Filling Station by Elizabeth Bishop

‘Filling Station’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a six stanza poem which is separated into sets of six, seven, and eight lines. The first and fifth stanza contain six lines, the second, third, and fourth: seven, and the sixth: eight. Although the lines of this piece are all of a similar length, the text does not conform to one particular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. 

The fact that the poem appears well-organized on the page is due to the length of the lines. They are not too short, or too long, allowing the poem to flow easily from beginning to end. There are no shocks to the reader’s expectation. 

Additionally, a reader should take note of the instances of anaphora in the text. This is a word used to describe the repetition of a word at the beginning of a series of lines. Such as “Somebody” in the sixth stanza, and “Why” in the fifth. You can read the full poem here. 

 

Summary of Filling Station 

‘Filling Station’ by Elizabeth Bishop describes a speaker’s initial reaction, and later feelings, about the value of a dirty filling station. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing the dark, dirty, and grungy nature of a filling station. Everything seems to be covered in oil, including the father and his sons, who work there. She is at first bothered by the presence of a number of element which tell of the family’s financial situation. It is clear they live there due to the presence of a porch, chairs, and  

By the end of the poem, the speaker comes to the conclusion, after seeing the love given to a few parts of the home, that there is a reason to love everything and everyone. 

 

Analysis of Filling Station 

Stanza One

Oh, but it is dirty!

(…)

Be careful with that match!

In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by exclaiming over the state of the “Filling Station” she is going to spend the text discussing. The fact that this line doesn’t have any proceeding description, and is so brief, allows the reader to assume that it is an impulsive reaction to what she is seeing. She has not taken any pains to look deeper, yet. It is so “dirty!” That is all she can see at this point. 

She continues on to give the reader additional detail as to what exactly is so “dirty” about the filling, or gas, station. First, she wants the reader to know it is a “little” place. In this context, this word has a diminutive tone to it. She does not mean it in a positive way. The entire place is said to be “oil-soaked.” The substance has “permeated” every inch of the station. It is likely this statement is at least somewhat hyperbolic in nature. She is exaggerating the features of the station in her initial disgust and outrage over its condition. 

The description continues in the next two lines in which she states that the oil was painted the entire place in a “black translucency.” She emphasizes this statement with the following, that one must, 

Be careful with that match! 

This alludes to the speaker’s conclusion that a lit match anywhere around the station will set it on fire. 

 

Stanza Two

Father wears a dirty,
(…)
all quite thoroughly dirty.

In the second stanza, the speaker moves on from the surface of the station to those who run it. She speaks first on the “Father” who is wearing a “dirty, / oil-soaked” pair of coveralls she refers to as a “monkey suit.” This phrase is another way of demeaning the place and those who work and live there. She does not, at this point, have any respect for him. 

The coveralls, aside from simply looking strange to the speaker, clearly do not fit the man. She says that they are cutting him “under the arms.” He is not the only person working at the station, he is surrounded by “several” of his sons who are described as being “quick and saucy / and greasy.” Again, this surface level, condescending way of seeing shows the speaker’s preconceived notions about who the people are. She does not see them as being worth very much. The boys are helping their father around the station which is family operated and just like the building and ground, they are all “thoroughly dirty.”

 

Stanza Three 

Do they live in the station?
(…)
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

The third half of Filling Station delves deeper into the lives of this family. She begins with stanza by posing a question. She wonders if the family does in fact “live in the station.” It is likely due to the “cement porch”which is located “behind the pumps” and the pieces of “wickerwork” upon it. These are all signs that there is more to this place that one might expect. The family does not appear to have the means to keep a separate home and live within their place of business. 

The chairs which stand on the porch are desired as “grease-impregnated.” They are warped and “crushed” and covered with the leavings from the station. The oil gets everywhere, following the family from place to place. 

 

Stanza Four

Some comic books provide

(…)

a big hirsute begonia.

In the fourth stanza, which marks the halfway point of this piece, the speaker details additional elements of the scene which lead her to believe that the family lives in the station. These are markers of individual lives, coming together in one place. She notes the “comic books.” These magazines are the only elements of color in the whole landscape. Everything else is marred with oil or is generally dingy with age and lack of cleaning. 

The comic books are sitting on a “big dim doily” which is covered a “taboret.” This rather muddled description is referring the a table which is covered in what should be a white, intricately sewn, table-cloth. In this home though it has become “dim,” it’s white dulled by the previously mentioned elements. 

The final piece of home life she takes note of is the “hirsute,” or shaggy, un-pruned, “begonia” plant. 

 

Stanza Five

Why the extraneous plant?
(…)
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

In the fifth stanza, the second which contains only six lines, the speaker asks a number of questions about the state of the station. She wonders why even put out the “extraneous plant?” Or the “taboret.” What is the point of showing these items? She is especially bothered by the “doily” which she describes as…

[…] Embroidered in daisy stitch

With marguerites…

It is not a highly skilled piece of stitching, but its dulled down nature is enough to catch her attention. It is clear in these lines that the speaker is finally looking closer at the situation. Perhaps there is another level to the filling station she has not been considering. 

 

Stanza Six 

Somebody embroidered the doily.

(…)

esso—so—so—so
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

In the final stanza of Filling Station, the speaker comes to a different conclusion about the station that one might have assumed would occur in the first stanza. She realizes that there is “Somebody” who “embroidered the doily” and “Somebody” who takes the time to “water the plant.” There is an amount of care put into the home which is not initially evident. Although she does follow-up the watering of the plant with the suggestion that maybe they “oil it” instead. Maybe, she thinks there is something of value here. 

In the final lines she notes how the cans of gasoline have been lined up so they, 

[…] softly say: 

esso—so—so—so 

This sweet moment deep within the dingy nature of the text shows the love present in the environment. It is not without merit, the speaker realizes. There is “Somebody” to “love us all.” 

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  • Avatar Elizabeth Croft says:

    Do you ever do anything other than count lines? Do you ever ask yourself “WHY does the poet choose this line length, this rhyme scheme or this stanzaic structure?” Poetry is not Maths.
    Also, you are wrong, This poem is in trimetres. And you are often wrong. Before you start telling people that a poem is “not” in any verse form, you need to brush up on your knowledge of poetics.

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