‘The Map’ is written on the bleak Christmas of 1934 when Elizabeth Bishop was suffering from a severe respiratory illness. At that time, she was living in New York. On New Year’s Eve, 1935, she penned down this beautiful piece that served as an introductory piece to her first collection of poetry, North and South (1946), and her subsequent collections. Regarded as her best piece of poetry, this piece evokes the excitement of meditating upon a map and traveling distant lands and seas in one’s imagination. This three-stanza poem sparks the unknown depths of readers’ imagination with the help of Bishop’s carefully chosen words and thoughtful expressions.
Explore The Map
‘The Map’ by Elizabeth Bishop describes a speaker’s thoughtful wanderings from one place to the other while looking at a map.
This poem begins directly with a description of the landforms sidelining the vast blue sea as depicted on a map. The speaker wonders what if the land endings are not where the land really ends. It could be “the line of long sea-weeded ledges,” where weeds hang onto the blue seawater. The land seems to be trying to lift the sea from beneath and surrounding itself with the undisturbed water.
In the second stanza, the speaker refers to the map of Newfoundland and Labrador. She describes how the Eskimos would have painted the Labrador yellow with oil colors. The audience can also paint the nearby bays as if they are about to blossom. According to the speaker, the way the names are written on the seashore town and cities nearby mountains reveals the printer’s excitement while writing the name on those features.
The last stanza similarly describes the map of Norway and the Norwegian Sea. The speaker describes Norway as a hare running south in agitation while investigating the sea. She exclaims how the colors of the native waters or countries would have been picked. According to her, the map-makers are more delicate in choosing colors than the black-and-white historians, who sometimes take sides and fail to provide the real picture.
You can read the full poem here.
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?
Bishop’s poem ‘The Map’ begins with an image related to a topographical feature of the map. The speaker points at the map and shows how the land lies close to the water. It is shadowed in green. She becomes more precise in the next line and refers to the shadows sidelining the lands. She wonders what if there are shallows and the land does not really end there. There could be long coastal ledges in the actual location and the weeds hang from the land’s green upon the sea’s blue.
In the next four lines, the speaker goes on speculating about the region bordering the sea. She personifies the land and describes it as leaning down at the sea in order to lift it from under. It could be carefully drawing the seawater around itself. The speaker further speculates about the sandy seashores. According to her, the beaches could be tugging at the sea from under. She cannot travel to the actual locations presently, but she can travel to those places in her imagination.
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.
In the second stanza, the speaker points at the map of Newfoundland and Labrador. She describes how Newfoundland lies flat and still near the North Atlantic Ocean. Labrador seems to be painted in yellow oil color by the Eskimos of the north. Like them, the speaker thinks, readers can paint the bays around Newfoundland and Labrador in the vivid colors of the spring season. Then it would seem as if the region is about to blossom. We can also paint a clean cage in the water for the fish that cannot be traced on the map.
In the following lines, the speaker zooms out and focuses on the names of the towns and cities on the map. The names of the towns near the sea, run out to the sea. Similarly, the cities’ names run into, that of neighboring mountains. The speaker thinks the painter could be excited while writing the names on the map. His emotion could have exceeded its cause like the speaker, who by merely looking at the map travels directly to the locations in her imagination.
In the last two lines of this stanza, Bishop uses an incredible image. She depicts the peninsulas in the northwest of Canada as thumbs and fingers. It seems to the speaker as if the peninsulas are holding the water between the thumb and the finger as women do while inspecting the smoothness of yard goods. This simile can be well understood if one looks at the map, especially at the northwestern peninsulas of Canada.
Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.
In the last stanza, the speaker returns to the imagery of the land and sea depicted on the map. The mapped waters appear quieter than the land. It seems the waters shaped the land border in the way they wanted. This thought leads her to the map of Norway. Bishop personifies Norway and depicts it as a hare. It seems like the hare is running south, alarmed and frightened. It profiles and investigates the sea and then runs south.
In the following line, the speaker uses a rhetorical question in order to enquire how the colors of countries are assigned. She further asks what color best suits the character of the native waters. Through these questions, the speaker reveals her sense of awe at the skill of cartographers, who were precise at the use of colors on the map.
According to the speaker, the topography of some regions does not deal with the cartographer’s likes or dislikes. They depict the regions after a careful study of their geography. Thus, the North does not seem as near to the West as it should be. Unlike historians, who either take sides or paint human history in black and white, map-makers are delicate with the use of colors. Through this line, the poet reveals that she is fond of geography more than history.
Structure and Form
‘The Map’ consists of three stanzas. The first and last stanzas have eight lines each with the rhyme scheme of ABBACDDC. In the second stanza, there are a total of eleven lines with no regular rhyme scheme. This stanza is in free-verse. The overall poem is written from the third-person point of view with only one exception; lines three through five of the second stanza are written in first-person using the pronoun “We”. In this piece, Bishop uses her trademark precise diction and vivid imagery.
In ‘The Map,’ Bishop makes use of the following literary devices:
- Alliteration: The poem begins with an alliteration, “Land lies.” It also occurs in “line of long,” “land lean down to lift,” “sandy shelf,” “clean cage,” etc.
- Enjambment: It occurs across the text. Bishop cuts the lines short and makes readers go through a couple of lines altogether in order to complete the image. For instance, she uses this device in “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.”
- Rhetorical Question: In the first stanza, Bishop uses two semi-rhetorical questions: “Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,/ drawing it unperturbed around itself?”; “Along the fine tan shandy shelf/ is the land tugging at the sea from under?” She also uses this device in the fifth line of the last stanza: “Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?”
- Personification: In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker personifies the “weeds” and “land”. She invests the land with the idea of “tugging” at the sea. In the second stanza, the “peninsulas” are personified.
Elizabeth Bishop’s signature poem ‘The Map’ is about a speaker’s thoughtful meditation upon a map, the features depicted on it, and her awe at the skill of cartographers in the use of colors. Through this piece, the speaker blurs the boundary between the real and the imaginary.
The poem was written in the Christmas season of 1934. Bishop wrote the poem on New Year’s Eve at her New York apartment. This poem was published in her debut collection of poetry, North and South in 1946.
The main theme of the poem is the vast world within a limited map. Through this poem, the poet explores the power of imagination that helps her to transcend beyond the limited space of a map and hover over the real world.
Throughout this poem, Bishop uses precise and vivid images of the features depicted on a map. With the help of visual imagery filled with different colors, she paints the sea, land, and land-sea boundaries. She resorts to the map of different regions in order to describe how they appear in her imagination.
The following list contains a number of poems that tap on the themes present in Bishop’s poem ‘The Map.’ You can also explore more of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry like this piece.
- ‘The Map-Woman’ by Carol Ann Duffy — This poem explores the inescapability of identity through the metaphorical depiction of the female body.
- ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’ by Eavan Boland — This poem is about the nature of maps and how they cannot convey knowledge to someone who reads them.
- ‘The Plain Sense of Things’ by Wallace Stevens — This thoughtful poem is about the power of imagination and creativity.
- ‘The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled’ by Leontia Flynn — This piece describes how traveling impacts humans and all those they meet.
You can also read these incredible poems about nature.