Themes and Meanings
It is characteristic of Bishop’s poetry, especially in the early period to which “The Unbeliever” belongs, that acute and detached observation brings with it the possibility of intense and sustained vision. At the same time, Bishop is continually calling into question and interrogating her own gift as a poet. While there is nothing as self-indulgent as autobiography in this cool and detached poem, it must be read as a dialogue between the one who dreams (the doubting, distrustful sleeper or poet) and the product of his or her dreams (the confident and believing gull and cloud). The accomplishment of the poet—the dream dreamt by the sleeper on top of the mast—must of necessity be more confident than the poet or dreamer himself or herself can be.
At the level of allegory, the sleeper on top of the mast is sustained in the air and propelled through the water by the substantial mast and sails. Nevertheless, the sleeper, who is the unbeliever of the poem, doubts and fears the environment: “The spangled sea below wants me to fall./; it wants to destroy us all,” as the gull discovers when he “inquired into his (the sleeper’s) dream.” The cloud and the gull—who are both the products of the sleeper’s dream and examples of divergent “believers,” and who are borne aloft and sustained by seemingly insubstantial thermals and variations in air pressure—see themselves held up by marble pillars and marble wings. There is an allegorical or narrative appropriateness in the cloud and the gull: They are in their element, and their confident belief flows from this appropriateness. On the other hand, the man sleeping on top of the mast is out of his element in an inappropriate place, and his edgy anxiety flows correspondingly from his curious misplacement.
“The Unbeliever” essentially means that belief is the product of unbelief, that allegorical confidence is the product of literal doubt, and that the dreaming poet/ sleeper pays for her or his power by virtue of knowledge of the fragility of vision.