Study Guide

The Man-Moth Introduction

By Elizabeth Bishop

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The Man-Moth Introduction

If "Huh?" was your first reaction to this poem, you're in good company, since most people find the subject matter to a bit of a head-scratcher to start with. In fact, the inspiration for this poem came from a typo in a title for a newspaper article about a mammoth, so it began as a mistake that likely confused plenty of people. The confused probably even included Elizabeth Bishop's editor back in 1936, when "The Man-Moth" was first published in Bishop's first collection of poems: North and South. That typo gave Bishop a chuckle and an idea. (Don't worry though; mammoths have absolutely nothing to do with any of this.)

The initial confusion is part of the charm of the poem, piquing your curiosity just long enough to pull you into the Man-Moth's world. The poem follows the Man-Moth through a rare appearance above ground where he seems to be some kind of odd, defeated superhero, who is still somehow persistent and philosophical. He scales walls, looking to reach what he believes is a hole in the sky.

Once he's checked that off his to-do list, he flutters down into the subway where we get to see him and his quirky behavior in his natural habitat. In some places in the poem, the Man-Moth behaves much like a moth, just like we would expect. However, in other places, he behaves an awful lot like a human. Though he is an imaginary creature, Bishop uses this crazy idea of a man and a moth smooshed together to talk about human behavior in a way that is both honest and entertaining, and without doing a lot of finger-pointing.

Bishop had a complicated relationship with New York City, and this poem reflects her emotional experience of living there for the first time. She was in her mid-20s, and though the city represented major opportunities for a young poet, it was also intimidating and even a bit suffocating for young woman who was used to the wide open spaces of Nova Scotia and Central Massachusetts. There's a lot of struggle in this poem, but there's a lot of hope too. Sounds like life in general.

What is The Man-Moth About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever aspired to something? Ever lay in bed at night thinking about a goal, but then found yourself restless and sleepless because you keep thinking about all the different ways that things could go wrong? We all have. Well, all of us except the Man-Moth. He doesn't think about his goals as something that might happen; he thinks of them as things that will simply come to fruition provided he makes the attempt enough times. He isn't without fear, mind you, but he doesn't over think things like we humans do. You'll never see him paralyzed by his fear of failure or spending time coming up with a plan B.

Really, we could all learn a thing or two from the titular hero of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Man-Moth." He's brave, determined, and has a unique perspective on the world that allows him to handle even the most difficult and frightening things with ease and grace. He's also quite willing to share his wisdom with us if we are willing to pay attention. Most importantly, the Man-Moth never gives up on his dreams. Who couldn't use a little pep talk once in a while?

The Man-Moth Resources


Poet in the City
A blog dedicated to exploring the relationship between Elizabeth Bishop's poetry and New York City. This even includes a map of all the places she lived in the city. It's like Sex and the City without the shoes, or the men, or the fashion. Okay, it's absolutely nothing like Sex and the City.

Weird Science
Dr. Karl Shuker, one of the most famous cryptozoologists in the world and "poodle moth" expert, has a blog. Yep, this is him.

Queen of Arts
Bishop wasn't just a poet, she was also a painter, a musician, and a collector of art. Check out her paintings and some of her collected pieces in this online version of a recent exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York.


Spotlight on Bishop
We have to admit that this is a film that many a poetry professor has put on when he forgot to plan for a lecture, but it's really interesting to see poets talk about another poet so openly. Where else are you going to hear someone say something like "she had amusing hair" about someone so famous? Oh, and don't miss the recitation of the bathroom poem.

If Bishop Had a YouTube Channel
A collection of Bishop's poems put to music. One of them is a song composed for the Twilight movie New Moon. It didn't make it into the movie, but the composer has good taste at least.


A Little Weird
Actually a lot weird. We're not sure why, but the only recording we could find of anyone reading "The Man-Moth" is this trippy, slowed-down version. You probably shouldn't leave this playing at night while you sleep.

Karl Pilkington's Take
Nothing to do with the poem, but we couldn't resist including this clip from the great Ricky Gervais show. Listen to infamous dolt Karl Pilkington muddle through the still-confusing concept of mammoth versus man-moth.

Time Warp
Check out this interview with Elizabeth Bishop from 1977.

Bishop Read by Someone a Little Unexpected
This guy has a fabulous accent, and a nifty hat. He's reading Bishop's poem "The Miracle Breakfast."

Bishop reads one of her favorite poems, "Roosters."


Unrequited Love
This would be a romantic picture of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop together on a beach, except that we know Bishop said no when Lowell asked him to marry her. C'est la vie.

Everyone Loves Cats…
…so here's a picture of Elizabeth Bishop and a cat.

Just Want to Pinch Those Little Cheeks
Here's a picture of Bishop as a child. Awww.

Articles and Interviews

Posthumous Fisticuffs
Some people are not happy about the latest book of Bishop's unpublished poems.

Different Strokes from Different Folks
Here's a collection of discussions on what "The Man-Moth" may be all about.

A Real Insider
Check out this obituary of Alice Methfessel, Bishop's long-time partner and the executor of Bishop's estate.


One Stop Shopping
This anthology includes all of Bishop's published poems, split up by the individual book that they were originally published in. It also includes some extra goodies and features one of her paintings on the cover.

Hearts & Heads
A collection of letters between Bishop and Robert Lowell, the poet she would have married if, you know, she'd been into men.

Movies & TV

Just a Wee One
Here's a short film based on Bishop's poem "One Art."

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