Questions of Travel: a Poem by Elizabeth Bishop

The question of why.

Why do we travel? Why do I travel? Why have I wanted to since I was ten years old?

Why does it capture my imagination so. And is it, as Elizabeth Bishop suggests, a lack of imagination?

This is a beautiful poem and a very effective video of two people reciting it. The production value of the video is terrible but the way in which the women share the poem is wonderful. They make this very long poem very accessible. Whether you prefer to read it or watch it, I hope that you enjoy “Questions of Travel”.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is considered one of the great American poets of the 20th century.

Questions of Travel

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.

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?”

Elizabeth Bishop

  • Swetha Reddy

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  • Shelby

    Wow that was great. I loved every word as a traveller i have been living out of my rucksack for two years now and i’m only 20. This is so enlightening.
    Thank you Elizabeth

  • Suzanne

    How’s your trip so far? :)

  • Best hotel in Niagara Falls

    Well very nice lines Elizabeth, i am also a travel lover and i just love to visit different countries and culture. Traveling teach us how to live, it gives us real view to live life happily. We meet with different peoples and culture.

  • Danielle Withrow

    Thanks for this post! I just last week registered my soon-to-be travel blog and its name?…”Questions of Travel- exploring the world one quest at a time”. It is taken from this poem that I first read in 1967.  I am still working on the blog’s initial postings and it’s not up yet, but will be by the fall.  Starting next April I’ll be on the road almost full time as a 60-something solo traveler. First, a 17 day raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon that been on the bucket list for 40+ years. Then 2012-13 – back to India and on to SE Asia and China. Then hopefully in 2014, housesitting in near Christchurch New Zealand where I used to live or the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland.  Or maybe some place else – I’m a planner by trade so it’s hard not to have my beaten up moleskeins chocked full of “travel plans”…until, as Steinbeck says, you start on the journey and the trip takes you!  Love your site. It’s one of the best!