Questions of Travel
by Elizabeth Bishop
Stanza 5 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there… No. Should we have stayed at home,
Wherever that may be?"
- We've come to the end, folks, but Bishop packs a punch right until the final breath.
- We're still watching the traveler write in her notebook (hence the quotation marks). She starts out with big markers of geography and populations—continents, cities, countries, and societies—and writes that "the choice is never wide and never free."
- These lines are a bit tricky because it's not clear what "choice" the traveler is talking about. The choice of a vacation destination? The choice of a home? The choice of a homeland? This is up for debate, but one thing's clear: she's saying that our choices in life are limited and limiting. Maybe she feels like the brown bird in the bird cage?
- She then starts to trail off—"And here, or there… No." Hmmm. It seems like the traveler is about to list places she's been or would like to go, places she's lived in or dreamed of visiting. But then she trails off and stops her thinking with a harsh "No." It's like she's telling herself that there are no more options.
- In case there weren't enough questions already, we get one last one for good measure: "Should we have stayed at home / wherever that may be?" At first glance, this may seem like a totally straightforward question—depending on your opinion, you could answer either yes or no. But if we take a closer look, we realize that this may not be the case.
- While the sentence begins with the cut-to-the-chase "should we have stayed at home," the second part of the sentence undercuts it with "wherever that may be." Home is not defined here. It could be where the speaker was born, where she was raised, where she traveled to, where she loved, where she Shmooped.
- With this last line, the poem opens us up to tons of possibilities for the word "home." And if home can be anywhere, why should we stay anywhere?
- We have to admit, this is just one way to read the poem. You could totally disagree with this reading, and walk away from "Questions of Travel" with the conclusion that Bishop wants us all to stay at home, tucked snugly into our beds. But hear us out (literally).
- Read the poem's final stanza out loud. Just do it. What do you hear? The long "e" (of the word "see") over and over: in "city," "country," "society," "free," and "be." In fact, three of the last four lines of this stanza rhyme.
- Who cares, you ask? We do. It's like Bishop is making the world smaller and smaller through her rhymes. A country becomes not that different from a city; differences are erased, and the stanza is tighter and more compact than any of the others in the poem.
- Coincidence? We think not. Even if you think the poem leaves most of its questions unanswered, the poem's form—these sudden rhymes in a pretty much non-rhyming poem—suggests that the world is a more connected place than we might have thought. There is a closeness of words, of cities, of countries in this last stanza that seems to say: the world is not as big as you thought it was.
- It's a small world after all. Go and see it. And hey, make a new home.
- (Or, you know, feel free to disagree with us and get cozy in front of the fire in your Snuggie.)