The Poem

“The Unbeliever” is a highly condensed poem of five five-line stanzas. It begins with an enigmatic quotation from Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), the seventeenth century moral tale by John Bunyan: “He sleeps on the top of a mast.” These words are repeated in the first line of the poem, signaling that Bunyan’s “he” is the strange sleeper in the poem. While the top of the mast is a strange place for sleeping in any circumstance, in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem it comes to mean that sleeping anywhere is uncanny and strange. Sleeping, for Bishop, means being unconscious, unaware, and unthinking in a world of intense visual and emotional realities; by contrast, the moment of awakening is a central moment of poetic vision.

In the first stanza the poet offers a remarkable simile: A ship is like a bed. Indeed, “the sails fall away below him [the sleeper on top of the mast]/ like the sheets of his bed.” The sleeper has been transported unaware to this unlikely place, and once on top of the mast he has “curled/ in a gilded ball on the mast’s top,/ or climbed inside/ a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.” The reader cannot help noticing that the lookout, the one who needs the sharpest eye and the most vigilant mind, is asleep and blind.

There are things to see and hear, and the reader must imagine that when the third stanza introduces a speaking cloud, the cloud must be speaking from within the sleeper’s dream. When a gull speaks in the fourth stanza, we are likely to come to a similar conclusion. The cloud begins by announcing: “I am founded on marble pillars,/I never move./ See the pillars there in the sea?” One explanation for this might be that when the cloud looks straight down to its reflection on the surface of the sea, it appears to the cloud that it is firmly planted in the place it finds itself, just as when one is sitting on one train in motion and traveling alongside another train moving at the same speed, it seems as if both are stationary. The cloud imagines that it is held aloft in this motionless state by a marble...

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Forms and Devices

As befits a poem that opens with a lean line from the Protestant pen of John Bunyan, Bishop pares her poem down to a bare and unadorned minimum. The diction, or word choice, is as unadorned as William Blake’s or as a children’s nursery rhyme. Even the rhyme itself is understated: a couplet completes each of the five stanzas.

If Bunyan offers Bishop a plainness of form and prosody, she also adopts from him an allegorical mode of presenting her material. An allegory is a narrative of events on one level, usually literal, that points to another symbolic level, often ethical or moral, where its meaning is found. The form of the parable enables the poet to condense and refine a complex line of thought about appearance and reality, about reality and projection, and about belief and faith into a minute space. In addition to benefiting from the brevity of the allegorical parable, Bishop also makes use of a surface simplicity of reference—a sleeping man, a gull, a cloud—to gain access to very complex and problematic intellectual and psychological issues. The form of the allegory invites the poet’s use of “personification,” and the three “speakers” in the poem carry in their persons the deeper meaning of which they are probably not aware.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.