Helen M. Dennis: On "The Man-Moth"

One of the problems of romanticism is the divide between the phenomenal and the noumenal which I have just referred to, and one of the tasks of the romantic poet is thus to find ways of linking the two. I am not suggesting that this presents such a crisis for the modernist poet, yet traces remain and are clearly visible in Bishop's work of the question of what is heautonomy (autonomy) and how it can be achieved? Even if Bishop's footnote to the "The Man-Moth" implies it is a whimsical, playful poem, based on a "Newspaper misprint for 'mammoth'," it is a poem which plays on the sense of the self and its double. The man-moth foregrounds the "imaginary" identity and plays down the actual, and yet there are moments of linkage:

                Each night he must be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie his rushing brain. (15)

Here the simile is used in reverse. The fantasy world of the "imaginary" is proffered as the norm, and details from what we normally accept as the "real" world, the world of commuter travel becomes the descriptive figure of speech. The figurative and the real, or the vehicle and tenor have been inverted. The sublime is the locus where phenomenon and noumen should meet, it is an indeterminate space which should act as a bridge between the two; or as a place where the impossible leap can be made to connect the two. "The Man-Moth" articulates the difficulty of this, and does so through allusion to a version of the sublime which emphasizes the trope of th vertical:

He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky, proving the sky quite useless for protection. He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb. (14)

There is a desire for security but a compulsive attraction which draws him to the awful elevation. So that this is a type of attempt at aesthetic transcendence, in a modernist parody of what Brooks calls the verticality of sublime landscapes. Yet even in the romantic project the ascent is doomed to a fall. The vertical landscapes of the romantic sublime with their dizzying heights and peaks lost in the clouds emphasize the impossible but ineluctable ascent and the subsequent fall back into the merely human. The pattern of aspiration and falling back is replayed here by Bishop, "But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although / he fails, of course, and falls back scared, but quite unhurt" (14). "The Man-Moth" represents the absurd quest for the harmony and totality and the concomitant fall back down in a cartoon version of the modern city-scape. It ends with a tear which becomes a "pearl" of wisdom or exchange with the reader; a tear which reminds us that terror and se1f-pity are also linked in the romantic landscape of the self.

 

from "Bishop and the Negative Sublime." In Kelly Lionel (ed.) Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 

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Criticism Overview
Title Helen M. Dennis: On "The Man-Moth" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Helen M. Dennis Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery
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