Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop

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Questions of Travel Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Questions of Travel” provided the title for Bishop’s third volume of poetry, and it comes from a group of works that were written in, and take as their theme, Brazil. The poem is at once a series of very precise observations and, obliquely, a meditation on movement in place that suggests movement in the imagination. The dichotomy that is thereby set up between mind and body comes perhaps from the French philosopher René Descartes and echoes earlier literary treatments of the question of travel in works by Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Marcel Proust.

In this poem, the narrator remains submerged, emerging only briefly in the pronoun “we” in the poem’s second group of lines and then again before the final, italicized section as “the traveller,” who (like Romantic poet John Keats’s Grecian urn) writes his or her own motto, on which neither the narrator nor the author comments further. The result is that the reader is left with the ambiguity of knowing merely that this is what the traveler thinks, without knowing whether this is what the reader is to think. As the final section consists largely of questions, it may be precisely these questions that are the final “answer.”

The poem’s first line situates the reader immediately in an alien place, identified only as “here.” All things are relative: From the narrator’s point of view, the streams seem to be waterfalls, but from the point of view of the streams (if one can imagine this) the mountains become far away and tiny. In the second section begin the questions: Is it better to think of there from here? Would it have been better to think of here from there? Why do people travel? What, after all, are they looking for?

The ultimate decision of the poem seems to be for travel, enumerating as it does the strange, tiny details that can be perceived only outside the frames of one’s normal life. The last of these details is the rain, which produces a silence during which “the traveller” writes the question which closes the poem: “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come/ to imagined places, not just stay at home?” Is there a point, that is, to physical displacement? Should one travel only in the mind? Is the imagination not better than reality? Though the poem ends on this question, Bishop’s skill at evoking the details that precede it somehow suggests that travel in reality is better, or at least more interesting, than travel in imagination. Nevertheless, her vote remains somewhat hesitant, with the final image one of the person thinking of the inherent limitations of the human body: “Continent, city; country, society:/ the choice is...

(The entire section is 638 words.)