Questions of Travel
by Elizabeth Bishop
Stanza 3 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
- Now, the speaker begins to list all of the reasons why traveling is good. She describes the scenery of her current moment. The trees are "exaggerated in their beauty"; they're overly beautiful. Sounds like reason enough to get out of the house.
- Then the speaker personifies the trees through another simile, and gives them human attributes. The trees are like pantomimists (also known as mimes); they're like actors who don't speak, but instead communicate through movement and gestures.
- The speaker imagines that it would have been a shame to miss this spectacle of beautiful, gesturing trees.
- Here, excess, or exaggeration, or too much-ness is a good thing, whereas in the beginning of the poem, the excess of water was not good. Something seems to be shifting in the speaker's mind.
—Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
- The first thing to note about these lines is that they begin with a dash. Kind of weird, right? What's that all about? Well, our speaker is making her poem into a list, and each section of the list will begin with a dash. This is a pretty unique move on Bishop's part.
- So, now to the content of this list. The speaker tells us that one of the best things she's seen on her travels (or heard, rather) is the sound of clogs. And not just any clogs: the sound of two "disparate"—or different—clogs on the same person, each of which makes a slightly different sound.
- The sound is "two-noted," and she hears this sound as the wearer of the clogs clacks across the dirty floor of a filling-station (also known as a gas station).
- This is incredibly specific. The two-noted clogs are such a tiny detail; they're not something you could see just anywhere (like, say, a waterfall or a mountain).
- This is the kind of thing Bishop is known for as a poet—this insane level of detail regarding the tiniest things. Early in the poem, we were dealing with clouds, streams, waterfalls. Now, we're down to the slightly different sounds of two clogs on a gas station floor.
- The speaker is drawn to the little things she's seen on her travels—not the big things like the threatening waterfalls.
- We then find out, in a humorous parenthetical aside, that clogs are especially unique. The speaker imagines that in another country (maybe Holland—they're known for their clogs), the clogs would be uniformly made and tested. Each clog would make the same sound as all of the other clogs.
- That means that these disparate clogs are indeed special.
—A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above a broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
- The list continues. The speaker tells us that it would also have been a pity to have missed out on the music of the gas station's brown bird.
- The speaker describes the bird's cage as a church in the baroque style. Baroque was a seventeenth century style of crazily ornate architecture. When the word is used as an un-capitalized adjective, it's usually a synonym for "ornate" or "ridiculously fancy with lots of curlicues." In other words, think of one of those super old, super awesome bird cages, like this one.
- The speaker says that the bird is "less primitive" than the sound of the clogs, which is her way of telling us that this is one special bird.
- In this experience, then, the speaker takes in both high and low culture at the gas station. It's a strange mix that you probably couldn't find anywhere else.
- And yes, there's also the fact that the speaker is admiring a cage. Is it possible that she somehow feels trapped and caged? What does she seem trapped by? Does it matter that the cage is fancy? It's up for debate.
- Also, take one more quick look at lines 42 and 43. Read them out loud and you'll see that they rhyme. What's up with that? This is a non-rhyming poem, isn't it?
- If a poet (i.e. Ms. Bishop) decides to rhyme lines in a non-rhyming poem, she probably has a pretty good reason for doing so. So why rhyme "heard" and "bird"? Well, this rhyme makes us feel like we are hearing that fat brown bird, like we are actually with the speaker at the gas station. The rhyme approximates the bird's music, and transports us to the scene.
- Plus, this rhyme echoes other repetitions in the poem—of sounds, of words. Bishop may be writing a rhyme-free, free verse poem, but she's definitely putting to use some handy tricks of the poetic trade. So make sure you keep an eye out for more repeated words and sounds.
—Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr'dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
—Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
- And, the list continues. The speaker is now bringing together the imagery of the wooden clogs and that of the ornate bird cage. And she does so to answer some of those Big Questions she had posed earlier in the poem.
- Part of the pleasure of her travels, she tells us, has been in making connections between disparate things—the simple clogs and the baroque bird cage. These connections, she tells us, are greater than any of us. They have existed for centuries. Yep, centuries.
- Our speaker is getting all contemplative on us. Okay, she has always been contemplative.
- The difference is that now she's taking her time with her descriptions. She gives us tons of detail. The cage is not just "baroque;" it's "whittled," "careful," and "finicky." This description creates a pretty intense vision in our minds. This is one awesome bird cage.
- The speaker understands history from looking at the bird cage, too. She compares the lines of the cage to "calligraphy"—to ornate writing. It's almost like she reads the bird cage to learn about history. This thing has a story to tell—and it's a story she can only read while traveling.
- Seriously, try imagining a really ornate bird cage in your brain. It doesn't work right. You need to see it.
—And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:
- Here, the tone seems to shift a bit. Earlier, the speaker was all gung-ho, listing all of the great things she's seen and experienced and thought about in her travels.
- But now she speaks of "hav[ing] had to listen to rain." It sounds, all of a sudden, like she's being forced to have these experiences. She must listen. It sounds like an obligation, rather than a pleasure.
- She then makes a simile and compares the rain to politician's speeches, which are "unrelenting"—they never stop. Sheesh. This is getting worse and worse. These are not good, Gettysburg address-style speeches. These are painful, excruciating speeches.
- But then, once the rain is up, there is a "sudden golden silence." The speaker has shifted her thoughts yet again. The rain was bad, but now the golden silence is awesome.
- Uh, okay. We can roll with that. Maybe she means that the silence after a rainstorm is all the sweeter because that rain was so stinkin' loud. Without the rain, the silence would just be plain old silence. But post-rain, it's golden.
- Then, the speaker does something weird. She mentions a traveller, and this traveller picks up a notebook and starts writing.
- Just who is this traveller? Cliffhanger 'til the next stanza! Hang in there, Shmoopers.