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The Man-Moth

The Man-Moth

by Elizabeth Bishop

Stanza 4 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 25-28

Then he returns
to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits,
he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains
fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly.

  • Now we see the Man-Moth returning to where he's the most comfortable. His fear has largely disappeared (except for a low level of constant paranoia because, let's face it, moths are really twitchy even on a good night), and he's in his element.
  • Aha. That opening in the sidewalk in line 12 must have been a subway entrance.
  • Beyond the meaning of the words, these lines are quite musical. The beginning sounds of "subways, "cement," "silent," and "suit" combine with the ending sounds of "calls," "flits," "flutters," and "trains" to create a hissing consonance. Do you think Bishop created this particular sound here for a reason? We talk about this in our "Sound Check" section, so check that out for more.
  • These three lines alone are like a poetic device party because along with the consonance—"flits" and "flutters"—are also onomatopoeias (yeah, we had to look up how to spell that too). 
  • See, we said moths are twitchy, and here he is flitting and fluttering around like a twitchy little, well, moth. 
  • He can't get aboard fast enough because he was scared before, and he's rushing for comfort. It's like walking through a dark room because the light switch is on the other side—no matter how logical we may be, our brains are conjuring up all kinds of spooky things and monsters, so we walk faster and faster until we flip the switch in a controlled panic and laugh at just how silly we are once we're back in the light. At least, we hope everyone does that…

Lines 29-32

The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way
and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,
without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort.
He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.

  • This is where things start to get really weird. The Man-Moth always sits in a subway seat that faces in the opposite direction that he will be traveling in. 
  • The speaker fully expects that we'll be scratching our heads and asking, "why?" about those last few lines. 
  • He sits backward because he can't tell how fast he is going when he faces that way. 
  • It seems that, though the Man-Moth has dreams and is determined to reach his goals, he's still prone to feeling overwhelmed by how fast the world moves around him. 
  • Speed is relative. If the Man-Moth can't feel how quickly he's moving backward, then he also can't feel just how slowly he may be moving forward. In other words, the Man-Moth can't tell that he's making no real progress toward his goal. 
  • His ignorance is conscious and self-inflicted since he chooses to sit this way. It seems that the Man-Moth is perfectly aware that he's not making any headway, but if he neglects to acknowledge this truth, he can continue his attempts without being weighed down by any doubts that a lack of progress may create. 
  • This behavior sounds a lot like what Man might do, doesn't it? Maybe the Man-Moth is really just a man after all. He's more like a man in a moth-themed super-suit than a whole new creature.

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