The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856

“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 pillar—as white and marble-like as the shaded whiteness of the cloud and its image: “Secure in introspection/ he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.” He experiences himself as being stationary, though he is being propelled through the air by the wind.

The fourth stanza begins: “A gull had wings under his/ and remarked that the air/ was ‘like marble.’” In this case, the possessive pronoun “his” refers back to the cloud’s reflection in the line quoted above. The speaking, reflecting gull is, like the cloud, a part of the sleeper’s dream; and again like the cloud, the gull mistakes his reflection for a stable, supporting marble tower: “He said: ‘Up here/ I tower through the sky/ for the marble wings on my tower-top fly.’” The gull’s marble tower, like the marble pillar “supporting” the cloud, are imaginary echoes of the mast on which the sleeper dreams. The only difference is that the pillar and the tower are “imaginary” and the mast is “real.”

In the last stanza, the poem returns to the top of the ship’s mast where the sleeper keeps “his eyes closed tight,” but here “The gull inquired into his dream.” There are several interpretive possibilities that open here at the closing of the poem. Presumably the sleeper is dreaming the gull who is imagining that he is flying through the sky on marble wings. At the...

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same time, the gull inquires as to what the dream means. The dream of the sleeper on top of the mast discloses itself to the reader and to the gull in the final lines of the poem: “‘I must not fall./ The spangled sea below wants me to fall.’” The sleeper, it is now understood, is the “unbeliever” of the poem’s title. One presumes that within the world of Bishop’s poem all statements are, in some sense, projections of an inescapable subjectivity. The gull and the cloud look down and “see” substantial and permanent towers and pillars holding them up in the sky where they appropriately belong. It is in their natures to dwell in the air above the surface of the earth. The sleeper, however, is “on top of the mast” and is only able to project or to imagine from a perspective that carries more than a suggestion of paranoia: The sleeping man is out of his element; he does not belong up in the air. So, while his support is in commonsense terms far more substantial than that of either the cloud or the gull, the fact that he is where he should not be makes his subjective impression of the world one of danger and malice: “‘It [the sea] is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.’” The sleeper is the unbeliever, the one who doubts. His despair is tangible, and the danger of which he dreams is real.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 217

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.


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