Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
But when the Man-Moth
pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface,
the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges
- Finally, we get to the Man-Moth. The speaker has shifted from a wide-angle view of the city and swooped in on this strange creature. How close can we get?
- First, the speaker says that the Man-Moth's visits to the surface are rare, but then she says that they are occasional, so which is it? Once again, we may be looking at a generational difference in language. We would use the word "occasional" to mean infrequent, but regular enough that no one suffers from coronary issues when it does happen. However, Bishop may be using the word "occasional" to mean that it happens on specific occasions, like Christmas.
- Santa's visits can certainly qualify as rare since he only bothers to come over and eat our cookies and drink our milk once a year (and who could really blame him when we make him come down the chimney instead of allowing him to use the front door?), but his visits are certainly occasional because he shows up on the occasion of Christmas day. The Man-Moth, then, shows up rarely, but his visits are always for a specific event.
- Line 3 gives us the connection between the first and the second stanzas: the moon. Whereas the moon was just meaningless light to Man, the Man-Moth sees it as something completely different.
from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks
and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings.
- The Man-Moth comes from beneath the city sidewalks and starts climbing buildings like it's his job. Though, if it is his job, it must be his first day because he's a little nervous about it.
- "An opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks" paints an interesting picture. What other structures might crop up from under the sidewalks in the city?
- The phrase "scale the faces" is also an interesting one. It seems pretty straightforward, but if we recall the mention of thermometers in the first stanza, perhaps we could understand this to mean that the Man-Moth is weighing the reactions of others to his appearance there as if he's just walked into a party. Are people staring at him? Laughing at him? Wondering who invited the weirdo to the cool kid party? Is there toilet paper stuck to his shoe? The Man-Moth is clearly a very self-conscious fellow.
He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,
proving the sky quite useless for protection.
- Instead of knowing that the moon is a giant hunk of rock that reflects the sun's light back to Earth at night, the Man-Moth believes that the moon is a hole in the sky that allows light to leak through from somewhere beyond. This belief probably makes perfect sense if you're a moth.
- This idea of a hole in the sky may also be a very concrete symbol of heaven. Bishop was something of a religious skeptic, but she was also fascinated with spiritual and religious ideas. She often liked to analyze these ideas in her poems. Being an agnostic, her explorations often led to more questions than answers, but that's probably part of the job description for an agnostic poet anyway.
- With a hole at the very top, the sky would most certainly make a terrible umbrella.
- This may be another reference to religion as well. If God watches over Man (and Man-Moth) from the sky, then there is nowhere to hide.
He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb.
- The Man-Moth is frightened of the task that lay ahead of him, but he must complete it nonetheless, because it is what he is called to do.
- The word "must" is a key element in this line and throughout the poem. He doesn't "want" to do it, he absolutely "must" do it. He is compelled by his very nature to investigate whether he wants to or not. The Man-Moth is to flying up to the hole in the sky as a zombie is to brains.
- Just as a regular moth is drawn to the flame, the Man-Moth is drawn to the moon. This compulsion of his can be considered in several different ways.
- Maybe the Man-Moth is just a very moth-y kind of guy, and he's attracted to the light of the moon. This simple explanation of the line definitely makes sense, but it's pretty dull, don't you think? It's also really hard to imagine that Bishop would be that shallow when crafting this poem.
- If we go with the religious idea, then perhaps the speaker is discussing how Man, while often investing in a spiritual faith, is prone to seeking empirical evidence to back up that faith. Thus, the Man-Moth, believing that heaven is on the other side of that hole, must see it for himself before he can be completely satisfied.
- Another way to interpret this is that our Man-Moth is a dreamer—an artist, a writer, a circus performer, a ninja, a man who raises rare breeds of chickens in the hopes of winning some obscure Most Beautiful Chicken award... you get our drift. Whatever his art or desire, he must fulfill his need to create or reach his goal. He's not only driven, his goal defines him. He is nothing without his chickens, and he will continue to strive for the Most Beautiful Chicken award until the day he dies. Of course, chickens eat moths, but that's neither here nor there.
- Either way we look at it, the Man-Moth becomes the central character in an allegory that begins to unfold as the poem continues.