'Insomnia' by Elizabeth Bishop

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The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she's a daytime sleeper.By the Universe deserted,

Editor 1 Interpretation

Insomnia by Elizabeth Bishop: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "Insomnia," is a masterful portrayal of the torment one feels when sleep eludes them. The poem, which is written in free verse, captures the disquiet of a restless night and the anxiety that can arise from the inability to sleep. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the themes, imagery, and symbolism in Bishop's poem and examine how they contribute to the overall meaning and impact of the work.

Theme of Isolation

One of the primary themes of "Insomnia" is isolation. Throughout the poem, Bishop creates a sense of separation and distance from the world around her. She begins the poem by describing the "moon's white slice" as "lonely," setting the tone for an atmosphere of solitude and desolation. As the poem progresses, the speaker becomes increasingly disconnected from her surroundings, unable to find comfort or solace in the familiar things around her.

Bishop explores this theme of isolation through the use of vivid and often unsettling imagery. She describes the "city's nervousness" as a "black beach with a million stars" and the "ticking of clocks" as a "web, a trap, a maze." These images evoke a sense of unease and tension, emphasizing the speaker's feelings of isolation and disconnection from the world.

Symbolism of Sleep

Another important element of "Insomnia" is the symbolism of sleep. Throughout the poem, Bishop uses sleep as a symbol for escape, comfort, and peace of mind. The speaker longs for the oblivion of sleep, describing it as a "deep sea cave" and a "great white palace."

However, sleep is also portrayed as elusive and unattainable. The speaker is unable to find rest, even as she seeks it desperately. This symbolism of sleep as both a refuge and an unattainable dream highlights the speaker's struggle with insomnia and the sense of frustration and desperation that comes with it.

Imagery of Night

The imagery of night plays a crucial role in "Insomnia," contributing to the overall sense of unease and disquiet that pervades the poem. Bishop uses vivid and often unsettling images to describe the night, evoking a sense of darkness, mystery, and danger.

For example, she describes the "black beach with a million stars" and the "ticking of clocks" as a "web, a trap, a maze." These images create a sense of tension and uncertainty, emphasizing the speaker's feelings of isolation and disconnection from the world.

Personal Connection

What makes "Insomnia" such a powerful and poignant poem is its ability to evoke a sense of personal connection in the reader. Anyone who has experienced insomnia can relate to the speaker's feelings of frustration, anxiety, and despair. Bishop's use of vivid imagery and symbolism creates a powerful and evocative portrait of the torment of sleeplessness.

Furthermore, the poem speaks to a deeper sense of isolation and disconnection that many people experience in their daily lives. The speaker's struggle with insomnia is a metaphor for the struggle to connect with the world around us and find a sense of peace and belonging.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, Elizabeth Bishop's "Insomnia" is a masterful portrayal of the torment of sleeplessness and the sense of isolation and disconnection that comes with it. Through vivid imagery, powerful symbolism, and a sense of personal connection, Bishop creates a work that is both haunting and deeply moving. "Insomnia" is a testament to the power of poetry to capture the universal experiences of the human condition and create a sense of empathy and understanding across all boundaries.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Insomnia: A Deep Dive into Elizabeth Bishop's Classic Poem

Are you familiar with the feeling of insomnia? That restless, sleepless night where your mind races and your thoughts refuse to quiet down? Elizabeth Bishop's classic poem, "Poetry Insomnia," captures this feeling perfectly. In this article, we'll take a deep dive into the poem, exploring its themes, structure, and language.


Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet who lived from 1911 to 1979. She was known for her precise, detailed descriptions of the natural world, as well as her ability to capture complex emotions in her poetry. "Poetry Insomnia" was first published in 1965 in her collection "Questions of Travel."


At its core, "Poetry Insomnia" is a poem about the struggle to find meaning and purpose in life. The speaker of the poem is unable to sleep, and instead spends the night reading poetry. As she reads, she becomes increasingly frustrated with the lack of answers she finds in the poems. She longs for something that will give her life meaning, but she can't seem to find it.

This theme of searching for meaning is a common one in Bishop's poetry. In many of her poems, she explores the idea of finding purpose in the natural world. In "Poetry Insomnia," however, she turns to poetry itself as a source of meaning. The speaker is searching for something that will give her life direction, and she hopes that poetry will provide it.


"Poetry Insomnia" is a free verse poem, meaning that it doesn't follow a strict rhyme or meter. Instead, Bishop uses a variety of poetic techniques to create a sense of rhythm and flow. The poem is divided into five stanzas, each with a different number of lines. The first stanza has six lines, the second has eight, the third has seven, the fourth has nine, and the final stanza has six.

The irregular structure of the poem mirrors the speaker's restless state of mind. The lack of a strict rhyme or meter creates a sense of unease and uncertainty, as if the poem itself is struggling to find its way.


One of the most striking things about "Poetry Insomnia" is Bishop's use of language. She employs a variety of poetic techniques to create a vivid, sensory experience for the reader. For example, in the first stanza, she uses alliteration to create a sense of movement and energy:

Oh, the night is white,
the stars are small and very numerous.
You breath in, slowly;
the cat sleeps on the pillow beside you.
The minutes tick away.
You think of nothing.

The repetition of the "s" sound in "stars," "small," and "very" creates a sense of movement, as if the stars are twinkling in the sky. The slow, deliberate breathing of the speaker is contrasted with the ticking of the clock, creating a sense of tension and unease.

Bishop also uses vivid imagery to create a sense of place. In the second stanza, she describes the speaker's surroundings in detail:

The room is quiet;
the cat's eyes shine.
Outside, the moon
is full and bright.
You turn the pages,
searching for something.

The image of the cat's eyes shining in the dark room creates a sense of intimacy and comfort, while the bright moon outside creates a sense of isolation and loneliness. The speaker's search for something in the pages of the book is a metaphor for her search for meaning in life.


"Poetry Insomnia" is a powerful poem that captures the feeling of restlessness and uncertainty that comes with insomnia. Bishop's use of language and structure creates a vivid, sensory experience for the reader, while the poem's themes of searching for meaning and purpose resonate deeply. If you've ever struggled with insomnia or felt lost in life, this poem is sure to speak to you.

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