Places: North and South

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1946

Type of work: Poetry

Places DiscussedMap

Map. North and SouthAppropriately enough, the explorations of North and South begin with an examination of a map. In “The Map,” the first poem of the collection, the speaker examines a map of the North Atlantic area. The map is tangible evidence to her of the riddles of human perception, whereby she sees real things as if they were symbolic and–more important in the poem–understands symbols as if they were real. The poem begins with a question of perception: How can the map, which is flat, represent something as three-dimensional as land and ocean? The second stanza offers examples of how the speaker (and, by implication, anyone) can translate the abstractions of a map into the vivid, sensual perceptions to which her understanding is attached. The speaker imagines peninsulas as women’s fingers, feeling the water between them as women’s fingers would feel cloth. In her imagination, the lines on the paper are like women’s fingers. This simile is presented simply as the means by which people make symbols understandable. This poem argues one of Bishop’s central themes about place–people understand it only as much as they experience it with their senses.


Paris. Capital of France and ostensible setting of Bishop’s poem titled “Paris, 7 a.m.” Its speaker draws general conclusions from the immediate particulars of her environment, as she wanders from room to room setting clocks in an apartment. She looks out a window and sees a courtyard and pigeons. She notes the details of her apartment building–ornamental urns, mansard roof, a slice of sky, and gray and yellow stones. This is framed by the rectangle of the window. Using these details as the starting place of an imaginative association game, she strives to understand her own place in this city. By recognizing what these details make her think of, she comes to understand how she is feeling.

In poetry, when something tangible and outside the speaker is implicitly compared with the thoughts and moods within the speaker, it is called an objective correlative. In this poem, the clocks are an example. The speaker calls them “histrionic,” which a clock cannot be but a person can be. Throughout the poem, the imagery implies disorientation and vulnerability and thus that the speaker is feeling disoriented and vulnerable.

The solidly built apartment building, for example, is made of a light-colored stone. The stone reminds her, because of its color, of something fragile, ephemeral, and gone–the snow forts and snowballs of her youth. Bishop is making a sly allusion to one of the most common themes of poetry, one that is usually cited by asking a question: “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” (This question comes from a French poem, so her allusion to it in a poem set in Paris is quite apt.) The answer to the question is that they are gone. The speaker, looking out the window while worried about time (she is setting clocks), considers how time will quickly erase even something as seemingly solid as the stones of her apartment. She is reminded of how fragile and ephemeral all things are, including herself. From the particulars of a place and time she discovers not only a general truth but the particular truth that underlies her experience of that place and time.

BibliographyHarrison, Victoria. Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Intimacy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Studies the evolution of Bishop’s poems as vehicles for expression. Chapter 2 discusses intimacy and romance. Chapter 3 emphasizes the effect of events, particularly World War II, on Bishop’s imagination. Extensive notes, bibliography, index.Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989. The probing study of Bishop’s complex friendship with Marianne Moore coincides with the making of the poems of North and South. Notes, index.Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Studies the wishful nature of North and South–the anxiousness behind her poems, as well as Bishop’s readiness to look outside herself for subjects. Notes, index.Stevenson, Anne. Elizabeth Bishop. Boston: Twayne, 1966. The best starting point to study Bishop’s life and work. Outlines the period relevant to North and South and examines several poems. Helpful primary and secondary bibliographies, notes, and index.Travisano, Thomas. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. Relates North and South to two phases in Bishop’s work–“enclosure” and “history.” Detailed but understandable interpretations of many poems. Illuminating explanation of Bishop’s interest in Surrealism and the Baroque. Notes, primary and secondary bibliographies, and index.
Categories: Places