Questions of Travel
by Elizabeth Bishop
Stanza 4 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?
- There are a couple of things to note before we dive into this stanza. First, it's all italicized, and it's all in quotation marks. This, plus the end of the previous stanza make us think that these lines are what the "traveller" is writing in her notebook. Seems pretty straightforward.
- Why does Bishop set these lines apart (via italics and quotation marks)? Usually when there's a shift like this in poetry, it's to let us know that something strange is going on. It's not the exact same voice as the rest of the poem.
- The next thing that you're probably wondering about is Pascal. Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher: your basic old-guy genius. He famously wrote that "the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room" (source). That makes lines 62-63 a bit clearer, right?
- Okay, back to the poem. All of a sudden we have this mysterious traveler, writing in her notebook. What happened to the speaker? And who's speaking now?
- Well, there's no definitive answer—this is poetry, after all. But if we had to take a stab at it (which we do), we'd say the speaker is talking about herself in the third person. (Shmoop likes to do that a lot, actually.) It's like the speaker is zooming out and seeing herself as other people see her. Fancy.
- And another thing: before, we had direct access to the speaker's thoughts, as if we were almost inside her head, right? Now, we lose that VIP access and instead, we're just the creepy person reading over her shoulder as she writes. Because of this newfound distance, we're a bit less connected with the speaker. Sad, but true.
- But don't worry, there is one particularly cool effect that comes from this. Now, the traveler/speaker is a bit more generalized. She's not an "I" or a "we" anymore—she could be any traveler. That's the genius of this move.
- This new-ish traveler asks the same sort of questions that the speaker has been asking all poem long. Do we travel to faraway lands because our own imaginations aren't crazy enough? Would we be better off just sitting quietly in our rooms, as Pascal seems to suggest?
- Bishop sneakily seems to answer this second question in her phrasing (ah, poets). She writes, "Or could Pascal have been not entirely right…" We're picking up what Bishop is putting down, and it's pretty clear that she thinks Pascal was not entirely right. Wrong, even.
- Yep, we seem now to be on the pro-side of traveling.