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The Unbeliever

He sleeps on the top of a mast. – Bunyan

He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed.
The sails fall away below him
like the sheets of his bed,
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper’s head.

Asleep he was transported there,
asleep he curled
in a gilded ball on the mast’s top,
or climbed inside
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.

“I am founded on marble pillars,”
said a cloud. “I never move.
See the pillars there in the sea?”
Secure in introspection
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.

A gull had wings under his
and remarked that the air
was “like marble.” He said: “Up here
I tower through the sky
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly.”

But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull inquired into his dream,
which was, “I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”

Elizabeth Bishop

“He sleeps on the top of a mast.” Like so many of Bishop’s images, this one takes on a life of its own. What is it to sleep on the top of the mast? What gives the image such power?

Common interpretations reference Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress where the Pilgrim Christian comes upon three men fast asleep, with fetters on their heels.

They are Simple, Sloth and Presumption. Christian then seeing them lie in this case went to them, if peradventure he might awake them. And cried, “You are like them that sleep on the top of a mast, for the Dead Sea is under you, a gulf that hath no bottom; awake therefore, and come away; be willing also, and I will help you off with your irons.” He also told them, “If he that goeth about like a roaring lion come by, you will certainly become prey to his teeth.” With that they looked upon him, and began to reply in this sort: Simple said, “I see no danger”; Sloth said, “Yet a little more sleep”; and Presumption said, “Every fat [vessel] must stand upon his own bottom, what is the answer else that I should give thee?” And so they lay down to sleep again, and Christian went on his way. (From James Fenton in the Times Literary Supplement)

Another interpretation draws a parallel to the personal domain of Bishop’s life and her battle with alcoholism.

And it has been noted that the reference to sleeping on the mast of the ship has its origin in the Book of Proverbs…which reads in the original (as the Authorized Version has it): “When shall I awake? I shall seek it again”. The “it” that the sleeper on the mast intends to seek again is wine, and the passage that it belongs to is a warning against drink (Proverbs 23: 29–35). Here it is as given in the Geneva Bible (which Bunyan used, in addition to the Authorized Version):

31 Looke not thou upon the wine, when it is red, and when it sheweth his colour in the cuppe, or goeth down pleasantly. 32 In the ende thereof it will bite like a serpent, and hurt like a cockatrise. 33 Thine eyes shall looke upon strange women, and thine heart shall speake lewde things. 34 And thou shalt bee as one that sleepeth in the middes of the sea, and as he that sleepeth in the top of the mast. 35 They have stricken me, shalt thou say, but I was not sicke: they have beaten me, but I knew not, when I awoke: therefore will I seeke it yet still.

This vivid evocation of habitual drunkenness gives us a sense of the biblical meaning of “sleeping at the top of the mast”; it is one of two parallel impossibilities – the drunkard is like one who sleeps in the middle of the sea, or who sleeps above the sea. (The Geneva Bible explains the first part of verse 34 as implying “In such great danger shalt thou be”.) Sleeping at the top of the mast would be both precarious and giddy-making; nevertheless the drunkard prefers sleep to waking, and so, if he does wake up, he will drink himself back into a stupor. As the Geneva note puts it, “Though drunkenness make them more insensible then beasts yet they can not refraine”. (Fenton)

Secular interpretations also abound. Harold Bloom claims this as one of his favorite poems. “I walk around, certain days, chanting ‘The Unbeliever’ to myself, it being one of those rare poems you never evade again, once you know it (and it knows you)”

The five stanzas of “The Unbeliever”, says Bloom, are essentially variations on the Bunyan epigraph. “Bunyan’s trope concerns the condition of unbelief; Bishop’s does not.” Quite how he could be so sure he does not say, but he continues: “Think of the personae of Bishop’s poem as exemplifying three rhetorical stances, and so as being three kinds of poet, or even three poets: cloud, gull, unbeliever. The cloud is Wordsworth or Stevens. The gull is Shelley or Hart Crane. The unbeliever is Dickinson or Bishop”. No doubt generations of diligent students have been recycling this taxonomy of poets ever since. (Fenton)

While intellectually informative and provocative, these variations cannot capture the essence of the image in a clear and encompassing manner. For me, this image is dream-like, with a prophetic warning about staying close to the earth. What takes us out, to sleep on the top of the mast so to speak, is a highly personal question.

Bishop’s gift is a mysterious ability to empower the most commonplace into something extraordinary, repeatedly transforming images and bringing them into another dimension and realm.

“I am very object-struck…. I simply try to see things afresh,” Bishop said about herself in an interview. “I have a great interest and respect…for what people call ordinary things. I am very visually minded and mooses and filling stations aren’t necessarily commonplace to me.”