Elizabeth Bishop”‘”s ‘”‘The Moose'”‘ is a narrative poem of 168 lines. Its twenty-eight six-line stanzas are not rigidly structured. Lines vary in length from four to eight syllables, but those of five or six syllables predominate. The pattern of stresses is lax enough almost to blur the distinction between verse and prose; the rhythm is that of a low-keyed speaking voice hovering over the descriptive details. The eyewitness account is meticulous and restrained.
The poem concerns a bus traveling to Boston through the landscape and towns of New Brunswick. While driving through the woods, the bus stops because a moose has wandered onto the road. The appearance of the animal interrupts the peaceful hum of elderly passengers”‘” voices. Their talkresignedly revolving itself round such topics as recurrent human failure, sickness, and deathis silenced by the unexpected advent of the beast, which redirects their thoughts and imparts a ‘”‘sweet sensation of joy'”‘ to their quite ordinary, provincial lives.
The poem is launched by a protracted introduction during which the speaker indulges in descriptions of landscape and local color, deferring until the fifth stanza the substantive statement regarding what is happening to whom: ‘”‘a bus journeys west.'”‘ This initial postponement and the leisurely accumulation of apparently trivial but realistic detail contribute to the atmospheric build-up heralding the unique occurrence of the journey. That event will take place as late as the middle of the twenty-second stanza, in the last third of the text. It is only in retrospect that one realizes the full import of that happening, and it is only with the last line of the final stanza that the reader gains the necessary distance to grasp entirely the functional role of the earlier descriptive parts.
Now the reader will be ready to tackle the poem again in order to notice and drink in its subtle nuances. Bishop”‘”s artistry will lie plain, particularly her capacity to impart life to a rather unnerving redundancy of objects and to project a lofty poetic vision from a humble, prosaic incident.
Forms and Devices
Description and narrative are the chief modes of this poem. Nevertheless, at critical moments the actual utterance of the anonymous characters is invited in (‘”‘Yes, sir,/ all the way to Boston'”‘). The binder of these varied procedures is the speaker”‘”s tone of voice: calm, subdued, concerned with detail and nuance, capable of a quiet humor, in sovereign, though unassuming, control.
The thirty-six-line introduction is the most sustained piece of writing in the poem. It forms a sequence of red-leaved and purple Canadian landscapes through which the blue bus journeys. Then, in smaller units, for another thirty-six lines the bus route is reviewed, main stops mentioned, and further details concerning the passengers, the weather, and the scenic sights duly recorded. Day is replaced by evening, and light gives way to darkness. The eleventh stanza brings in a climactic moment of equilibrium and economy of design. Beginning with the thirteenth stanza, the first quotes are used, as they will again be in the twentieth, twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth, and, finally, in the twenty-seventh stanza. Stanza 14the moonlight episodeis the very center of the poem. This section is rhymeless, though this is amply compensated for by the triple epithets in the third line, and it marks the transition from the outer, natural world to the inner, human concerns of the second part of the work, which includes lines 85-129. Usually unchronicled and unheroic human tragedy receives an indirect presentation, culminating with the moving and dramatically rendered twentieth stanza. The third part of the poem begins, appropriately, in mid-stanza with line 130. The encounter with the moosethe climax of the entire poemis allotted two descriptive stanzas (the twenty-fourth and the twenty-sixth). The remaining two stanzas form a kind of a coda, bringing the poem to an end with a powerfully ironical twist obtained by juxtaposing the ‘”‘dim smell of the moose'”‘ to the ‘”‘acrid smell of gasoline.'”‘
The diction of the poem modulates in accordance with the needs of its plot. Thus the first part, devoted to the landscape, is richly descriptive, replete with qualifying epithets that, toward the end (in line 75 and in line 81), come in by threes, like beads on a string. In the second part, dealing with the passengers”‘” plight, learned, latinate words such as ‘”‘divagation,'”‘ ‘”‘auditory,'”‘ ‘”‘hallucination,'”‘ ‘”‘eternity,'”‘ and ‘”‘acceptance'”‘ signal the presence of the narrator-commentator. In the third partthe one reserved for the mooseepithets return. In the climactic twenty-fourth stanza, the most distinctly poetic devicesexplicit comparisonsare bestowed on the protagonist: ‘”‘high as a church,/ homely as a house.'”‘ Moreover, the four additional epithets lavished on the moose contribute to the grandeur of its appearance: ‘”‘towering, antlerless,'”‘ and ‘”‘grand, otherworldly.'”‘
By careful calibration and timing of her tropes, Bishop succeeds superbly in achieving her ends. Contrast is attained by her control over all compartments of language, and her austere, restrained tone and strategy of deferral and understatement are dramatically effective.
Themes and Meanings
‘”‘The Moose'”‘ is ultimately about the human need to be purged and, if possible, cured of selfhood. Self-absorption or narcissism is not only a passing malaise afflicting teenagers. Older people regard themselves in the mirror of their memories; they often run the risk of becoming trapped in despair or self-pity. Hence, the need to forget one”‘”s obsessions and delusions is a pressing one.
The moose miraculously appears in Bishop”‘”s poem to offer the passengers of the bus, the narrator included, a remedy for their solipsism. Curiosity is stirred in them, and a sweet, joyful sensation supervenes. The author invests her wildlife messenger with an otherworldly or religious awesomeness. The female moose becomes for the nonce Mother Naturegrand, fearless, and unselfconscious. Both like a church and like a house, the moose cow is a prehistoric reminder that humans are not stranded in this world, that there are dignified creatures that seem to be freer and more self-sufficient than humans are, and that human lives are richer because they exist. It is this almost mystical sense of fellowship that pervades the last third of Bishop”‘”s poem.
Humans need the moose as a friendly ‘”‘other'”‘ capable of dispelling the anxiety induced by their inability to communicate significantly across the ghetto of the human species. Civilization has ruined nature and has alienated humankind from it. The man-made environment of highways, bridges, and buses cuts across the wildlife habitat in order to reach the Boston of human discontent. At the end of the poem, the clash between the ‘”‘dim smell'”‘ of the moose and the ‘”‘acrid'”‘ smell of gasoline poignantly dramatizes the incompatibility between nature and culture. This disharmony has been foreshadowed in the poem by the subtle overlapping between the reds and purples of sunsets and maple leaves and the ‘”‘blue, beat up enamel'”‘ of the bus, whose hot hood the moose finally gave a welcome sniff. Even though the encounter is brief, its effects will reverberate in the readers”‘” wakened consciousness.
There is a distinguished tradition of poetry writing to which Bishop”‘”s ‘”‘The Moose'”‘ belongs. It can be traced back, as poet John Hollander has noted, to William Wordsworth”‘”s The Prelude (1850), whose so-called episode of the Winander Boy (book V, lines 389-413) deals with the ancestral impulse to talk to nature”‘”s creatures. The Winander Boy initiated such a dialogue by mocking the hooting of owls. To his delight, the birds responded in kind. In between the mystic silences, nature”‘”s deeper secret motions flooded the boy”‘”s heart and soul. For the British Romantic, such a communion with nature could still be available to a few elected spirits whose purity and innocence had already marked them for intense experiences and an early death.
Hollander also noted a connection between Robert Frost”‘”s poem ‘”‘The Most of It'”‘ and ‘”‘The Moose.'”‘ Frost had his male protagonist proudly call out to nature for something more than the ‘”‘copy speech'”‘ that the Winander Boy had elicited from his owls. His wish for ‘”‘counter-love, original response'”‘ was finally granted by the sheer chance appearance of a powerful buck that, lordlike, tore his way through tarn and wilderness without bothering at all to acknowledge the presence of the human intruder.
By contrast, Bishop”‘”s female moose has the curiosity to approach the trespassing bus in order to look it over and assess it in her mute, nonaggressive way. Finally, it is the bus that, pressed for time, leaves the spother territorywhile the moose remains on the moonlit macadam road without budging.