The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 856 words.)