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Questions of Travel

Questions of Travel


by Elizabeth Bishop

Stanza 2 Summary

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

Lines 13-17

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theaters?

  • Let's get one thing straight: if the waterfalls do actually submerge the mountains, well, we think we can answer this first question. Maybe you should have stayed at home, speaker. No one likes to be drowned. 
  • But since the submerging only happened in her imagination, we have to take these questions a little more seriously. 
  • These questions are called rhetorical questions. We're not expected to answer them quickly; we're meant to ponder over them. These questions are meant to push us towards a more careful consideration of our traveling goals. "Questions of Travel," is, in fact, filled with these Big Questions.
  • Would it have been better for the speaker and the addressee to have skipped the sightseeing? Should they be at home snuggled under the covers? Is thinking about all these things—imagining them—somehow better than doing? 
  • She makes another metaphor—it's like she and the addressee are watching a play. They're tourists and they're imagining the non-tourists—the locals—going about their lives as if they're actors in a play, performing for the speaker's enjoyment. Somehow, the strangers' lives don't seem real to the speaker. She's not one of 'em. 
  • Perhaps the speaker is experiencing some guilt or embarrassment, or even self-reproach (or hatred). She feels guilty that she's out enjoying her trip to the waterfalls while people are living their daily lives—going to work, doing the dishes, cleaning up after the dog. You get it.

Lines 18-25

What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always, delightful?

  • More tough questions here. She calls our urge to explore "childish." Usually, we think of a passion for travel and adventure to be a good thing, but the speaker does the opposite. 
  • Why do we care so much about seeing the other side of the world? she asks. Why do we care about seeing the world's smallest hummingbird? Isn't this desire a bit immature? Kind of silly?
  • But the speaker doesn't say that she's any better than the rest of us. In fact, she subtly implicates herself in these childish desires. 
  • Here's how this goes down. First, the speaker brings up "inexplicable old stonework," the type of stuff that tourists would want to see when visiting another country. 
  • Then, she repeats herself in the next line; she calls the stonework "inexplicable and impenetrable." It's like she's trying really hard to convince us that we can't get anything of the experience of seeing the stonework. It's doubly "inexplicable." 
  • But here's the kicker: she says that the old stonework is "always, always, delightful." 
  • A ha! So, now we know why we want to travel around the world to see old stonework and tiny hummingbirds—they're delightful! Actually, they're extra delightful; they're "always, always, delightful." These little things make us happy, and thus we travel the world to see them. 
  • At the same time that she's criticizing the traveller's desire, then, she's making herself complicit in it. 
  • This means that the speaker realizes that she herself is doing what she dislikes. She is being a childish, silly tourist too. There's no escaping the plight of the silly tourist. No one can resist the delights of stonework or a tiny green hummingbird—even if they don't actually get any deeper meaning from it.

Lines 26-29

Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

  • Thanks, speaker, for posing more deep and unanswerable questions. 
  • In lines 26-27, she asks if we must make our dreams come true. Isn't it enough to dream of waterfalls? Why do we have to go traipsing all over the globe to see them as well? 
  • But then in lines 28-29, she completely undercuts her earlier sentiment. She wants to know if we have room for one more sunset. And it's not just any sunset. It's the warmest, most comforting sunset ever—it's a "folded sunset, still quite warm." A sunset like freshly baked cookies, right out of the oven.
  • Okay, so two lines earlier, the speaker seemed to suggest that it's better to stay at home and dream of travel and adventure. But now the speaker seems to be saying that you need to go out and experience that folded warm sunset for yourself. She wants to be able to take it all in. 
  • Or is she actually saying that she has seen too many sunsets? That she's saying: Ugh, another sunset? Enough already! I have seen too many beautiful sunsets! Why go all that way just to see one more?
  • You might feel like the speaker is jerking you around a bit. It's like she's saying: don't travel. No, go out and travel! Wait, don't travel. No, just kidding, get out there and see the world. 
  • If you feel a bit confused, that's great. That's exactly how you're supposed to be feeling. The speaker is having an argument with herself. She keeps changing her mind as she thinks through her complicated ideas.

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