that there are dignified creatures that seem to be freer and more self-sufficient than humans are, and that human lives are richer because they exist. It is this almost mystical sense of fellowship that pervades the last third of Bishop’s poem.

Humans need the moose as a friendly “other” capable of dispelling the anxiety induced by their inability to communicate significantly across the ghetto of the human species. Civilization has ruined nature and has alienated humankind from it. The man-made environment of highways, bridges, and buses cuts across the wildlife habitat in order to reach the Boston of human discontent. At the end of the poem, the clash between the “dim smell” of the moose and the “acrid” smell of gasoline poignantly dramatizes the incompatibility between nature and culture. This disharmony has been foreshadowed in the poem by the subtle overlapping between the reds and purples of sunsets and maple leaves and the “blue, beat up enamel” of the bus, whose hot hood the moose finally gave a welcome sniff. Even though the encounter is brief, its effects will reverberate in the readers’ wakened consciousness.

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There is a distinguished tradition of poetry writing to which Bishop’s “The Moose” belongs. It can be traced back, as poet John Hollander has noted, to William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850), whose so-called episode of the Winander Boy (book V, lines 389-413) deals with the ancestral impulse to talk to nature’s creatures. The Winander Boy initiated such a dialogue by mocking the hooting of owls. To his delight, the birds responded in kind. In between the mystic silences, nature’s deeper secret motions flooded the boy’s heart and soul. For the British Romantic, such a communion with nature could still be available to a few elected spirits whose purity and innocence had already marked them for intense experiences and an early death.

Hollander also noted a connection between Robert Frost’s poem “The Most of It” and “The Moose.” Frost had his male protagonist proudly call out to nature for something more than the “copy speech” that the Winander Boy had elicited from his owls. His wish for “counter-love, original response” was finally granted by the sheer chance appearance of a powerful buck that, lordlike, tore his way through tarn and wilderness without bothering at all to acknowledge the presence of the human intruder.

By contrast, Bishop’s female moose has the curiosity to approach the trespassing bus in order to look it over and assess it in her mute, nonaggressive way. Finally, it is the bus that, pressed for time, leaves the spot—her territory—while the moose remains on the moonlit macadam road without budging.

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