Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Each night he must
be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams.
- Every night, the Man-Moth rides the subway and has the same dreams over and over.
- Bishop chooses her words very carefully for these lines. She doesn't just say "subway," she says "artificial tunnels," which leads us to believe that she's probably not talking about the subway at all really.
- Just as the façades of the buildings may refer to the masks that people wear, the artificial tunnels may be referring to his own mask and how he must fake normalcy in an effort to fit in peacefully with those around him. We can probably catch the Man-Moth laughing at jokes that he doesn't really find very funny so his neighbors like him, or going to a job that he hates because his mother always wanted a lawyer in the family. All of the people around him think that artists are weird, and the Man-Moth will agree, "Yes, yes, they're so very weird. Hahaha." just to stop people from asking awkward questions.
- Boy, this sure reminds us of another group of people who might need to avoid questions, doesn't it? As a young gay woman in 1936, Bishop would have, no doubt, been struggling with her identity and being accepted by those around her. She may have been forced to behave as a straight woman in certain situations to avoid attention or ridicule, and this could create a feeling of artificiality as she travels through her daily, public life.
- What might the Man-Moth's recurrent dreams look like? They are probably full of light and happiness that he can only find on the other side of that hole in the sky. In a nutshell, he dreams of success.
Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie
his rushing brain. He does not dare look out the window,
- Railroad ties occur regularly and provide a foundation for the tracks. And, just like the railroad ties, the Man-Moth's dreams occur regularly and provide the foundation for his waking life. Everything about the Man-Moth is supported by his dreams, and without them he would be as lifeless and dull as the husks of moths we find collected in the glass globe of an outdoor light.
- The Man-Moth feels that his artistic nature defines him, and without that foundation, he would fall apart or, worse, not exist at all.
- Those in the majority can move about their day to day lives without thinking much about what color their skin may be or who they may be sexually attracted to. However, because of the heavy oppression that minorities feel, they are forced to think about what sets them apart on a constant basis. Little things that seem completely benign to some people can remind others of how society makes them feel inferior, and the constant reminder can make them feel as if that's the biggest part of their identity since it's what is always foremost in their minds.
- Bishop may have felt this way about being a woman and being a woman who is attracted to other women. Believe it or not, professional poetry (and literature in general) is a male-dominated field, and this was even truer in the 1930s. Bishop refused to be included in anthologies or functions designed to group female writers in any way because she believed that separating the men from the women only highlighted the differences and kept women from being respected as equals. She was also quite adamant about keeping her personal affairs out of the public eye. While she managed to avoid the labels, these aspects are still after her death defining parts of her identity on a personal level because she had to struggle with them her whole life. This is her foundation, just like the railroad ties, and it flavors everything she thought and did, just like the Man-Moth.
- By the way, did you catch the rhyme? "Train" and "brain" are not only a perfect rhyme, but they also make an internal rhyme.
for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison,
runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease
- The Man-Moth stares straight ahead and not out the window because he knows that the third rail, and the dangers it represents, is out there, running beside the train.
- These lines let us know that the Man-Moth is not completely oblivious to the world around him. He knows that failure, ridicule, and even death are all inevitable parts of his life, but he pretends not to notice them because acknowledging these negative things may upset the delicate balance of hope and determination that he has developed so far. He's perfectly aware that he may not win, but maybe not dwelling on failure will prevent it from happening.
- The Man-Moth's poison is doubt. More often than not, poison is slow-acting, giving the victim time to understand that something is very, very wrong before finally keeling over in a slump with one melodramatic hand to their forehead. Okay, maybe that's just soap operas and characters in Hamlet. The point we're making here is that the Man-Moth wouldn't succumb to his poison right away; it would build up slowly in his system instead, slowly eating away at his confidence and resolve until he finally gave up. The real problem is that, since the Man-Moth's identity is so wrapped up in his goals, he may just die if he stopped trying.
he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep
his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.
- The Man-Moth believes that he is particularly prone to the problems that the third rail represents, because he has been genetically disposed to it. Because of this, he has to keep his hands pinned down into his pockets to resist the urge to touch the third rail. He is insulated from the danger just like people are insulated from the cold when they wear scarves.
- The word "muffler" is a British term for scarf. Bishop's writing is peppered with interesting words that she picked up from her vast travels around the world.
- This line tells us a lot about the Man-Moth. He believes that he is always doomed to struggle with the threat of failure. In fact, he is more likely to fail than the average person because he has a genetic condition that makes him more vulnerable than everyone else. At least that's what he believes. It sounds like our Man-Moth may have a difficult time accepting responsibility for his failures.
- Bishop isn't one to talk about herself much, but we can't help wondering if these lines might be strongly autobiographical.
- When she first started at Vassar, she wanted to study music. In fact, she was a very talented pianist and composer. Unfortunately, she developed severe performance anxiety, so she gave up on that dream and decided to study English instead. This was lucky for the literary world, but it had to have been a disappointment for her on a personal level.
- It's also entirely possible that this extreme anxiety issue was inherited from her mother, who was permanently placed in a mental institution when Bishop was a child, and died there without ever seeing her daughter again—just two years before Bishop wrote this poem.
- All of these things were probably still quite fresh in her mind. To make matters worse, she decided to study medicine in graduate school and had even registered for classes when her very good friend and fellow poet, Marianne Moore, convinced her to remain in the English department and focus on her poetry instead. Was she worried that she wouldn't succeed in this field either because of the anxiety that kept her from becoming a musician? Was her genetic history of mental illness something that haunted her? Did these worries spill out into this poem? What do you think, Shmoopers?