I Am In Need of Music by Elizabeth Bishop

‘I Am In Need of Music’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a two stanza poem which is separated into one set of eight lines and another set of six. Although it is divided in half, the number of lines (fourteen) and the rhyme scheme make this piece a sonnet. It does not conform to one traditional sonnet form though. 

The first set of eight lines, or octave, follows a pattern of abbaacca. It is reminiscent of the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet although altered with the use of the ‘c’ rhyme. This was a form that Williams Wordsworth was known to use as well.  The final six lines, or sestet, rhyme: defdef. These lines return to the traditional Italian style. 

In regards to meter, this piece is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two syllables. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. Iambic pentameter is one of the most common and popular verse forms. Its steady beat and smooth transition is reminiscent of the music that Bishop’s speaker is longing for. You can read the full poem here. 


Summary of I Am In Need of Music 

‘I Am In Need of Music’ by Elizabeth Bishop describes the desire a speaker has to be held, calmed down and consumed by the music she loves. 

The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is in need of a type of music that will calm her “fretful…fingertips.” Her whole body seems to be on edge and she knows there’s only one thing that can help her. It is a “deep, clear, and liquid-slow” melody she is longing for. When it comes, it will heal her. The speaker’s body will be washed over by the cool, glowing water of music. 

In the second half of the poem the speaker describes what it will be like to be consumed again in the melodies she loves. It will be as if she has cast her heart through the colours of her life and into a deep ocean pool. There she will float in the arms of music. It will sway her and comfort her as a loved one would. 


Analysis of I Am In Need of Music 

Stanza One

In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by stating the phrase which would go on to become the title of the poem, I am in need of music.” It is not all music that is needed, only a kind that makes her feel a particular way. For a reason that is not made clear, the speaker is longing for the feelings that music gives her. She describes how emotion seems to, 


Over [her] fretful, feeling fingertips,

Immediately one is aware that music has the ability to soothe the speaker. Whenever she is worried, or fretful, it can relax her body and bring her to a calmer, more serene state. It also travels over her “bitter-tainted…lips.” This is an interesting choice of words as it says a lot about how the speaker sees herself. She is “trembling” and her lips, or perhaps the words she has spoken, are distasteful to her. 

In contrast to the “bitter” taste of her lips, the music feels “deep, clear and liquid-slow.” It covers her, taking away the previous negativity. The speaker goes on to ask for the “healing swaying” that comes along with listening to music. It is “old and low” and something she knows well. 

In the next lines she asks for melodies used to “rest the tired dead.” This describes the feeling of the music more than it does an actual kind of melody. She is hoping to calm herself down until her “quivering limbs” are “flushed to glow.” 


Stanza Two 

The second stanza of this piece is a sestet. This means that it contains six lines. As mentioned above, they rhyme in a pattern of efgefg. The repetition of these rhymes help the poem come to a solid conclusion. Additionally, the change between the octave and sestet becomes more pronounced due to the new end sounds. This helps to emphasize the “turn” that often happens in sonnets.

 The “turn” could refer to the answer to a question, the resolution to a problem, or in this case, a description of the speaker’s ideal state. The speaker moves on from describing music to what the music will do for her. 

She beings with the statement that there is magic in the “melody” of music. The speaker sees it as being able to tap into something that other experiences can’t. Through the melody she hopes to achieve a, 

[…]spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool


A reader should consider at this point how the speaker does not give any more description than is necessary to understand how she is feeling. This has been done in an effort to keep the piece from being too didactic. The poem is instead accessible to all audience. Anyone who has ever felt tired, heard music they enjoyed, or wanted a rest, will be able to find something to relate to. 

In the next lines the speaker utilizes vibrant images to help a reader feel as she hopes to feel. She predicts that if she can only hear the music she is longing for her heart with “sink…through” the colours of her life into the “subaqueous,” or underwater, “stillness of the sea.” These complicated and alliterative phrases are calming in themselves. They portray the feelings that the speaker is looking for. 

She sees her heart cooling off and relaxing beneath the ocean. It will “float forever in a moon-green pool.” The pool and ocean to which she is referring represent a body of music. She imagines the rhythms, melodies and phrases she loves the most consuming her. This is not something to be feared, but cherished. The arms of her music will hold her in a peaceful “sleep.” 

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