Analysis of “Questions of Travel” by Elizabeth Bishop (2023)

I figured I haven’t posted in a while and I just wrote an analysis of a poem for my class…it’s… well, it could have been better but here it is (and the poem, for reference, will be located at the end of the analysis).


In Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop’s narrator explores themes of identity and self-understanding through the perspective she gains from discovering the diversity of the world around her. The speaker undergoes an internal debate as she attempts to answer the questions immediate to her situation before concluding with an answer as vague as the questions she ponders in the beginning. By doing so, Bishop, with the employment of imagery, diction, allusions, and shifts within the structure of the poem, suggests how truly limited in perspective human experiences are, and, concurrently, how critically important it becomes to widen the lenses through which we evaluate others in order to promote tolerance and understanding.

(Video) Bishop: Questions of Travel

Throughout the poem, Bishop manipulates reader experiences through careful attention to sensory details that evoke sight. This parallels the process through which humans experience the world and implies the subjectivity of the information man must rely on to make conclusions about his world. The first half of the poem is strongly suggestive of sight. Phrases such as “watching strangers”, “to see the sun..”, “to stare at”, and “at any view” subtly focuses the reader to pay attention to the scene around him (16, 20, 22, 24). Each specific expression indicates an attempt made by the speaker to gather his bearings. Upon one’s first encounter of an unfamiliar land, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the stimulus of the strange. The readers feels claustrophobic with the sight of “too many waterfalls” and “the crowded streams [hurrying] too rapidly down,” (1,2). Bishop alludes to the mechanisms of the human capacity to process sight being overrun and losing the ability to properly welcome the spectacles and the marvels of another’s native environment. To the speaker, the world she confronts is almost unbearably too much, and she fails to gain an appreciation for it. The discomfort she feels passes on to the readers, creating an atmosphere of distress that they associate with travel itself, and subconsciously, the foreign. This sets up the question presented by the title of the poem, during which the narrator–and consequently, the readers– question the value of travel. On a broader level, questions of travel relate to questions of self-identity, during which one determines his sense of self through an interaction with a place and culture disparate from his own. One’s ability to differentiate the discrepancies spans from his internalization of the norms of his environment and culture.

In the speaker’s allusions to “strangers in a play” and Blaine Pascal’s famous quotation, Bishop demonstrates her speaker’s inability to fully comprehend the realities of the foreign land while asserting the benefits of attempting anyway. The narrator does not specify her location; instead, she draws attention to the distinctness of it by constantly referring to it as “here” in juxtaposition to “home” (14). The perceived unfamiliarity is unable to be bridged; her physical proximity to another culture and location does not automatically enable her to assume nor accept their alternate reality. The speaker acknowledges this. She also describes her surroundings as the “strangest of theatres”, as if she is “watching strangers in a play” (17,16). This seems to be a reference to Jaque’s famous monologue, in which he states that “all the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players” (Shakespeare 2.7.143-144). The narrator cannot identify with what she is beholding; the world in which she finds herself seems as fake as it does foreign to her. Everyone around her seems to play into a role. This disjunction of realities between the world she inhabits mentally and the one she currently and physically occupies parallels the mindset of the tourist. Travellers on vacations regard their destinations as extensions of their imaginations, places where reality is suspended or changed in some fashion. When the traveller asks if “Pascal [might] have been not entirely right / about just sitting quietly in one’s room” (62-63), a moment of epiphany has occurred. She refers to Pascal’s conviction that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”, and questions the validity of his statement. The speaker realizes that there is perhaps worth in travelling, in being exposed to the foreign and the unknown. She examines the advantages and consequences of being worldly and uncovering the veils that segregate her from her counterparts in different countries. Though she does not reach a conclusion, the speaker seems to encourage readers to evaluate for themselves the value of travelling and the questions of self-examination that arise from subsequent encounters.

Closer inspections of the structure of the poem reveal a disclination towards the traditional; her disregard for it establishes Bishop’s critique of a human tendency towards the comforting familiar. With the inclusion of the formal shift in the last stanzas of the poem, Bishop reminds readers of the inherent arbitrary nature of one’s attempts to answer questions regarding life, understanding, and the exotic . The poem begins with questions, and, in defiance of the tradition of a conventional question-and-answer structure, closes with one as well. The speaker answers herself in lists, demarcated at the beginning of each line by dashes. These dashes signify the split between each reason, each answer to her “questions of travel”. This format, resembling a grocery list, is an ongoing dialogue between the speaker and herself. The customary format of the question-and-answer would showcase the importance of singular answers. The speaker’s inability to come to a definite conclusion suggests that the question itself, and one’s interpretation of it, may be as crucial as the answers she seeks. The formal shift at the end of the poem, indicated by the italics, demands the reader’s attention. There is a noticeable transition from “we”, in which the reader and the narrator share the experience together, to “the traveller”, in which readers are barred from the experience (26, 59). However, Bishop chooses to offer insight into the mind of the aforementioned traveller when she provides a sample of the observer’s writing, during which readers fully inhabit the mind of the traveller. No longer, then, are they left to wonder and guess at the feelings of the traveller. This highlights the value in endeavoring to build connections and understand each other. This zoom-in and zoom-out technique, reminiscent of the camera technique in which a director focuses on one individual aspect and pans out to reveal its significance in the context of the bigger picture, demonstrates the importance of subjecting one’s self to the new and the alien.

(Video) Leaving Cert English 2021: Bishop - Questions of Travel

Sprinkled throughout the poem are words that connate confusion and facilitate misinterpretation, lending to the argument that the answers one pursues cannot be generalized to fit the breadth of each person’s experience of living. The mystery of her questions are enhanced by the inclusion of words that express uncertainty. The speaker “[stares] at some inexplicable old stonework/ inexplicable and impenetrable” (22-23). These specific words conjure up associations of barriers, similar to the limitations humans face when attempting to immerse themselves in other cultures, with vastly different histories, values, and customs. To the speaker, what she witnesses is so utterly strange, it is unexplainable. She continues to lament that she “[ponders]/ blurr’dly and inconclusively” (47-18). Again, blurr’dly exemplifies the physical restraints of the depth of human perception– something is seen, but not distinguishable. Travellers glimpse into the hearts of the places they journey through; it is, however, a very shallow undertaking in that they are unable to truly comprehend the society of the community they traverse through . Their perceptions are biased, clouded and blurred by the imprints of past experiences.

The reader, along with the speaker, struggles to gain an appreciation for the disparities of the foreign world she encounters. Following her arrival in a foreign land, the speaker questions her travel–her reasons for doing so when one might perhaps experience the same in the comforts of her home. Though she refrains from reaching an ultimate decision–or, at least, voicing it–the speaker arrives at quasi-enlightenment when she does not immediately write the event off as trivial or useless (and thus assume the dominance of her culture). Readers are reminded of the importance of self-criticism and self-awareness in framing their world through the right questions in their search for the right answers.

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
–For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren’t waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

(Video) Elizabeth Bishop - Questions Of Travel

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

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.
–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.)
–A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
–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 footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
–Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages.
–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:

“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?


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?”


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(Video) Questions of Travel, by Elizabeth Bishop


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