E Elizabeth Bishop

The Mountain by Elizabeth Bishop

‘The Mountain’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a poem portraying the transience of nature and life from the viewpoint of a personified mountain.

The Mountain by Elizabeth Bishop Visual Representation

‘The Mountain’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a metaphysical poem expressing the anxiety of a personified mountain. The mountain tries to gauge its age by observing transient happenings around it. However, its attempts eventually fail as its perception dulls. The poem is a conceit for the inevitable aging process in man. Bishop uses enjambment and punctuation throughout the poem to influence the speaker’s tone and create impact.

The Mountain by Elizabeth Bishop


Summary

‘The Mountain’ by Elizabeth Bishop tells of the impermanence of nature’s and human existence from a personified mountain’s point of view.

At the beginning of the poem, the mountain narrates how it’s formed. It goes on to observe natural occurrences like itself, but soon faces difficulty in understanding them. As the poem progresses, our persona reveals the transience of these happenings to be the reason it can’t understand them, seeing as it remains while they come and go. The mountain soon loses track of time and begins to wonder how old it is. On voicing its concerns and receiving no response, its frustration explodes in the final stanza, where the mountain dismisses elements of nature it once observed.

You can read the full poem here.

Speaker

The speaker is the mountain itself. It watches people and other elements of nature come and go while asking about its age and receiving no answer.

Structure and Form

The Mountain’ consists of nine quatrains, each having no rhyme scheme or regular meter. A heavy use of enjambment, alongside two refrains alternatively serving as the last lines for each quatrain, is noted throughout the poem. Every stanza spots one or more punctuation marks, ending with a full stop.

Themes

The relevance of time is the central theme of ‘The Mountain’. Other themes like death, aging and the impermanence of life are all relative to time. The mountain’s questions returning unanswered highlight the theme of loneliness. It’s asking about its age can be interpreted as the fear of death, another evident theme in the poem.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

At evening, something behind me.

I start for a second, I blench,

or staggeringly halt and burn.

I do not know my age.

The poem opens with the mountain describing how it came to be. The sibilant “s” contrasting with the plosive “b” in this stanza generate audiovisual imagery associated with the formation of a mountain. The hiss and burn sounds refer to tectonic movements underneath the earth, which give rise to the mountain. As the entire poem is a metaphor, this stanza also refers to the birth of an individual or the beginning of any process. The first refrain appears as the last line here. The mountain, in a passive tone, states it doesn’t know its age.

Stanza Two

In the morning it is different.

(…)

Tell me how old I am.

This stanza reveals the mountain’s readiness to observe elements of nature before it. “Open book” is a metaphor for the landscape or the natural scenery typically surrounding a mountain. The persona’s desire to comprehend this scenery is an extended metaphor for a newborn’s eagerness to explore the world around it. However, the mountain is unable to easily do so because it is part of nature, the subject it tries to understand. This is an extended metaphor for one’s inability to comprehend an issue if one is too close to it. With the second refrain, the mountain is no more passive. It’s curious to know how old it is.

Stanza Three

And then the valleys stuff

(…)

I do not know my age.

Stanza three notes the first signs of the mountain’s aging: the gradual loss of vision. This is a result of the mountain’s attempt to observe the land form closest to it: the valleys. It’s a literal case of “the more you look, the less you see,” with the mountain. However, this aging shows the passage of time, even if the persona cannot gauge how much time has passed. At this point, the speaker’s curiosity morphs into anxiety when it restates it doesn’t know its age.

Stanza Four

I do not mean to complain.

(…)

Tell me how old I am.

Stanza four highlights the loneliness of the speaker. The mountain says “they” blame it for “their” not being able to speak to it. Again, we note another unnamed persona in the poem: “they” and “nobody”. With reference to previous stanzas, both pronouns represent the land forms and other natural elements the mountain observes. These personified entities not being able to speak to the mountain can be traced back to the height of the mountain. The mountain is so high above other land forms that they can’t reach it to say anything, even if they wanted to. Hence, the mountain is left in solitude.

Stanza Five

The deepest demarcation

(…)

I do not know my age.

“Demarcation” in this stanza has its literal and figurative meaning, both still highlighting the transience of everything the speaker views. The literal meaning refers to physical boundaries humans set up between states, countries, and the like. The mountain saying it will all fall one day attests to the length of time it’s been around, watching boundaries rise and fall. The figurative meaning is the boundary between life and death, once again reminding readers the aging process and death is as certain as the sinking of any boundary.

Stanza Six

Shadows fall down; lights climb.

(…)

Tell me how old I am.

This stanza uses the transience of more natural phenomena—the rising and setting of the sun and the growth and death of humans—to indicate the passage of time. In turn, this builds on the speaker’s anxiety. The change is apparent in the mountain’s tone when it demands to know how old it is. At this point, its anxiety can be interpreted as the fear of becoming transient like the things around him, or even more lonely from watching others fade away while it remains.

Stanza Seven

Stone wings have sifted here

(…)

I do not know my age.

This stanza explores the theme of death. From the description of “stone wings” to “claws” being “lost somewhere”, vivid imagery of fossils left on the mountain appears. The length of time it takes fossils to form attests to the continuous aging of the mountain. On a larger scale, the death of birds represents the end of any life.

Stanza Eight

I am growing deaf. Bird-calls

(…)

Tell me how old I am.

To show that the mountain may not be as permanent as it’s portrayed to be, it gradually loses yet another sensory function: hearing. This heightens the anxiety of the mountain as it inches towards its end. For the first time, the speaker asks—not demands— “What is my age?” It hints at the mountain’s desperation to find answers and its obsession over its age. This stanza is a conceit for a person’s need to know the day or time as they age.

Stanza Nine

Let the moon go hang,

the stars go fly their kites.

I want to know my age.

Tell me how old I am.

This stanza highlights the fury and frustration of the aged mountain. It dismisses the natural elements it once observed, now entirely obsessed with its age. Stanza nine, and the entire poem, ends on an angry note as the speaker’s demand remains unattended to.

Literary Devices

  • Personification: Considering the persona in the poem is personified, this is the dominant device in ‘The Mountain‘. The mountain is given the human attributes of speaking throughout the poem and moving in stanza 1. It’s depicted to have sense organs which lose function with time. Other examples of personification appear in stanza 2, line 2 (“An open book confronts me”), stanza 3 lines 3 and 4 (“…the valleys stuff/impenetrable mists”), stanza 6 line 1 (“Shadows fall down; lights climb”) and stanza 9 line 2 (“the stars go fly their kites”).
  • Repetition: The poem uses these refrains, “I do not know my age” and “Tell me how old I am” alternatively. Both lines underscore the mountain’s desperation to know how long it’s been on earth. They also emphasize the central theme of the poem: everything comes and goes with time.
  • Metaphor: There are clear examples of metaphor like “open book” in stanza 2 line 2, which represents the land before the mountain. However, the entire poem is an implied metaphor representing the impermanence of human existence, amongst other natural occurrences. From the formation of the mountain to the observation of nature’s elements as it ages, Bishop tells of how everything eventually comes to an end.
  • Simile: Simile appears in stanza 3 line 3 (“like cotton in my ears”) and stanza 5 line 3 (“like any blurred tattoo”). The first reveals the dulling senses of the mountain. The second portrays the ephemeral nature of events the mountain witnesses.
  • Synecdoche: This is prevalent in stanza 7, where “claws’, “wings” and “feathers” represent birds, and on a larger scale, life when it ends.
  • Oxymoron: Oxymoron appears in stanza 1 line 3, where the words “staggeringly” and “halt” are placed side by side.
  • Apostrophe: In stanza 6 lines 2 and 3, the mountain addresses “children” who aren’t present.


About Elizabeth

Born in February 8, 1911, Elizabeth Bishop is the 1956 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry. She adjusted to a nomadic lifestyle quite early, due to her father’s death when she was only eight months old and her mentally ill mother’s confinement. Bishop had to live with different relatives in different places, up until she attended Vassar College in 1929. Added to the various places Bishop had traveled before and after attending Vassar, poet Marianne Moore greatly influenced most of her works.

Bishop took care never to get personal in her writing, unlike Robert Lowell, a poet she influenced. She also desired to be judged based on her work, not her sexual orientation or gender. As a result, she refused to be published in any all-female anthologies, despite being female and lesbian.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote and published many poetry collections and short stories in her time. She also taught at a number of renowned universities (including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). She died of a cerebral aneurysm on October 6, 1979.

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The Mountain by Elizabeth Bishop Visual Representation
About
Anastasia Ifinedo is an officially published poet. You can find her poems in the anthologies, "Mrs Latimer Had A Fat Cat" by Cozy Cat Press and "The Little is Much" by Earnest Writes Community, among others. A former poet for the Invincible Quill Magazine and a reviewer of poems on several writing platforms, she has helped—and continues to help—many poets like her hone their craft.
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