Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Man-Moth" was written very early in the poet's life, just as she had graduated from college. It is a poem unlike the rest of Bishop's work in that it leans toward the surreal. The abstract images in this poem leave "The Man-Moth" open to a diverse range of interpretations. Indeed, the poem may be read as a meditation on the interplay between light and dark. It has also been suggested that the poet's destructive bouts with alcoholism might have influenced the poem, as the image of the Man-Moth going backward on a too fast train is an experience that the poem associates with poison. Another interpretation, based on the significance of the Man-Moth's attempts to reach the moon, suggests that the poet is attempting to express her spirituality.
Furthermore, it is this quality of open interpretation that has helped the poem endure over the decades, appealing to readers in much the same way today as it did when it was first published. Many literary critics refer to "The Man-Moth" as one of the best poems Bishop ever wrote. Notably, the poem was inspired by a typo in a news article in the New York Times, in which the word manmoth was used instead of the correct term: mammoth.
Bishop wrote "The Man-Moth" in 1935, when she was twenty-four years old. The poem was first published in 1946 in Bishop's first collection, North and South. More recently, the
poem was published in The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1999.
Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father, William Thomas Bishop, who was a building contractor, oversaw the construction of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library. He died, however, when Bishop was only eight months old. His sudden and early death caused Bishop's mother, Gertrude Bulmer, to suffer severe depression. Gertrude was institutionalized several times, and when Bishop was five years old, her mother was permanently committed to a mental hospital. Bishop never saw her again.
For the next two years Bishop lived with either her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, Canada, or with her paternal grandparents in Massachusetts. When she was seven, Bishop suffered from a list of ailments, which included asthma. Bishop's maternal aunt, Maud Bulmer Shepherdson, lived near Boston, and was given the young girl to raise. Bishop credits her aunt for inspiring her to write poetry. Bishop, because of her childhood illnesses, was mostly home schooled. But when she was old enough to enter college in 1930, she attended Vassar College. While there, she met the poet Marianne Moore, who would become a close friend and would greatly influence Bishop's early work.
While Bishop's poetry appeared steadily in magazines, success did not come easily for Bishop. She endured a whole array of rejections from publishers before 1946, when her first collection of poems, North and South, which includes "The Man-Moth," was finally published. By then, Bishop was already thirty-five years old. At this time in her life, she had lived in many different locations, a pattern that would continue throughout her life. She lived in New York City and Europe, and then in Key West, Florida, for short periods of time. In 1951, after having served as U.S. Poet Laureate (from 1949 to 1950), Bishop decided to take a boat tour around South America. When she reached Brazil she suffered from food poisoning, which delayed her departure. The incident gave her an opportunity to explore the country, and Bishop eventually decided to live there. While living in Brazil, she met and fell in love with Lota de Macedo Soares. The couple stayed together until de Macedo Soares's death, more than a decade later.
In 1955, Bishop's second collection, North & South—A Cold Spring (which was republished in 1956 as A Cold Spring and is commonly referred to under that tile) was published and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize the next year. Ten years later, her third collection, Questions of Travel, was printed. In this volume, Bishop explores her childhood as well as her experiences in Brazil. The following year, in 1966, Bishop tired of Brazil and decided to move back to the United States. De Macedo Soares joined her in New York City, but died of an overdose the day after her arrival. The tragedy did not stop Bishop from writing and publishing, and in 1969, Bishop published Complete Poems, which won the National Book Award the following year. It was this same year that Bishop accepted a teaching position at Harvard, where she met Alice Mathfessel, with whom she maintained a relationship until her death.
In 1976, Bishop was awarded the Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for literature, the first woman to receive the honor. That same year, she also published Geography III, the last collection released during her lifetime. It won the Book Critics' Circle Award the following year. Roughly three years later, on October 6, 1979, Bishop died of a cerebral hemorrhage at her apartment in Lewis Wharf, Boston. She is buried in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Bishop's work has remained popular to this day. In 2007, the New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn put together a collection of otherwise unpublished poem fragments and entries from Bishop's journals in the publication Edgar Allan Poe & the Jukebox: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. Some critics have stated that Bishop, who was so meticulous about her work, sometimes taking a year or more to refine a single poem, may not have wanted this material published in its unfinished state. However, critics also have made it known that this material, especially the insight it provides into Bishop's writing process, is invaluable.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Bishop's poem "The Man-Moth" is a third-person narrative about the strange creature described in the poem's title. The poem begins with a caesura, or a pause, as does each verse. This puts the opening phrases in the spotlight, emphasizing them. For example, in the first stanza, in the first line, the speaker signifies a specific position: "Here, above." At this point, the reader does not know where the "above" is or what it is higher than, or even where "Here" might be. However, with this phrase, the reader is not only made aware of some place above but also senses that there may well be a ‘somewhere below’ that will soon follow. This turns out to be the case, as the second stanza indicates that the Man-Moth lives underground.
The second line begins as the speaker describes all that exists "above," none of which is necessarily pleasant. There are "cracks in the building," which could suggest instability. And the moonlight that falls into these cracks is "battered." There is also "Man," (as opposed to the Man-Moth) whose whole shadow "is only as big as his hat." In the next sentence, either the Man-Moth's hat "lies at his feet," or "the shadow of Man" does (the wording is ambiguous). This ambiguity allows for several different interpretations, one of which emphasizes man's smallness. This smallness is doubly enforced by a simile, or comparison, as the hat (or man's shadow, which also is portrayed as equal to the size of the hat) is likened to a "circle for a doll to stand on." In stating that "the whole shadow of Man" is the same size as the Man-Moth's hat and then referring to the hat or the shadow as a place "for a doll to stand on," the speaker minimizes the figure of man. Thus man (and in this poem the word might actually be a reference to the rational side of humanity) is completely diminished. Speaking symbolically, it is, essentially, no bigger than a doll.
In line 5 the speaker refers again to the moon. But in the next line, the speaker informs readers that the Man-Moth "does not see the moon"; he senses it as a "queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold." This light has an otherworldly feel to the Man-Moth, it is "of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers."
In the second stanza, the Man-Moth emerges from underground, a "rare, although occasional" occurrence. Above ground, "the moon looks rather different to him." His world, as well as his vision, the narrator suggests, has been transformed. The Man-Moth emerges from a crack in the sidewalk ("an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks"), which is reminiscent of the cracks in the building that the narrator mentioned at the beginning of the poem). The Man-Moth is not as confident above ground as he supposedly is underground, because he is away from his usual element. He "nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings." This act is reminiscent of the superheroes and comic book characters popular when the poem was written. The Man-Moth feels compelled to climb in order to "investigate" the moon, which he now perceives as "a small hole at the top of the sky." This hole frightens him, as if he believes he will fall into and out of the sky by way of it. Indeed, the sky is now described as "quite useless for protection."
- Bishop reads some of her poems on the audio tape Elizabeth Bishop, from the series Voices and Visions produced by Unapix Inner Dimensions (1997). The tape also offers commentary on Bishop's works and life by poets such as Octavio Paz and James Merrill, among others. Bishop also reads "The Man-Moth" on this tape.
The third stanza begins with the phrase "Up the façades," as the Man-Moth continues to climb the buildings. The word "façade" has several meanings. It can refer to the front of a building or to a false presentation (i.e., what is presented on the surface deceives one as to what is beneath the surface).The narrator then describes the Man-Moth's shadow as "dragging like a photographer's cloth behind him."
In line 3 of the third stanza, the narrator reminds readers that this venture, on the part of the Man-Moth, is not an easy one. The Man-Moth is climbing "fearfully." Nevertheless, the narrator states that this is not the first time that the Man-Moth has attempted to "investigate" the moon. This is indicated by his belief that "this time" he will be successful. He will "push his small head through that round clean opening" and will "be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light." Some literary critics suggest that this is a reference to birth or rebirth, while others have theorized that this may refer to addiction. Still others have interpreted this image as symbolic of the creative process; i.e., by creating art one seeks to not only reach an impossible height (the moon), but also to exceed it and look beyond it. The narrator further refines this image in the next three lines of the stanza: whereas man "has no such illusions" of climbing so high, the Man-Moth does not, and "he fails, of course." Even though the Man-Moth dreams of reaching the moon, he cannot do so. His dreams are bigger than his abilities.
Again, as in the second stanza, there is a reference to compulsion: "what the Man-Moth fears most he must do." This statement may reinforce the interpretation of the Man-Moth's striving as an indirect comparison with a hidden meaning, a metaphor for the creative process. In order to create, the artist must attempt to achieve and surpass what they fear most. If this understanding is accurate, the Man-Moth thus represents the artist.
So the Man-Moth returns home, underground, to the subway. He is not comfortable there. The trains that pass through the tunnels make him nervous, again, as "He flits / he flutters" and he cannot board the train in a way that "suit[s] him." When he finally sits down, he sits backward, the "wrong way," and the forward movement of the train is consequently disorienting. Everything moves too fast, keeping a steady speed from beginning to end. The speed is monotonous and without variation, yet it is also described as "terrible." One could perhaps interpret this to mean that monotony itself is "terrible."
In the fifth stanza, the tension increases, as does the discomfort of the Man-Moth: "he must / be carried" through the tunnels and through his recurring dreams as if against his will. The Man-Moth's actions are more passive than in the opening stanzas, in which he shows a determination and passion to reach the moon. His will is limited as is his vision, for he is afraid to look outside of the train. If he does, he might see the "third rail, the unbroken draught of poison." Marilyn May Lombardi, in her book The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics, has suggested that Bishop's reference to the third rail is an allusion (reference) to her own propensity toward alcoholism, as Bishop herself indicates this in her personal notes on the poem. Furthermore, the Man-Moth sees the third rail "as a disease / he has inherited the susceptibility to." Notably, alcoholism is believed to be hereditary or genetic; it is something that is "inherited."
The narrator next tells readers that the Man-Moth buries his hands in his pockets "as others must wear mufflers," suggesting that the Man-Moth is attempting to keep his hands warm. However, readers might interpret this on a deeper level. Is the Man-Moth really attempting to keep his hands warm, or is he hiding or confining his hands so he does not reach out toward the third rail?
In the sixth and final stanza, the narrator directly addresses the reader by using the pronoun "you." The stanza begins, "If you catch him," and goes on to instruct the reader on what to do should they "catch" the Man-Moth. Strangely, though man is initially shown to be metaphorically diminutive (small), it seems as if this interpretation is turned on its head here, as the Man-Moth suddenly becomes a creature that is able to be caught, presumably by man—it would seem to go without saying that the reader being addressed is presumably human. First, the reader is to closely observe or examine the Man-Moth. Here, as in the beginning of the poem, there is the interplay of light in darkness. In the first stanza, the source of light is the moon, which is naturally occurring. But in the final stanza, the light is artificial, derived from a flashlight. There is also another notable comparison between the beginning of the poem and its ending: Whereas in the first stanzas, the dark is represented by large things like the night sky, in the last stanza, the dark is compressed, appearing only in the pupil of the Man-Moth's eye. However, the narrator goes on to describe the pupil as equal to "an entire night itself."
There is a reward, the narrator suggests, if the reader takes the time to examine the Man-Moth. The reader will receive "one tear, his only possession." The narrator warns the reader that if they are not paying attention, the Man-Moth will consume the tear, swallowing the gift back into himself (presumably so that it can be shed again). But if the reader does pay attention, the Man-Moth will present them with his tear, which is "cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink." Returning again to the idea that much of the poem is a metaphor for the creative process, the "pure" gift of the tear, received for paying attention, might represent artistic creation or inspiration, both of which the artist seeks to achieve by same method; i.e., by paying close attention to the world around them.
Darkness and Light
Throughout Bishop's poem there are images of darkness and light. Darkness is spoken of in the mention of the "shadow of Man" and later in the shadow of the Man-Moth, "dragging like a photographer's cloth behind him." In contrast to the darkness, there is the light of the moon, which the Man-Moth does not directly see but instead feels. There is also the light of the flashlight that the narrator suggests should be shone into the Man-Moth's eye. The eye, the reader will find, is "all dark pupil, / an entire night itself."
This contrast between darkness and light can be interpreted in many different ways. If the poem is read as an explanation of the subconscious and how it works to create art, then the darkness could conceivably represent the unknown. The light, then, might refer to the rational mind, just as man may refer to the rational. The Man-Moth, being a creature (and a supernatural one at that) who dwells in the dark, would then represent the irrational. Following this, and reading the poem in a slightly different manner, the light could represent an ordinary existence, like the everyday habits of a person (man); whereas the dark could represent the extraordinary, as the Man-Moth himself is indeed extraordinary. In a third interpretation, the light might stand for discipline or even artistic inspiration. The dark, in contrast, might then be seen as the corrupting influence that fear (or insecurity) has on the achievement of inspiration.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- "The Man-Moth" is often referred to as being surreal. Look up the definition and the attributes of surrealism. Create a presentation on the key figures of the surrealist movement, including all the arts: painting, sculpture, literature, and any other examples you can find. Make sure that you understand this form of art well enough to answer questions at the end of your presentation.
- Aside from a description of the Man-Moth's eye, Bishop's poem does not discuss what he might look like. Create a painting or drawing of the Man-Moth as you imagine him. Working with a classmate, compare both of your drawings. Take notes on how your classmate's image differs from yours. Note how it is similar.
- Bishop suffered from alcoholism, and some critics have found allusions to this affliction in "The Man-Moth." Since Bishop wrote this poem in 1935 upon graduating from college, research alcoholism in the United States with a particular emphasis on college-aged students. Provide statistics for your class, either in a report or through a graph, comparing alcoholism in the 1930s with alcoholism today.
- Bishop had at least three long-term relationships with females during her lifetime. Research how societal reactions to homosexuality, or more specifically to lesbianism, has changed in the United States since the 1930s. Have laws governing sexuality changed over time as a result of changing attitudes? Write an essay about your findings.
Fear and Perseverance in the Face of Fear
The Man-Moth, even though he is much larger than ordinary man (at least metaphorically), possesses a spirit that exhibits both strength and weakness. The Man-Moth emerges from his dark hiding space to climb the tall buildings that surround him. As he climbs, he reaches for the moon, an act that he is not sure of, but he climbs nonetheless. He fears that the moon is a hole in the sky that renders the sky a useless protection. Although he shakes with fear, he continues to climb. As a matter of fact, he is driven to face his fears. However, in the end, he is unsuccessful, and he "falls back scared."
Then, back in the subway, although he is able to overcome his fear and gain a seat on the train, the Man-Moth remains too afraid to look out of the window. He is afraid to see the "third rail," which is likened to a poison. Furthermore, the third rail in a subway system provides the electricity which powers the trains; it is essentially a large, live electrical wire that runs beside every set of tracks. As moths are drawn to flame, perhaps the Man-Moth is drawn to the electricity contained by the third rail, despite the danger inherent in it. The Man-Moth appears constantly torn between his fears and his desire to overcome his fears, as if he were walking a tight rope, balanced between the two. Despite his fears, he attempts to proceed even though he senses he will fail.
Although the Man-Moth is capable of leaving his subterranean home, he rarely does so, and a sense of confinement is present throughout. The Man-Moth seems trapped in the subway train, and he also seems to be confined by a possible addiction. The Man-Moth thinks of the third rail (the item symbolic of addiction) as a disease that "he has inherited the susceptibility to." This confines his vision, which he must control and must focus in a narrow line so he does not look directly at the third rail. If he does not confine his vision, he fears he might die. Throughout the poem, something (usually fear) is always holding the Man-Moth back from reaching his goals.
The setting of the poem is urban, filled with large concrete buildings and subway trains; yet amidst what should reasonably be a populated urban landscape, the Man-Moth consistently appears to be alone. There is mention of the generalized "Man," the doll, and, of course, the Man-Moth—all of which are singular figures. There is also one moon, one pin, one flashlight, one eye, and one tear drop. This singularity brings with it a sense of loneliness. The one tear drop, "his only [single] possession," at the end of the poem emphasizes this loneliness. Even the great attempt, on the part of the Man-Moth, to climb to the moon, is a lonely endeavor. The Man-Moth climbs and fails, and no one takes notice either way. There is no one to console him or to encourage him to try again.
The only time this poem comes close to suggesting a relationship is at the end of the poem, when the narrator addresses a "you" who should catch the Man-Moth and shine a bright light into his eye, taking his only possession as a gift. This image does not conjure up any sense of a friendship, though. Rather, in many ways it seems rather cruel. It is as if the bright light causes the tear, and then the "you" person takes the tear away before the Man-Moth can swallow it.
The loneliness in this poem is filled with sadness. It is not the solitude a monk might enjoy or that an artist might be inspired by. It is a heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching loneliness that compels the Man-Moth to do things he does not quite understand or even enjoy, like climbing buildings, riding trains, sitting backward, and experiencing the unwilled dreaming of his own recurring dreams.
Monosyllables are words that are made up of only one syllable, such as each of these words in this phrase from Bishop's poem: "It lies at his feet." Using monosyllabic words in a poem was one of the traits of George Herbert's writing style, which Bishop often emulated (Herbert was an early seventeenth-century poet). Monosyllabic words offer a transition in the rhythm of a poem. Their beat can be staccato (abrupt and distinct) on one hand, but can also become monotonous and therefore easily overlooked. Polysyllabic words, or words with more than one syllable, have an inborn accent that poets can use to adjust the rhythm of each line. For instance, the word mother has a natural accent on the first syllable. This means that in natural conversation one would stress the "mo-" and almost swallow the second syllable, "-ther."
When monosyllabic words are alternated with polysyllabic words in an individual line, the effect of the monosyllabic words goes almost unnoticed. However, when monosyllabic words are strung together, they become more obvious. Notice, for instance, in the fourth line of the first stanza: "It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on." In this line, every word except "circle" is monosyllabic. Also notice that the word "circle" appears almost perfectly in the middle of this line. This draws attention and emphasis to the word "circle," almost as effectively as if a spotlight were shining on the word. Notice also how the strong beat of monosyllabic words works in line 6 of the first stanza. "He does not see the moon," this line begins, all in monosyllabic words, alerting readers to the significance of the statement. However, following this is a softer mix of monosyllabic and polysyllabic words that explain more fully what the narrator is attempting to say. The strong message of the Man-Moth not seeing the moon is tempered by the explanation that he, nonetheless, is not entirely oblivious to it.
A caesura causes the reader to pause briefly at a certain point in the poem. In many poems, this is used in the middle of a line. However, in this poem, Bishop uses a caesura at the beginning of each stanza. In doing so, the shorter phrases at the beginning are given more emphasis. In "The Man-Moth," the caesura also brings an element of suspense or mystery. For example, the opening phrase, "Here, above" momentarily makes the reader ask several questions: Where is here? Above what?
In the second stanza, the first phrase introduces the name of the mysterious "he" who is mentioned in the first stanza: the Man-Moth. This is done in such as way that readers know that the Man-Moth is different from ordinary Man. Not only is this opening phrase a caesura, the wording of the phrase, "But when the Man-Moth," also connotes a contradiction to what has been previously stated.
Enjambment is another form of manipulating the rhythm, and thus the meaning or interpretation, of a poem. With enjambment, the sense or meaning of a line is distorted slightly by the pause, or break, between each individual line. For example, in the fourth stanza, third line, the narrator states: "he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains." This sounds as if the Man-Moth cannot board a train, but this is not true. As readers continue to the next line, they discover that the Man-Moth successfully catches the train. He just does not do so "fast enough to suit him," as line 4 conveys. Using enjambment adds an element of surprise to a poem. The reader mistakenly expects one meaning, only to discover another, different meaning.
Another example of enjambment occurs in the fifth stanza, line 4. "Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie," the line reads. It is surprising, once again, when the narrator quickly switches, in the next line, from the image of the train to "his rushing brain." Few readers would have expected this transition, and it is made even more startling because of the unexpected rhyme between "train" and "brain."
One more example is found in the last stanza. Line 3 reads in part: "whose haired horizon tightens." This is a reference to the eyelid of the Man-Moth. The image presented is that of the Man-Moth with closed eyes (the tightened horizon). However, in the next line, the narrator announces that the Man-Moth is still seeing: "as he stares back." This creates a somewhat upsetting image. Just when the reader believes that the Man-Moth's eyes are closed, the reader discovers that the he is still looking, still observing. The description of the Man-Moth's eyelashes as a "haired horizon" is also interesting because his eye is described as "an entire night itself." Thus, his eye is a night sky, and his eyelashes are a horizon.
A metaphor is used to indirectly compare two seemingly different things. The figure of the Man-Moth is clearly metaphorical, but the meaning of that metaphor is unclear. Literary critics have been trying to interpret the metaphor of the Man-Moth for a long time, and various theories abound. Nevertheless, because the metaphor continues from the beginning of the poem to the end of the poem, it is referred to as an extended metaphor.
A simile is similar to a metaphor. One of the differences is that a simile uses one of the following words to create a comparison: like, as, or than. In Bishop's poem, readers can find several similes. In the first stanza, line 4, the phrase, "like a circle," is a simile. It compares "the whole shadow of Man" to being "like a circle." In the third stanza, the Man-Moth scales the face of the building. Behind him is his shadow, which is "like a photographer's cloth." Similes are used to provide readers with an image that might better explain what the narrator is saying. Similes are like pictures used to illustrate a story. The preceding sentence not only describes similes, but it is also a simile itself.
George Herbert (1593-1633)
Bishop was influenced by the work of the poet and minister George Herbert. Her poems often explore spirituality (directly and indirectly), an approach that was inspired by Herbert's poetry. Herbert's poems are often characterized by his love of God, which he once explained should be stronger than man's love of a woman. His collection of poems A Priest to The Temple was published in 1652, nineteen years after his death, and proved to be quite popular. This collection was originally written by Herbert as a gift to his parishioners and contains poems that explain Herbert's own spiritual path, which he hoped would help to guide the members of his church. Herbert's writing is often praised for its clarity, humbleness, and imagery, characteristics that Bishop aspired to achieve in her own work. Bishop also made a point of keeping her poetic language simple, often using monosyllabic words, a technique that she admired in Herbert's writing. Many of Herbert's influences are apparent in "The Man-Moth."
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1930s: Just as there is an overall sense of fear in the poem, there is a similar sense of fear in the world at-large. International tensions are high as Adolph Hitler advances his troops throughout Europe. While the United States considers sending troops overseas, citizens still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression live in an ever-present state of fear.
Today: Following the September, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center, U.S. cities practice emergency drills to be better prepared against the threat of future terrorist attacks. Citizens are asked to be on the lookout for suspicious characters, and many fear the possibility of chemical, biological, or nuclear attacks.
- 1930s: The stories of fantasy and science fiction focus on fantasy adventures or the possibilities of new technologies. The surreal quality found in many such stories can also be found in "The Man-Moth."
Today: Science fiction takes a new turn with stories about the drawbacks of relying on machines, specifically computers, which are shown as dominating the lives of the story's characters.
- 1930s: The first production of the movie King Kong horrifies audiences as a giant gorilla is portrayed climbing the Empire State building in New York City.
Today: The 2005 version of King Kong does not instill fear in its audiences. Rather, much like "The Man-Moth," it evokes sympathy for a misunderstood creature.
Marianne Moore (1887-1972)
One of Bishop's mentors, Marianne Moore had many personal similarities to Bishop. Moore lost her father early in her life, traveled a lot throughout her life, and was a lesbian. Moore's poems are noted for their witty, ironic, and inventive style. Moore's poems, like Bishop's, often include animals and nature (Moore earned her degree in biology) and are characterized by their precision of detail, condensed language, and unusual verse patterns and rhyme schemes. Scholars have tried to define or note more precise indications of Moore's influence on Bishop's work and life,
but much is open to speculation. It has been proposed by several scholars that Moore might have been a mother-figure to Bishop on a personal level. In 1951, Moore won the Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Poems which was published earlier that year. Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize five years later, in 1956, for her second collection, North & South—A Cold Spring, which was published in 1955.
Robert Lowell (1917-1977)
Robert Lowell was another poet who greatly influenced Bishop, and the influence was actually mutual. Lowell was a contemporary of Bishop, and the two poets inspired one another, although their styles differed. Lowell's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Lord Weary's Castle was published in 1946, and Lowell gained recognition as one of the leading poets of his time. But in spite of this, Lowell suffered through a long depression, which required medical intervention during the 1950s. As part of his journey back to mental health, he began writing more personalized material with a less rigid form. Lowell later wrote his poem "Skunk Hour," in response to Bishop's poem "The Armadillo." Both poets dedicated their respective poem to the other, and the poems may be read as a conversation about poetry or poetic style.
Post-World War II American Life
Bishop was at the peak of her career following the end of World War II. She published her first collection of poetry, North and South, completed her tenure as U.S. Poet Laureate, and won a Pulitzer Prize, establishing her as a serious professional poet. Her voice as a poet was one of the first to emerge as being different from her predecessors, the so-called modernist poets, and she inspired the next group of poets, who would be called the postmodernists.
American poetry, as well as American society, was in a state of transition after the war. This was an era, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, when many members of the younger generation began to question the traditional, or accepted, values of their parents, and they also sought new and different ways to express themselves artistically. Bishop's poetry, with its references, though subtle, to the self, helped to lay the groundwork for a major shift in American poetry; the art form moved away from discussion of the broader concepts of life to a deeper exploration of personal and individual experience. Indeed, Bishop is credited as having influenced the Beat movement, including literary figures such as Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg.
"The Man-Moth" is both one of Bishop's earliest poems and one of her most unusual. The poem, according to some critics, is very hard to interpret, and that may be why it has remained one of her most popular poems throughout the years. The meaning of the poem is obscure, allowing for varied interpretations. Some critics have stated that this poem is one of Bishop's best. The voice and tone of this work is also unlike any other of her poems.
For the critic Helen Vendler, writing in Critical Inquiry, "The Man-Moth" is, at least in part, about Bishop's reflections on her "self and her art." Vendler continues: "Many of Bishop's poems take a sinister view of what a poem is." She then adds that even in "The Man-Moth," one of Bishop's "more sympathetic poem[s] … the radical solitude of the poet is emphasized." Vendler believes that it is through the metaphors in "The Man-Moth," which "insist that poetry is a natural secretion but insist as well that it must be processed in a painful way before it is valuable," that Bishop makes clear how difficult the creation of poetry can be, at least for herself.
Furthermore, this poem, Vendler states, points out the poet's sense of not belonging. The Man-Moth "is the prototype of Bishop's socially unacceptable beasts." Vendler adds that the allegory of the poem is that "the Psyche-moth-butterfly is in tatters; the artist works on the edge of the unregarded." Vendler sums up the characteristics that are the mainstay and defining attitudes in Bishop's work, such as "her sense of deformity, her cold capacity for detachment, her foreignness in human society, her suspicion that truth has something annihilating about it, her self-representation as observer of meaninglessly additive experience, her repugnance for social or political or religious association." Certainly, some of these traits may be seen in the figure of the Man-Moth. Vendler also finds that Bishop's admiration of Herbert's writing, which employed "very common means for very subtle effects" is what helped Bishop create her successful poetic style: "The combination of somber matter with a manner net-like, mesh-like, airy, reticulated to let in light, results in the effect we now call by her name—the Bishop style."
S. R. Murthy, writing for the Explicator, points out that "The Man-Moth" is "often praised for daintiness if not preciosity." However, Murthy states that if one completes a closer reading of Bishop's poem, one would find that it is about "man's subconscious impulses—swinging between the heights of aspiration and depths of despair." In a critical analysis of Bishop's poetry for American Literature, Margaret Dickie quotes the poet Sylvia Plath (a slightly younger poet than Bishop) who describes Bishop's writing as having "fine originality, always surprising, never rigid, flowing, juicier than Marianne Moore, who is her godmother." Dickie also quotes literary critic David Kalstone in this same article. Kalstone finds that poems such as "The Man-Moth" "allow her [Bishop] simultaneously to be a keen observer … and yet to identify with figures absent, withdrawn, practically lifeless." Like other critics, Dickie interprets this poem as a reflection on the process of writing. The image of the tear being handed over, Dickie writes, "is a surrealistic tear that exists only in writing, and in this image the speaker inscribes both herself and the man-moth as writers, possessed by the other, the darkness." Dickie continues: "For these writers, creation is a deadly and painful experience which requires the relinquishment of the man-moth's ‘only possession, like the bee's sting,’ and which is, like the bee's sting, life-exacting."
In her article, "Conceal/Reveal: Passion and Restraint in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop or Why We Care about Elizabeth Bishop's Poetry," written for the Massachusetts Review, Kathleen Spivack discusses what makes Bishop's writing unique. The critic describes Bishop's poetry as historically falling "between the ‘impersonality’ so admired in the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and others of her early education; and the ‘confessional’ movement of her contemporary Robert Lowell and his group, who wrote directly about their personal lives." According to Spivack, "Bishop chose the ‘middle way.’" She then adds: "Elizabeth Bishop, like Emily Dickinson, wrote delicately and elliptically. Much was unsaid, left out, alluded to. What is most important is what is not said." And finally, fully admitting that she is a "fanatic" when it comes to Bishop's poetry, Angela Garbes, writing in the Stranger, a Seattle-based alternative newspaper, states: "in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop." Garbes then describes the poet's style as "ferociously detailed, restrained and subtle, undeniably intimate."
Joyce M. Hart
Hart has degrees in English and creative writing and is a freelance writer and published author. In the following essay, Hart interprets the poem as an extended metaphor about the rational and emotional, or the conscious and subconscious.
Many critics have described Bishop's poem "The Man-Moth" as being surreal. When they do so, they are alluding to the dreamlike images that are contained in the poem; from the narrative of the poem that is only vaguely rational; to the underlying emotions of the poem that feel somehow universal. Dreams, some psychologists and psychiatrists believe, are messages for the dreamer, sent by the subconscious in an attempt to reveal emotions and desires that are suppressed by the conscious mind. Because these desires are suppressed, dreams speak to the dreamer in symbolic images just like those that appear in "The Man-Moth." This theory is based on the idea that the conscious and subconscious are constantly in conflict with one another, as the rational constantly attempts to repress the irrational. Yet the irrational nevertheless constantly attempts to send messages (by way of dreams) to the rational. If Bishop's poem is based on dreamlike images, what might the poem be saying? It seems appropriate that if we interpret the Man-Moth as a symbol of the emotional or irrational, then his adventures, or misadventures, are the result of repression and his attempts to break free of that repression, or at least to attempt to communicate some sort of message. Certainly the poem's dualities (sets of two opposites), such as dark and light, above and below, and Man (rational) and the Man-Moth (irrational), all reinforce this idea.
The poem begins above ground, a place where daily routines keep one in a rational mode, busy with life's details, a place or state of mind where emotions are temporarily shoved aside. After stating this phrase, the narrator indicates that all is not well "Here, above." There are cracks in the buildings and cracks in the sidewalks. The façades of the buildings that the poem refers to also indicate a sort of disconnect between the surface of things and the things behind, beneath, or below that surface.
The image of the "whole shadow of Man," mentioned in the first stanza of this poem could well be intended to represent the rational part of Man. The poem portrays this aspect of Man as being very small in comparison to the subconscious as it is represented by the Man-Moth. The Man-Moth is the emotional part of Man that looms over the rational, making the rational aspect appear insignificant in comparison to the emotional power of the subconscious, or psyche. An allusion in the poem that reinforces this concept of the Man-Moth as the psyche, or as the symbol of suppressed emotions, is the image of the "inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon." This statement symbolizes a compass, directing the Man-Moth to the moon. Just as the moon affects the tides, it is popularly believed that it affects Man's emotions. Thus, it affects the Man-Moth (the emotions), encouraging him to venture out of his subterranean home. So, at this point in the poem, the Man-Moth rises through the cracks in the sidewalk and appears in the upper world of the rational mind. This symbolizes the emotions or subconscious seeping into the rational or conscious.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Bishop's prose and fiction were collected and published after her death. In this collection, The Collected Prose (1984), fragments of short stories as well as observations Bishop made about her first job and her life-long friend and mentor, fellow poet Marianne Moore, are included.
- One Art: Letters (1991) is a collection that includes letters by Bishop that are about her life, and, as of 2007, it is the most autobiographical book about Bishop that is available. Letters Bishop wrote to her peers, such as poets Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, and letters that expose some of Bishop's rawest emotions provide the reader with a very personal insight into her poems.
- More than twenty years older than Bishop, Marianne Moore was friend and mentor for Bishop throughout her life. Although their poetic styles differed, Moore inspired Bishop. To gain an understanding of Moore's writing, read The Poems of Marianne Moore (2004). Both poets are often praised for their unique manner of seeing the world and for bringing even the smallest details into a new and more interesting light. Both Bishop and Moore at one time considered becoming painters, and to read their poems is to see the world through an artist's eye.
- The poet Robert Lowell was also one of Bishop's friends, and his work influenced her as well. Their poetry differed greatly, as Lowell's writing is more confessional (personal), a form that Bishop did not favor. Lowell, like Moore, belonged to the generation preceding Bishop's, and like Moore, Lowell appreciated Bishop's potential as a poet and encouraged her to write. Lowell's Collected Poems (2007) encompasses much of his writing style, which, like Moore's and Bishop's, also contains a great deal of visual imagery.
- Covering a span of twenty-five years, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop (1996) provides insights into the poet's evolving personality as she matures. In this collection of actual interviews, Bishop talks about her childhood, her jobs, her poetry, and some of the challenges that she faced as a woman and poet. Also included is a short piece from one of Bishop's students, which talks about the student's experiences in Bishop's poetry classes.
- Adam Roberts has written one of the most comprehensive critical analyses of modern fantasy. His History of Science Fiction (2005) begins with Greek literature and follows the genre through the ages, ending with a critical look at modern science fiction as developed in books, films, and comic books. This book will aid students who wish to place the fantastical aspects of "The Man-Moth" within the larger context of the genre's development.
When the emotions are suppressed (or when the Man-Moth is underground), the moon causes a different reaction than when the emotions are expressed. Underground, the Man-Moth cannot see the moon. He can only feel its light. But on the surface, as the Man-Moth climbs up the sides of buildings, he notices that the moon looks quite different. The moon is no longer felt, but is instead seen as a hole in the sky. This hole, like the cracks, presents a feeling of insecurity, and also of fragility. The sky, it is assumed, was once seen by the Man-Moth as a protective dome, and this dawning belief that the sky has a hole in it makes the Man-Moth tremble. The Man-Moth, in the meantime, continues to climb "as high as he can climb." He is relentless despite his fear. He is the epitome of passion and is driven by it. In contrast, the rational side of Man "has no such illusions." The rational side of Man, this poem might be suggesting, is fearful of passion and does not strive to accomplish the impractical or the seemingly impossible. Man does not strive for anything emotional, but rather he hides from such immeasurable feelings. Instead of climbing and pushing through the hole that the moon leaves in the sky, he pushes down his emotions. Because of this, (and because the subconscious is largely subordinate to the conscious) the Man-Moth "falls back scared but quite unhurt."
Unsuccessful, the Man-Moth climbs back down "to the pale subways of cement he calls his home." Man has suppressed his emotions once again. It is in this state of suppression that the Man-Moth flits around until he finally succeeds in getting on one of the subway trains, and perhaps the subways here represent a rational invention. Once aboard, the Man-Moth is uncomfortable, he feels awkward as he sits backward, his chest facing the direction that is opposite of where he wants to go. The speed at which he retreats (or proceeds?) is "terrible" and also monotonous. As a passenger on the train, the Man-Moth is caught in a recurring dream of long nights spent in "artificial tunnels," tunnels that are directly opposed to the one through which he had hoped to enter in order to reach the other side of the moon. The Man-Moth's passion is gone. His drive is suppressed. He is confined in a manmade machine with little hope of escape. Not only is he forced to endure this long-lasting and monotonous ride, he also cannot even look out the window.
On the other side of the window there is something beyond the train that frightens the Man-Moth. This image could well be the clue that explains why Man suppresses the Man-Moth. The so-called "third rail" is a poison to which Man, through the Man-Moth (or, perhaps, vice-versa) has a deathly propensity. Is this a weakness for alcohol, as some critics suggest? Or is this the fear of emotion? Notably, Bishop's mother spent most of her adult life in a mental institution, and it is reasonable to say that a common view of the insane is that they are overly emotional or entirely irrational. Could this then explain the "disease / he has inherited the susceptibility to"? Or could it at least clarify why the Man-Moth (and, by extension, Man) is so frightened? Is this why the Man-Moth must push his hands into his pockets and keep them there? He cannot reach out for fear of touching or arousing his feelings.
The poem ends by directly addressing the reader, almost in a confiding tone as if a secret is being shared. The last stanza seems to indicate that there is a way to deal with one's emotions. It is as if the narrator of the poem is saying that people should not be afraid of their emotions, or maybe, that they should not be afraid of their dreams, as dreams are irrational, and they are also symbolic messages that stem from the irrational. Both (emotions and dreams) can, in fact, be nourishing (the gift given by the Man-Moth is described, after all, as "pure enough to drink"). The advice in the poem is that one should shine a light on emotion ("If you catch him, / hold up a flashlight to his [the Man-Moth's] eye"). There the reader will find a gift, the Man-Moth's only possession. However, there is also a warning. If the reader does not pay attention to their dreams and emotions, the gift will be lost.
Source: Joyce M. Hart, Critical Essay on "The Man-Moth," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Powers-Beck examines the influence that the poetry of George Herbert had on Bishop's work. Herbert was an early seventeenth-century Welsh poet. In particular, Powers-Beck discusses the imagery of tears in the work of both poets, including in Bishop's poem "The Man-Moth."
The Stuart poet-divine George Herbert was one of Elizabeth Bishop's favorite poets and greatest influences: she read Herbert from age fourteen to the end of her life; she kept his poetry by her writing desk, and usually travelled with it; she maintained a long friendship with the Herbert scholar Joseph Summers; she mentioned the poet frequently in her letters and interviews; early in her poetic career, she consciously imitated several of his verses; and at twenty-four, she dreamed of discussing prosody with Herbert and Marianne Moore, and recorded the dream in her notebook. The dream ended auspiciously with Herbert's promise to prove "useful" to Bishop, to which assurance of influence and patronage she rejoined wryly: "Praise God!" (Merrin 39).
Bishop's biographer Brett Millier attributes the poet's love of Herbert to his technical virtuosity and his "distinctly modest voice," a voice that served for Bishop as an antidote to the self-absorption and self-celebration of contemporary confessional poetry ("Modesty" 49). Similarly, in An Enabling Humanity, Jeredith Merrin claims that Herbert's example of "humility," a "complex and subtly combative attitude," was crucial for Bishop, allowing her to create her own secular poetics of spiritual struggle (7). In both Bishop and Herbert, says Merrin, one finds the "persistent depiction of spiritual striving and strife, in their painstaking investigation of … ‘inner weather’ (48)." A ubiquitous element in this "inner weather" is the imagery of tears, which pervades the lyrics of both Herbert and Bishop, especially her early poems. Indeed, the weeping poems of Herbert's The Temple served as seminal examples to Bishop of how painful emotions could be controlled and sublimated by poetic art, and so encouraged her to cultivate her own poetics of expressive restraint.
Several critics have recognized the wellsprings of tears in Bishop's poetry. Among them, Lorrie Goldensohn says: "Salt water flows freely in many of Bishop's metaphors—the pond of tears in ‘Chemin de fer,’ the crying of the sea that streaks the boardinghouse of ‘A Summer's Dream,’ the tearstains of the waterfall in ‘Questions of Travel,’ the teakettle's tears that dance on the Little Marvel Stove in ‘Sestina,’ even the bitumen tears … [of] ‘Night City’—all of these tears have their source in a pervasive sadness, struggling to put its sorrow into acceptable speech (44)." Goldensohn's catalog rightly stresses Bishop's lifelong struggle to find expression for her childhood sufferings, although the tears are especially predominant in her early poetry and notebooks. The tears of early poems such as "The Reprimand," "Three Sonnets for the Eyes," "Chemin de fer," "The Man-Moth," "The Weed," "Roosters," and "Three Songs for a Colored Singer (IV)" distinguished Bishop as a lachrymose observer, but never a weepy poet….
Closely related to the fable of "The Weed" is the tear of "The Man-Moth." Bishop published "The Man-Moth" in March 1936, almost a year before she published "The Weed" in February 1937. It too is a parable of an alienated artist, especially of a modern urban artist. Lost among the skyscrapers and subway trains, ever dreaming, and attempting to fly to the moon, the fantastic Man-Moth is, as Williamson puts it, "Pierrot lunaire, the lover of the moon, of unattainable ideals and romantic strangeness" (106). What most distinguishes the Man-Moth, however, is not his isolation or exotic dreams, but his "one tear, his only possession." Bishop introduces this "one tear" in the final stanza of the poem:
If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It's all dark
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon
as he stares back, and closes up the eye.
Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee's
Slyly he palms it, and if you're not paying
he'll swallow it. However, if you watch him,
he'll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure
enough to drink.
Catching and observing the Man-Moth requires the care of an entomologist, but it is an artistic act. Within the dark void of the "eye" (again the Herbertian pun on "I") is the lambent Arethusan drop: the distilled essence of his dreams and his art. The drop "cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink" recalls the Romantic glorification of poetic inspiration: "O, for a draught of vintage! That hath been / Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth" (Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"). Yet, the Man-Moth does not effuse his feelings—he holds back his "one tear" cautiously, or palms it, avoiding the dangers of fervent confession. When he does hand over his tear, it is as a kind of ritual offering of emotion refined and transformed into art.
The Man-Moth's offering of "one tear" emblematizes well Herbert's poetic of "silent tears"—the amplification of emotion through expressive restraint. Moreover, that "one tear" may belong specifically to Herbert's poetry. In several poems of The Temple, Herbert offers "a vial full of tears" to God (for example, "Hope"). In "Praise (3)," Herbert compares his own "glass" of tears to one teardrop of his Lord:
I have not lost one single tear:
But when mine eyes
Did weep to heav'n, they found a bottle
Ready to take them in; yet of a size
That would contain much more.
But after thou hadst slipped a drop
From thy right eye …
The glass was full and more.
Christ's tear resembles the Man-Moth's, both in the phrasing ("thou hadst slipped a drop" and "one tear … slips"), and in the depth and purity of the emotion. In 1967, Joseph Summers noted this possible source for "The Man-Moth," and Bishop responded agreeably in a letter: "Of course I'm amazed at the obvious reflection of Herbert in the ‘one tear’ stanza [in "The Man-Moth"]. I'm sure you're quite right, but it had never occurred to me at all. I'm always delighted when people discover these things" (Letters 477). As Bishop humorously pointed out, influence is seldom entirely a deliberate matter.
Elizabeth Bishop's letters and interviews continued to testify that her affinity to Herbert was lasting and profound. Indeed, she turned to Herbert's poetry in some of the roughest patches of her life. In July 1954, when she was admitted to the Hospital Estrangeiros for treatment of alcoholism and asthma, she wrote to Joseph Summers that she had taken his book George Herbert: His Religion and Art with her. And in 1967, in the same letter in which she told the Summerses about the suicide attempt of her longtime companion Lota de Macedo Soares, she noted poignantly: "I've been reading some of the poems [of Herbert] again—some even help a bit, I think" (469). Then, soon after Lota's death, she wrote again: "Well, I still read … Herbert—he's the only poet I can bear these days" (477). As a teacher at Harvard, she asked her students to read Herbert, and she amused Lloyd Frankenberg with an anecdote about one student's mishap (554). Sometime after her death in 1979, her friend Frank Bidart reflected: "Her favorite poet, I think, was Herbert; like Herbert her own poems have an astonishingly unvarnished force, the intimacy of a unique self speaking" (Schwartz and Estess 215). By the end of her career, Elizabeth Bishop was indebted to Herbert, not only for poetic effects, but also for poetic consolation—her closest approach to religious faith.
Source: Jeffrey Powers-Beck, "‘Time to Plant Tears’: Elizabeth Bishop's Seminary of Tears," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 60, No. 4, November 1995, pp. 69-87.
In the following excerpt, Dickie explores the man-moth as a "borderline creature" between man and moth. The critic also examines the imagery of tears and of hair in "The Man-Moth."
The detail that I want to examine is at the end of "The Man-Moth," where, at the climax of a haunting poem about the mysterious activity of the surrealistic man-moth, the speaker turns the man-moth into what looks like a kind of Charlie Chaplin figure, pitiful, self-pitying, but insistently reminding us of lacrimae rerum or "a disease / he has inherited the susceptibility to." The speaker says:
If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It's all dark
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon
as he stares back, and closes up the eye.
Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee's
Slyly he palms it, and if you're not paying
he'll swallow it. However, if you watch, he'll
hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure
enough to drink.
David Kalstone has linked this image to a notebook observation of a deadened woman in the New York subway whom Bishop transforms here into a "glimpse of purity and spirit." As in a similar image in "The Weed," Bishop connects vision and tears. Kalstone comments that such poems as "The Man-Moth" "allow her simultaneously to be a keen observer—the figure who ‘tells’ the poems scrutinizes every detail to extract her meaning—and yet to identify with figures absent, withdrawn, practically lifeless" (20) …
The man-moth himself is a borderline creature between man and moth, and he manifests some of the symptoms of borderline patients as Julia Kristeva describes them: first, "‘borderline’ discourse gives the analyst the impression of something alogical, unstitched, and chaotic—despite its occasionally obsessive appearances—which is almost impossible to memorize"; and second, borderline discourse is an effect or outbreak of abjection ("what disturbs identity, system, order"). In treating borderline patients, Kristeva argues, the analyst often encounters a "language that gives up."
The analyst may respond to this language by either construction or condensation. Shuli Barzilai claims that Kristeva's idea of construction resembles a more or less conventional but essentially "thematic" criticism; "the analyst is a kind of contractor who builds meanings out of disparate, ‘empty’ elements" (301). Condensation, by contrast, seems analogous to deconstructive criticism: it calls for a free play of signifiers, an imitation by the analyst of "the patient's rhetoric, rhythms, and intonations, thereby invoking heterogeneous dispositions (the semiotic), in addition to trying to reassemble linguistic signs (the symbolic)." This kind of treatment is often effective because it activates a "maternal transference" and prompts the emergence of a pre-symbolic, infantile organization (302).
The speaker in Bishop's "The Man-Moth" appears to approach this borderline creature by means of what Kristeva terms condensation. Bishop records the obsessional action of the man-moth's "rushing brain," as he "nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings," "proving the sky quite useless for protection," as "He flits, / he flutters," "always seats himself facing the wrong way," must "dream recurrent dreams," "does not dare look out the window," "has to keep / his hands in his pockets." She reports these nonsensical or compulsive movements and habits without comment and as if they were consequential.
She records experience that does not quite make sense, as, for example, "He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties." She concludes illogically, "He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb" or "what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although / he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt." The speaker details the man-moth's fear and his compulsion to act on what he fears most as if these emotions were "of course" related when actually they are normally dissociated. Her language here seems to share some of the qualities of the borderline patient: "Beneath the seemingly well-constructed grammatical aspects of these patients' discourse we find a futility, an emptying of all affect from meaning—indeed, even an empty signifier" (41). The speaker as analyst here does not "take up the bits of discursive chaos in order to indicate their relations" (45), as in Kristeva's constructive interpretation; rather, she "activates all of the sign's components, but with no logico-constructive protection" (46), as in condensation. Thus, she encourages a maternal transference, enabling the man-moth to experience a fusion with her and thus a second birth.
By practicing condensation, the speaker here dramatizes the way in which the borderline patient shares with the poet what Kristeva calls the heterogeneity of language. It is within this heterogeneity and on the borders of the symbolic that art exists, Kristeva argues, claiming that "all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its socio-historical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject" (Powers, 207). If Bishop's speaker and the man-moth she describes exist on this fragile border, the eye—"all dark pupil, / an entire night itself"—is where their identities blur and merge; it neither sees nor reveals anything. From this border, the pupil "whose haired horizon tightens / as he stares back," the tear slips. Although the tear belongs to the borders of the body, it has none of the polluting powers of the body. The setting of the eye in the body with its "haired horizons" is the site of defilement, the obverse of the pure tear. In this slippage of purity from the dark and hairy body, the speaker acknowledges abjection, recognizes the other in the self in what Kristeva calls a "maternal transference." She explains: "If ‘something maternal’ happens to bear upon the uncertainty that I call abjection, it illuminates the literary scription of the essential struggle that a writer (man or woman) has to engage in with what he calls demonic only to call attention to it as the inseparable obverse of his very being, of the other (sex) that torments and possesses him" (Powers, 208). What fascinates the speaker of this poem is the horror of the night in the eye's dark pupil. That the pure tear slips from it only adds to its fascination. The intertwining here of the pure and the dark or demonic is a culmination of such connections in the poem from the "battered moonlight" of the first line to the man-moth's desire to "push his small head through that round clean opening" and be forced through in "black scrolls on the light."
This final image of the man-moth's eye appears far from Kalstone's linkage of vision and tears (20). It belongs more to the notebook observation of a deadened woman in the subway with "an empty interior expression" (19). The image in the poem points away from the eye's vision toward a kind of lack of vision, an insistence on the inextricable interconnection between darkness and purity. In the "dark pupil" with its "haired horizon," the speaker sees confirmed the "whole shadow of Man," "the pale subways of cement he calls home," "the unbroken draught of poison," "disease." Yet she also sees the pure, cool tear that emerges from this darkness.
This strange combination of vaguely repulsive hair and purity has a long history in Bishop's imagination. As far back as her high school days, in the short story "The Thumb," she describes the narrator's attraction to a beautiful young woman at whom he stares and finds, to his horror, that she has a man's thumb; he "looked—and saw on the back of the thumb, where it lay in the sunlight, there was a growth of coarse, black hairs." Despite himself, he is attracted to her, only to be finally repelled and overcome with disgust. He leaves her without a word, and, trying to explain his actions later, he claims, "Perhaps it was because I suddenly felt tired, sick to death of the whole affair." Even here, at this early age, Bishop's speaker seems to give up, to fail to explain, in the manner of the borderline patient.
In the later poem "O Breath," Bishop again evokes the image of hair to convey an emotional experience that she cannot comprehend. She writes, "Beneath that loved and celebrated breast … I cannot fathom even a ripple," and then goes on:
(See the thin flying of nine black hairs
four around one five the other nipple,
flying almost intolerably on your own
Equivocal, but what we have in common's
bound to be there,
whatever we must own equivalents for,
The nipple, the thumb, the eye, each with its "haired horizon," are all boundaries of the body itself, where images of nurturance and intolerance, of beauty and monstrosity, of darkness and deeply troubling vision, combine and blur. Although as a woman in the position of subject Bishop appears to be always attracted to these images, it was only as she matured that she invested them with more and more significance. Writing as a high school student, Bishop speaks as a male suitor more horrified than fascinated by what appears corrupt in the beautiful woman. In "The Man-Moth," transposing sexual identification, she appears less repulsed by the "haired horizon." And finally, in "O Breath," without ascribing sexual identity, the speaker affirms the common bond between the lovers as she focuses without comment on the black hair around the nipple of the breast. In this way Bishop gradually takes on the full power of the woman as subject in the one role in which she is always subject, that of the mother. The mother, as Kristeva claims, lives "on the border" as a "crossroads" being and experiences "a continuous separation, a division of the very flesh. And consequently a division of language." Kristeva elaborates: "For a mother, on the other hand, strangely so, the other as arbitrary (the child) is taken for granted. As far as she is concerned—impossible, that is just the way it is: it is reduced to the implacable. The other is inevitable, she seems to say, turn it into a God if you wish, it is nevertheless natural, for such an other has come out of myself, which is yet not myself but a flow of unending germinations, an eternal cosmos."
In "O Breath," Bishop accepts the divided nature of the body's unfathomable purity and intolerable corruption, acknowledging the other in herself. Far from judging and dismissing the coarseness of her own flesh, as she had in "The Thumb," Bishop in this later poem accedes to "whatever we must own equivalents for, / something that maybe I could bargain with" (79).
In "The Man-Moth," the speaker is not quite so eager to bargain. Yet she connects the slippage of the tear from the dark pupil to the division of creation and the way that language, like the child, comes out of the self. The tear that can be "palmed" or "handed" over is a surrealistic tear that exists only in writing, and in this image the speaker inscribes both herself and the man-moth as writers, possessed by the other, the darkness, that Kristeva calls the powers of horror. For these writers, creation is a deadly and painful experience which requires the relinquishment of the man-moth's "only possession, like the bee's sting," and which is, like the bee's sting, life-exacting.
The man-moth, who possesses only one tear and (again like the bee's sting) can shed it only once, may be the writer who "hands over" or writes a life and who may, if s/he is not watched carefully, take back what s/he has let slip, swallow rather than "palm" it. The speaker advises her readers to "hold up a flashlight to his eye" if they catch the man-moth, because only such an eye can see and, it appears, reflect darkness.
Source: Margaret Dickie, "Seeing Is Re-Seeing: Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop," in American Literature, Vol. 65, No. 1, March 1993, pp. 131-46.
S. R. Murthy
In the following essay, Murthy examines the poem's language as a way to uncover its meaning. The critic focuses on the Man-Moth as a vessel through which Bishop explores "man's inner being."
Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Man-Moth," often praised for daintiness if not preciosity, unravels a much deeper ontological connotation on closer reading.
A newspaper misprint for the word "mammoth" provided the occasion for the poem. Bishop wrote thus on the genesis of the poem: "An oracle spoke from the page of The New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me, at the least for the moment." The poem's meaning, therefore, has to be read in this context.
Man's subconscious impulses—swinging between the heights of aspiration and depths of despair—surface momentarily only to be caught again in the relentless current of day-to-day urban living that tempts with an illusion of progress.
Man, with the unrealized urges of his inner being controlled by the visible natural order, maintains a contact of inverted equilibrium with the environment, for "he makes an inverted pin / the point magnetized to the moon." He stands rooted on the "fact" of his existence. He has no use for perceptions. "He does not see the moon." Because his view of the outer, natural world is marked by scientific precision, he becomes "blind to the moon," but is quite alive to her "vast properties" and registers her temperature, which seems to defy even the scientifically calibrated thermometer. For the man in New York, nothing is exciting and nothing could be depressing.
But the subconscious impulses that surface gain another view of life: "the moon looks rather different to him." Implying an analogy between the "moth" and man's inner being, Elizabeth Bishop delicately suggests its insubstantiality and apparent vulnerability. Like the moth, the Man-Moth rises timorously—unable to resist the glare of the moon even if it were to spell disaster. It is in character for the moth to emerge from an unseen habitat and move toward certain destruction. Though he is filled with fear, the curiosity that impels him onward is irresistible. "He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb."
Imagining the moon as a small hole, he doubts the efficacy of the sky to offer protection against earth's tyrannies. In a moment of intensely exalted idealism, he wishes to proceed beyond the moon, questing for eternal security. He has attempted it many times, and this time he hopes to succeed. Man has no such illusions. Once again the attempted ascent ends in fiasco for the Man-Moth. He falls down afraid, but not hurt. The tug of the cloak of Reality that hangs about him, "his shadow dragging like a photographer's cloth behind him," impedes his movement, and he falls deeply into the "subways" of consciousness. The subconscious that momentarily buoyed up is rudely pulled back; "he returns to the pale subways." But accommodation is not easily gained. He "flits" and "flutters," for he has lost pace with the world of reality that runs on with relentless speed. He is involuntarily pushed in and the "doors close swiftly" like the doors of a prison.
The nocturnal adventure has incapacitated him for moving with the current of life. But willy-nilly he is swept on. Of one thing he is certain—that he is moving only backward. The recurrence of these experiences—"the dreams"—sustain man in this interminable movement. Yet there is a haunting fear of the noxious whiff of reality: "the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison" that may affect his healthy inwardness. He adopts his unique defense against this inevitable disease—"one tear," which he is ready to hand over, "cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink."
The quality of man's life ultimately has to be measured in terms of the epiphanic realization, however momentary, of the hidden springs of being, of the essence that supersedes existence.
Source: S. R. Murthy, "Bishop's ‘The Man-Moth,’" in Explicator, Vol. 47, No. 3, Spring 1989, pp. 52-53.
Bishop, Elizabeth, "The Man-Moth," in The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, pp. 14-5.
Dickie, Margaret, "Seeing Is Re-Seeing: Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop," in American Literature, Vol. 65, No. 1, March 1993, pp. 131-46.
Garbes, Angela, "The Guilt Rubs Off," in the Stranger, Vol. 15, No. 33, April 27-May 3, 2006, p. 35.
Jung, Carl, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage Books, 1973.
Lombardi, Marilyn May, The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics, Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.
Murthy, S. R., "Bishop's ‘The Man-Moth,’" in Explicator, Vol. 47, No. 3, Spring 1989, pp. 52-3.
Spivack, Kathleen, "Conceal/Reveal: Passion and Restraint in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop, or: Why We Care about Elizabeth Bishop's Poetry," in the Massachusetts Review, Vol. 46, No. 3, Fall 2005, pp. 496-527.
Vendler, Helen, "The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 4, Summer 1987, pp. 825-38.
Bishop, Elizabeth, Exchanging Hats: Paintings, edited by William Benton, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996.
Bishop did not only write poetry, she also painted, and this could explain why her poems are often full of visual imagery. Although Bishop claimed that her paintings could not be considered art, this collection may prove otherwise. Her landscapes and portraits of friends demonstrate Bishop's ability to capture images that reflect the very emotions often found in her poems. The book also juxtaposes various paintings with lines from some of Bishop's poems.
Goldensohn, Lorrie, Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1993.
Goldensohn studies Bishop's poetry and links it to experiences in the poet's life, showing how specific events influenced her writing. Much of the material that Goldensohn uses came from previously unpublished poems and fragments, so this book offers not only Goldensohn's reflections on how Bishop's life affected her poetry, but also a glimpse into some of the incomplete works of this great poet.
Millier, Brett C., Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, University of California Press, 1995.
This is the first ever full-length biography of Bishop, covering the many tragedies that befell the poet. Millier, a university professor, does not shy away from sensitive topics such as Bishop's homosexuality or her addiction to alcohol. Based on her research, Millier also provides some of her own speculative conclusions about the poet.
Oliveira, Carmen L., Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares, Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Oliveira, herself a Brazilian, took an interest in the romantic relationship between Bishop and her Brazilian lover, de Macedo Soares. Using a combination of fact and fiction, Oliveira conceptualizes the sixteen-year long relationship between these two women, a relationship that Bishop claimed was the first in which she experienced happiness.
Travisano, Thomas J., Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development, University of Virginia Press, 1989.
Travisano not only discusses Bishop's development as a poet but also provides his own understanding and interpretation of some of Bishop's poems. His commentary is based on Bishop's remarks that she became more personally available in her later works, as opposed to the more objective stance of her early poems.