Poem Guide

Elizabeth Bishop: “The Moose”

How the poet devoted 20 years to immortalizing a moment in her classic poem.
Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop claimed that it took her around 20 years to finish her poem “The Moose.” Even for a poet as methodical as Bishop, that seems like an unusually long time to hold on to an idea, to sketch out the first impressions of an actual event and return to them until she was satisfied that her poem was complete.

Taking up a theme she explored in poems such as “The Fish” and “The Armadillo,” “The Moose” meditates on the transcendent power of nature, and its often startling intrusion into our modern lives. The poem also maps the physical and psychological terrain of Nova Scotia, where the young Bishop was taken to live with her maternal grandparents after being effectively orphaned by her father’s early death and her mother’s institutionalization for mental illness. (The poem is dedicated to Grace Bulmer Bowers, one of her aunts and surrogate mothers.)

“The Moose” opens on a lyrical note, describing the landscape and towns along the Nova Scotian coast:

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats'
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches, . . .

The phrase “narrow provinces” in the first line not only establishes a geographical anchor but also serves as a commentary on the provincial lives of the inhabitants. The local diet “of fish and bread and tea,” with its repetitive syntax and tight, iambic cadence, invokes a simple, somewhat monotonous existence. Life’s rhythm is reflected in the predictable rise and fall of water, “the long tides / where the bay leaves the sea / twice a day . . . ,” which also manifests itself in the consistent rhyme scheme that evokes the sound of the ebbing and surging ocean.

The precise landscape Bishop paints reflects her obsessive focus on observed detail: a traveler is seen off by “seven relatives / and a collie supervises.” She uses something as mundane (and freighted with symbolic cliché) as fog to add a richer texture to the landscape rather than obscure it:

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens' feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

Despite the poem’s travel theme, Bishop is clearly in no hurry to get anywhere in particular. Not until the fifth stanza does the opening phrase, “From narrow provinces,” find its verb. Only then does the narrative that propels the rest of the poem truly begin:

a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;

down hollows, up rises. . . .

Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.

The effect is unsettling, as Bishop suddenly introduces an ungainly metal machine into what heretofore had been a bucolic scene. From that point on, the reader is conscious of being separated from the landscape, moving through it in an artificial environment in which the outside world flits by the bus windows like scenes in a film: a woman shaking out a tablecloth after dinner, a ship’s lantern shining red off the coast, a rubber-booted pedestrian. The thin fog “comes closing in,” completing the separation.

The long lines that open the poem reinforce the sense of movement through the landscape. When the bus stops to pick up the “lone traveler” in the sixth stanza, it also brings a halt to the long sentence that has been unspooling since the start of the poem. The bus

waits, patient, while
a lone traveler gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.

As the bus resumes and picks up speed, the lines do too. It is full night as the bus enters the woods of New Brunswick. Here, another significant turn occurs, with the landscape becoming

hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.

It is wilder than the more human-inhabited world of the previous stanzas. The woods have a clinging, dense, claustrophobic feel.

The atmosphere of menace outside the bus contrasts sharply with the one inside, where it is cozy and safe:

The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .

The narrator herself starts to drift off, and Bishop’s syntax becomes incantatory and hypnotic. The dreamy ear settles on

an old conversation
—not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices

talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

But the reverie comes to an abrupt end with the appearance of the poem’s titular character:

—Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.

The domestic dream is punctured, as something huge and wild intrudes. Someone assures the passengers that the animal is “‘Perfectly harmless. . . .’”—a sentiment Bishop undermines, or at least questions, by setting off the phrase with quotes and ellipses. One wonders how harmless it would be should a rider step off the bus for a closer look. The creature provokes a childish reaction in the passengers as, in turn, the moose investigates this intrusion into its world:

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It's a she!”

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly. . . .

The driver’s observation that moose are “‘Curious creatures’” could as easily be applied to the passengers. The poet, even as she shares some of the giddy excitement, questions the emotions stirred up by the animal:

Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

The answer is never given. For Bishop, it seems to lie in the curious power of nature to transform a rather ordinary moment into a transcendent one. The creature’s sudden appearance reminds these “civilized” humans of that other world they are simultaneously surrounded by and alienated from. For a moment, they inhabit the same ground and are aware of each other’s presence, both unnerved, but curious, strangely exhilarated.

The spell is soon broken, again by the bus, as the driver puts it back into gear. The poet is reluctant to leave the scene, craning backward to see the moose “on the moonlit macadam.” As the bus moves on, Bishop invokes the scents used to mark territory—the primeval and the mechanical:

Then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.

The moment has passed. But for Bishop, those dim and acrid smells lingered powerfully enough to compel the exacting commitment of the memory to paper, even two decades later.

Originally Published: October 1st, 2008

Toby Eckert is an editor and writer who lives in Alexandria, Va. He has an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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  1. January 26, 2009
     Niel Rosenthalis

    I'd be interested to know which parts took

    Bishop so long to complete. And which

    words, specifically, caused her the most

    trouble. I think the description of the

    moose--"grand, otherworldly..." is an

    example of Bishop's gift for casual


    Remarkable poem.

  2. May 22, 2009
     Jose Luis Gutierrez Romo

    Only a simple word 'MARVELOUS'

  3. August 28, 2009

    A reminder of grandeur to those tourists who've spent hours in a jolting bus waiting for the moment when they can all cram themselves together at the windows to photgraph the few moose feeding by the side of the road; animals as nature photo-ops...are national parks so different from Disney land?