Elizabeth Bishop’s Map

Elizabeth Bishop's Map

The poem “The map” is part of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry collection “North and South.” Let’s take a moment to analyse this poem written by Bishop. In other words: Elizabeth Bishop’s Map.

In the life of Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911 – October 6, 1979) there were no easy apps for finding locations, cities, or streets. You were dependent on a map. Just as the great researchers of old were. The difference was that they would determine the cards. When you, as a mere mortal, consulted a map, you did not do this as part of a journey of discovery.

So you can safely assume that a map belonged to the traveller’s most necessary possessions. It didn’t matter if you travelled on foot or you were transported (train, plane, automobile).

The term ‘roadmap’ is therefore important. A road map is, as it were, that blueprint for the rest of your journey. It is therefore not surprising that “The Map” was the first poem in the collection of poems published in 1946. You might assume that a book entitled “North and South” might contain some reference to geography. Be it in the form of an illustration, be it in text.

Then consider this poem as Bishop’s roadmap. It gives you a glimpse into her thoughts and what to expect from her. Statements placed in parentheses, questions that are rhetorical and repetitive. These are Bishop’s qualities.

But it is more than just examples of what she’s capable of when it comes to the writing style. At the end of this poem, she gives her views on geography (or topography):

Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians ‘are the map-makers’ colours. “

According to Bishop – she even wrote about this in letters she sent after the publication of this poem – geography is more important than history. It defines your state of mind and can influence the way you handle things. This is autobiographical because she wrote this on New Year’s Eve 1934 in New York. She felt homesick.

The Map

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
-What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

Elizabeth Bishop

Labrador, Newfoundland and Eskimo

This poem is not about the dog labrador, but about the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. This is a province in Canada. Indeed, the two dog types are named after it.

Speaking of names. This is important by the way. The name ‘Eskimo’ that Bishop uses is a loaded word. These are the indigenous peoples of Alaska, Greenland, Siberia and northern Canda (which is what this poem is about). This name is controversial. According to one, it means’ raw meat eater, according to the other, the word comes from French. French settlers are said to have referred to two different indigenous groups around 1600 as grand esquimaux (the Inuit) and the petits esquimaux (the Innu, an Indian tribe). The word is said to have been taken from neighbouring Inuit peoples. In both cases the explanation is incorrect.

The name Eskimo comes from the Montagnais language (Cree). The word then means ‘trapper on snowshoes.’ That is slightly less negative, but not quite yet. That’s why you’re just talking about Inuit (people).

At the time of writing this poem, none of this was known. An Inuit was an Eskimo. So Bishop used this designation.

The Map
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