Elizabeth Bishop

Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop

Within ‘Questions of Travel,’ Bishop’s tone is conflicted. It is sometimes exhausted and other times excited and engaged. Throughout, she creates a reflective and contemplative mood as the reader is asked to consider their own opinions and travel experiences. The poem touches on themes of travel, memory, home, and regret.

Due to information about the poet’s life, scholars have come to the conclusion that this poem was written while Bishop was living in Brazil. Due to the commonly autobiographical slant of her works, it is safe to assume that the vague “here” she references in the first lines is somewhere in Brazil.  

Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop


Summary of Questions of Travel 

‘Questions of Travel’ by Elizabeth Bishop argues for the pros and cons of traveling and the regrets that might appear along the way.

The poem takes the reader into the poet’s own mind while she lived in Brazil. She details her dislike for powerful bodies of water and her appreciation for the small details that make a landscape original. In the first part of the poem, she argues against traveling, describing it as a waste of time better spent at home. 

In the following sections, her opinion becomes obscured as she looks to moments of pleasure and the wonder she felt. She also expresses a worry that she’s missed out on certain things she’d like to see. The poem concludes without a decision one way or another as to whether travel is worth it or is instead a waste of time. 

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of the Poem

Questions of Travel’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a five stanza poem that’s separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza has twelve, the second: seventeen, the third: thirty and the fourth and fifth have four each. The poems as written in free verse. This means that there is no rhyme scheme or structured metrical pattern. But, there are a few moments of rhyme within the poem. Most importantly, at the ends of lines thirteen and fourteen of the third stanza. Bishop describes bird songs in these lines, therefore the rhyme makes a great deal of sense. This is especially true if a reader considers the efforts the poet goes to bring the reader fully into the travel scenes, especially the gas-station. 


Poetic Techniques

Bishop makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Questions of Travel’. These include alliteration, sibilance, enjambment, simile, and metaphor. The last two techniques are both kinds of figurative language. The first, simile, is a comparison of unlike things using the words “like” or “as”. When a poet uses this technique it is to say something appears “like” something else, not that it “is” something else. There is an example in line eleven of the first stanza with the phrase: “the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships”.

A metaphor, on the other hand, is a comparison between two, unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. An example can also be found in the first stanza, with the line: “- For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains”. Here, she is saying that streams are “tearstains”. 


Alliteration and Enjambment

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, line ten of the third stanza with “filling-station floor”. Sibilance is connected to alliteration. It appears when the “s” sound I used alliteratively, such as in line four of the first stanza. It reads: “makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion”. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout the text but a few include the transitions between lines one and two of the first stanza and lines seven and eight of the second. 


Analysis of Questions of Travel

Stanza One 

Lines 1-5

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.

In the first five lines of ‘Questions of Travel’ the speaker makes a few simple statements all of which have to do with water. She says that there are “too many waterfalls here”. In the fifth line of this section, she notes that it’s not just her looking at this water, “our very eyes” are upon them. She’s with someone else. 

An overwhelming feeling starts percolating as she contends with the pressure of these bodies of water and the “clouds on the mountaintop”. Despite the beautiful image of the clouds becoming waterfalls “under our very eyes,” she’s unsettled in her surroundings. These lines are quite alliterative with the repetition of the “s” sound. When the “s” sound, in particular, is repeated it is known as sibilance. 


Lines 6-12

– For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Through the use of a metaphor, Bishop depicts the streams as “mile-long…tearstains”. This plays into the mood of the text so far as the poet expresses her discontent with the scenery and traveling in general. While the streams aren’t “waterfalls yet” they will be soon. The image of water is not consistent, lending these lines a dream-like imaginative quality that is connected more to the feeling of a place rather than to its reality. 

Bishop uses another kind of figurative language, a simile, in the next lines when she wonders over the progress of streams and clouds. If she says, they kept moving across the landscape, then they’d “look like the hulls of capsized ships”. This is a grand image, one the adds to the overwhelming quality of the landscape itself. It is a pleasure to wonder at the image of the ship-like mountains sailing along endless rivers and then eventually being consumed by them. 


Stanza Two

Lines 1-8

Think of the long trip home.
to see the sun the other way around?

In the next lines of ‘Questions of Travel,’ Bishop poses a series of questions. She asks her companion to “Think of the long trip home” and immediately follows this up with a leading question. It is clear she’s of the mind (especially after considering the flooding of the entire landscape and the capsizing of mountains) that it was a mistake to ever leave home. She continues to probe her listener, asking them if this is really how they should be spending their time. 

Lines six through eight compare the need to travel to a childish impulse to rush around “to see the sun the other way around”. 


Lines 9-17

The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

The next lines also contain a few questions that get to the heart of the poet’s problems with traveling. Is it, she wonders, worth making all this effort to see the “tiniest green hummingbird in the world” or some “old stonework?” From the tone of these lines, it’s clear that the answer is no. The poet is of the mind that it is not worth dreaming dreams and putting them into action as well.

Repetition and alliteration are used in lines two and three with the words “inexplicable” (twice) and “impenetrable”. The emphasis Bishop creates through this phrase puts weight behind her argument, willing the listener to agree with her. 

The last lines of this stanza are contradictory, representing an internal argument the speaker is really having with herself. She wants to see the warm sunset, but after traveling there, she doesn’t feel like it was worth it. Or was it? The reader should be considering these questions as well.  


Stanza Three 

Lines 1-10

But surely it would have been a pity
a grease-stained filling-station floor.

In the next ten lines, the speaker continues her two-sided argument. Now, she’s considering what she’s seen on her travels and trying to decide whether it was worth making the effort. It would have been a “pity” not to see the “trees along this road” which are incredibly beautiful. They appeared together, as she describes through another simile (as well as personification), like “noble pantomimists”. This refers to mimes and their gestures. They are wordless but clear in their meaning. 

These lines are also quite sense-based. She saw something beautiful in the first section, then in the next five lines, she expresses the pleasure she took in something she heard. When they stopped for gas they heard the “two-noted” progression of clogs on the “filling-station,” or gas station, floor. This really speaks to a time and a place, as well as to an experience she couldn’t have had at home. A reader should consider the difference between these small details that Bishop crafts so successfully, and the larger raging waterfalls and streams of the first stanza. It is obvious that she prefers the former. 


Lines 11-17 

(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
three towers, five silver crosses.

Within the parenthesis, she makes an amusing note about the clogs. They are one of a kind due to the fact that they made sounds at different pitches. The theme of sounds continues as she expresses her regret for not having heard the “less primitive music of the fat brown bird”. This particular bird can be found in a cage, described as a church of “Jesuit baroque”. Its architecture is complex and ornate, something that would usually draw the attention of a traveller. Just like the clogs, this bird is special. 

A close reader will also notice that this free verse poem has a moment of rhyme with the endings “heard” and “bird” in lines thirteen and fourteen of this stanza. This makes sense when one considers the context. The poet was writing about a bird song and therefore to better place the reader into the scene, the lines rhymed as if mimicking the sound of the animal. 


Lines 18-25 

three towers, five silver crosses.
the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages.

The speaker continues the description of birds, cages, and clogs in the next lines. She is still arguing with her listener and with herself. She thinks about what she missed when she didn’t ponder or think about intently, but unsuccessfully, on the “connection” that “can exist” in such a place between clogs and ornate bird cages. The poet is trying to get to the heart of what she’s seen, hasn’t seen, and what it means to her when her desire doesn’t match her experience. 

She contemplates the nature of “wooden cages” and what can be learned of “history in  / the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages”. Calligraphy is used in these lines as a way of describing the line-like construction of the cage. 

From the complex design of the birdcage, it’s clear that this is an important feature in the poet’s mind. She’s spent a great deal of time using various adjectives to make sure the reader has a very clear picture as well. It is obvious that she wants to do her best to place any contemporary or future readers into the scene with her. 

 She makes use of the poetic technique epistrophe in the repetition of the end words “cages” in lines twenty-three and twenty-five. 


Lines 26-30 

– And never to have had to listen to rain
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

In the final five lines of the third stanza of ‘Questions of Travel,’ the poet starts to shift back to her prior denigration of traveling. Unsurprisingly this shift in tone is related to water. There is a hint at a lack of choice in these lines as she’s forced to listen to the rain. It is like hearing “politicians’ speeches”. They are endless, “unrelenting,” and inescapable. When they’re finally over, aka, when the rain is over, the silence is golden. 

There is a very successful use of enjambment at the end of this line with the phrase “in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:” A reader has to move down to the next stanza to find out who this traveller is and what they’re writing. 


Stanza Four

‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?

The fourth stanza is only four lines long and contains the first half of the traveller’s words. It is also written in italics, setting it apart from the rest of the poem. A reader should be prepared for the voice to be different. This unknown person writes a question, they wonder, as Blaise Pascal (a seventeenth-century philosopher) did, if “a lack of imagination” makes us unhappy just staying at home. 

Or, she counters, maybe he wasn’t entirely right. This is a perfect representation of the entire argument that’s made up of the last three stanzas of the poem. 


Stanza Five 

Continent, city, country, society:
wherever that may be? ‘

Moving into the final four lines, the poet makes use of alliteration again with the “s” sound in “Continent, city, country, society”. Here, her new traveller writes about the lack of choices one has in life. Even if they move from country to country and city to city, nothing is free. Everything takes a toll and there will always be something (an experience or relationship) lost in the process. 

The traveller’s thought process plays out in the third line as they consider, “And here, or there…No”. They change their mind in mid-sentence. This is not about considering places one might want to live or dream, they decide.

The last line is impactful. It is also up for interpretation depending on a reader’s own definition of what “home” can be. She wonders if “we” should have “stayed at home, / wherever that may be”. Would that be the right choice? And where is home? The fact that it could be anywhere, and could even move locations, leaves the value of travel up for interpretation. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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