Questions of Travel
by Elizabeth Bishop
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
- The poem begins with an unnamed speaker telling us that there are too many waterfalls "here." Okay, speaker, we can't read your mind. Where is this "here"? Where are you?
- Spoiler alert: the speaker is never actually going to tell us where she is exactly. Or even who she is, exactly. Or even if the speaker is a "she" at all. We have a nameless, faceless speaker speaking to us from the void. Revel in the mystery.
- Luckily, we at Shmoop have done our research, so we'll let you in on some context. Bishop tended to write autobiographical-ish poems. She was a world traveller, and she wrote "Questions of Travel" while living in Brazil. So, we're going to go ahead and make some educated guesses. The speaker is Bishop-ish. She's a woman. And, she's speaking to us from Brazil, a country known, among many other things, for its beautiful waterfalls.
- Okay, back to the poem. So there's a hint of something not so great going on in the first lines. There are "too many" waterfalls. The streams are "crowded." They "hurry too rapidly" to the sea. The speaker sounds overwhelmed by the sight of the waterfalls. It's like she can't take it all in. The setting is too powerful. Maybe even dangerous.
- The speaker continues this sentiment of "too much-ness" in the next line. There are "so many clouds" that presumably form rain, which forms streams, which turn into waterfalls. Everything is connected in this world, but for the speaker, it's excessive. She doesn't come out and say it, but it seems like she feels small compared to everything around her.
- Take a close look at Bishop's language in these first couple of lines—it's filled with S sounds, especially in line 4 (in words like "spill," "sides," "soft," "slow"). This repetition of consonants at the beginning of words is called alliteration. And when those sounds that get repeated are S sounds, it's called sibilance.
- The alliteration in line 4 seems pretty evocative to us. When we read the poem out loud, all of the S repetitions sound like the streaming waterfall itself! Neat trick, right? It's like the poem is actually becoming the thing that it's about. Something just a tiny bit magical is going on.
- And one more thing: our speaker is not alone. (Cue the scary music. Well, not really.) In line 5, the speaker references "our eyes," so we know she's not looking at these waterfalls alone. She's with someone else.
- This someone is actually the addressee of the poem. The addressee is the person to whom the poem is addressed. (See, we told you poetry was easy.)
- Like the speaker, the addressee of the poem is unspecified. (Though, we're going to take a guess—the addressee might be based on Bishop's partner Lota de Macedo Soares.)
—For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
The mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
Slime-hung and barnacled.
- Okay, time to put on your metaphor hat. (We recommend a fedora.) Bishop is suddenly talking about "tearstains." Where did these come from? Who is crying all of a sudden?
- Well, probably, no one. The speaker is using "those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains" to refer to the streams of the earlier lines of the poem. But it's important that she's using such a sad metaphor for the streams; this tells us that our speaker is not a happy camper.
- Then our speaker has to go and get all confusing on us. She talks about the streams, and how they actually are not waterfalls yet. "In a quick age or so," she tells us, "they probably will be." This is pretty weird. When the poem started, it almost felt like we were with the speaker and the addressee, looking at some waterfalls. Now, it feels like she's looking at streams, imagining the waterfalls that the streams will eventually become. Confused? We are too. The speaker is jumping around in her imagination a bit, and we've got to hold on for a slightly wild ride.
- Still got that metaphor hat on? Take it off. Replace it with a simile hat. (Perhaps a beret.) The speaker says that if the streams and clouds keep travelling, they make the mountains "look like the hulls of capsized ships, / slime-hung and barnacled."
- Are you thinking of the Titanic? Because Shmoop totally is.
- The speaker imagines that if all of the water keeps flowing, soon the whole world—even the mountains—will be underwater.
- And the mountains will look like sunken shipwrecks on the bottom of the ocean. They'll be slimy. Barnacles will grow on them. We'll all be underwater. We'll have to turn to Kevin Costner for advice.
- So, to sum up this first stanza. The speaker is having a pretty weird fantasy that the waterfalls etc. will take over the world and we'll all be submerged. Awesome, Liz. Thanks for lifting our spirits.