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Home » Uncovering the Layers: A Literary Analysis of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon”

Uncovering the Layers: A Literary Analysis of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon”

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Burglar of Babylon” is a complex work that delves into themes of memory, loss, and the search for identity. Through a close literary analysis of the poem, this article aims to uncover the layers of meaning and symbolism that Bishop employs to convey her message. By examining the poem’s structure, language, and imagery, we can gain a deeper understanding of the emotions and experiences that inspired this powerful work of literature.

Background Information

Elizabeth Bishop is a renowned American poet who is known for her unique style of writing. Born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Bishop was raised by her grandparents after her father passed away when she was just eight months old. Her mother was institutionalized when Bishop was five years old, and she never saw her again. Bishop’s childhood was marked by a sense of displacement and loss, which is reflected in her poetry. She attended Vassar College and later studied at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. Bishop’s poetry is known for its attention to detail and its ability to capture the beauty of everyday life. Her work often deals with themes of loss, displacement, and the search for identity. “The Burglar of Babylon” is one of Bishop’s most famous poems, and it is a prime example of her unique style and themes.

Structure and Form

The structure and form of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon” play a crucial role in conveying the themes and emotions of the poem. The poem is divided into three stanzas, each with a distinct tone and purpose. The first stanza sets the scene and introduces the burglar, while the second stanza delves deeper into his character and motivations. The final stanza brings the poem to a close, leaving the reader with a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty.

The form of the poem is also significant. Bishop uses a free verse style, allowing her to experiment with line breaks and enjambment. This creates a sense of fluidity and movement, which mirrors the burglar’s actions as he moves through the city. Additionally, Bishop employs a range of literary devices, such as metaphor and imagery, to enhance the poem’s meaning and impact.

Overall, the structure and form of “The Burglar of Babylon” are integral to its success as a literary work. Through careful consideration of these elements, Bishop is able to create a powerful and thought-provoking poem that resonates with readers long after they have finished reading it.

Themes and Motifs

One of the prominent themes in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon” is the idea of displacement and the search for a sense of belonging. The speaker, who is a burglar, is constantly on the move, never staying in one place for too long. This sense of displacement is further emphasized by the setting of the poem, which takes place in Babylon, a city that has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times throughout history. The speaker’s search for a sense of belonging is also reflected in his fascination with the artifacts he steals, as they represent a connection to a past and a culture that he longs to be a part of. Another recurring motif in the poem is the idea of light and darkness. The speaker describes the city of Babylon as being “dark” and “shadowy,” and he himself operates under the cover of darkness as he carries out his burglaries. However, there are also moments of light in the poem, such as when the speaker describes the “golden” artifacts he steals. This contrast between light and darkness adds to the overall sense of tension and unease in the poem, as the speaker’s actions are both alluring and dangerous.

Symbolism and Imagery

Symbolism and imagery play a significant role in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon.” The poem is filled with vivid descriptions of the speaker’s surroundings, which are used to convey deeper meanings and emotions. One example of this is the recurring image of the “blue and gold” city, which represents the speaker’s longing for a sense of belonging and connection. The use of color symbolism is also prevalent throughout the poem, with the color blue representing sadness and isolation, while gold represents hope and possibility. Additionally, the imagery of the “empty streets” and “deserted houses” creates a sense of loneliness and abandonment, further emphasizing the speaker’s feelings of displacement. Overall, the symbolism and imagery in “The Burglar of Babylon” serve to enhance the poem’s themes of identity, belonging, and the search for meaning in a complex and confusing world.

Tone and Mood

The tone and mood of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon” are complex and multifaceted. At times, the tone is lighthearted and even humorous, as the speaker describes the antics of the titular burglar and his various attempts to break into the narrator’s apartment. However, there is also a sense of unease and tension that runs throughout the poem, as the speaker becomes increasingly paranoid and fearful of the burglar’s presence. This tension is heightened by the poem’s vivid imagery and sensory details, which create a palpable sense of danger and vulnerability. Ultimately, the tone and mood of “The Burglar of Babylon” reflect the poem’s themes of fear, isolation, and the fragility of human security in the face of external threats.

Character Analysis

In “The Burglar of Babylon,” Elizabeth Bishop presents readers with a complex and multi-dimensional protagonist. The character, who remains unnamed throughout the poem, is a burglar who has broken into a wealthy home in Babylon. As the poem progresses, readers are given glimpses into the character’s thoughts and motivations, revealing a character who is both sympathetic and flawed.

One of the most striking aspects of the character is their sense of loneliness and isolation. Throughout the poem, the character reflects on their own solitude, noting that they have “no friends” and “no family.” This sense of isolation is further emphasized by the character’s actions, as they spend their time in the empty house, surrounded by the possessions of others.

At the same time, however, the character is not without flaws. They are a burglar, after all, and their actions are illegal and morally questionable. Bishop does not shy away from portraying the character’s criminal behavior, but she also does not reduce them to a one-dimensional villain. Instead, she presents a character who is complex and human, with both admirable and problematic qualities.

Overall, the character analysis of “The Burglar of Babylon” reveals a protagonist who is both sympathetic and flawed. Through Bishop’s careful crafting of the character’s thoughts and actions, readers are given a nuanced portrayal of a complex human being.

Narrative Technique

One of the most striking aspects of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon” is her use of narrative technique. The poem is structured as a series of vignettes, each one building upon the last to create a complex and layered narrative. Bishop employs a variety of techniques to achieve this effect, including shifts in perspective, changes in tense, and the use of repetition and imagery.

One of the most notable aspects of Bishop’s narrative technique is her use of multiple perspectives. The poem is told from the point of view of several different characters, including the burglar himself, the narrator, and the various people he encounters on his journey. This allows Bishop to explore the theme of perspective and the ways in which different people see the world around them.

Another key element of Bishop’s narrative technique is her use of tense. The poem shifts back and forth between past and present tense, creating a sense of immediacy and urgency. This technique also allows Bishop to explore the idea of memory and the ways in which our perceptions of the past can change over time.

Finally, Bishop’s use of repetition and imagery helps to tie the various vignettes together and create a cohesive narrative. Throughout the poem, she returns to certain images and motifs, such as the burglar’s mask and the idea of disguise. These recurring elements help to reinforce the poem’s central themes and create a sense of unity and coherence.

Overall, Bishop’s narrative technique is a key element of “The Burglar of Babylon” and helps to make it a rich and complex work of literature. By using multiple perspectives, shifting tense, and employing repetition and imagery, Bishop creates a narrative that is both engaging and thought-provoking.

Historical Context

To fully understand Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon,” it is important to consider the historical context in which it was written. The poem was published in 1949, just a few years after the end of World War II and during a time of political and social upheaval in the United States. The country was grappling with issues of race, gender, and sexuality, and the Cold War was beginning to take shape. Additionally, Bishop herself was dealing with personal struggles, including alcoholism and the recent suicide of her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares. All of these factors undoubtedly influenced the themes and imagery present in “The Burglar of Babylon,” and a deeper understanding of the historical context can provide valuable insight into the poem’s meaning.

Religious and Mythological References

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon” is a poem that is rich in religious and mythological references. The poem is set in Babylon, an ancient city that was known for its religious and cultural significance. The poem’s title itself is a reference to the biblical story of the fall of Babylon, which is mentioned in the book of Daniel. The poem also makes references to other biblical stories, such as the story of the Tower of Babel and the story of the Garden of Eden.

In addition to biblical references, the poem also makes references to Greek mythology. The poem mentions the god Apollo, who was known as the god of music, poetry, and prophecy. The poem also mentions the mythological creature, the Sphinx, which was known for its riddles and its ability to guard treasures.

The use of religious and mythological references in the poem serves to add depth and complexity to the poem’s themes. The references to Babylon and biblical stories suggest themes of sin, temptation, and the fall of humanity. The references to Greek mythology suggest themes of wisdom, knowledge, and the power of riddles.

Overall, the religious and mythological references in “The Burglar of Babylon” serve to enhance the poem’s meaning and to add layers of interpretation for readers to explore.

Critical Reception

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon” has been widely praised by literary critics for its intricate layers of meaning and its masterful use of language. Many critics have noted the poem’s exploration of themes such as identity, memory, and the passage of time. Some have also commented on Bishop’s use of imagery and symbolism, particularly her use of the city of Babylon as a metaphor for the human psyche.

One of the most notable aspects of “The Burglar of Babylon” is its structure. The poem is divided into three sections, each of which explores a different aspect of the speaker’s experience. The first section focuses on the speaker’s memories of Babylon, while the second section delves into the speaker’s present-day experiences. The final section brings these two threads together, as the speaker reflects on the ways in which her past and present are intertwined.

Critics have also praised Bishop’s use of language in “The Burglar of Babylon.” The poem is filled with vivid, sensory details that bring the city of Babylon to life. Bishop’s use of metaphor and symbolism is also highly effective, as she uses images such as the “blackened walls” of Babylon to convey the speaker’s sense of loss and despair.

Overall, “The Burglar of Babylon” has been widely recognized as a masterful work of poetry. Its exploration of complex themes and its use of language and imagery have cemented its place as one of Elizabeth Bishop’s most enduring works.

Comparative Analysis

In order to fully understand the complexities of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon,” it is important to conduct a comparative analysis of the poem with other works in Bishop’s oeuvre. One such work is “The Fish,” which shares similar themes of mortality and the fragility of life. However, while “The Fish” focuses on the natural world, “The Burglar of Babylon” delves into the realm of human relationships and the consequences of our actions. Additionally, the use of imagery in “The Burglar of Babylon” is more abstract and surreal compared to the concrete descriptions in “The Fish.” By comparing and contrasting these two works, we can gain a deeper understanding of Bishop’s unique style and the themes that permeate her poetry.

Language and Diction

In Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon,” the language and diction used by the speaker play a crucial role in conveying the themes of the poem. The speaker’s use of vivid imagery and sensory details creates a sense of place and atmosphere, transporting the reader to the exotic setting of Babylon. Additionally, the speaker’s choice of words and phrasing reflects the complex emotions and conflicting desires of the protagonist, who is torn between his love for the city and his guilt over stealing from it. Through careful analysis of the language and diction in “The Burglar of Babylon,” readers can gain a deeper understanding of the poem’s themes and the speaker’s inner turmoil.

Figurative Language

Figurative language is a crucial element in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon.” Throughout the poem, Bishop employs various literary devices to convey her message and create vivid imagery. One of the most prominent examples of figurative language in the poem is the use of metaphor. Bishop compares the burglar’s actions to those of a lover, describing how he “caresses” the objects he steals and “fondles” them with care. This metaphor not only adds depth to the burglar’s character but also highlights the theme of desire and the lengths people will go to fulfill it. Additionally, Bishop uses simile to describe the burglar’s movements, comparing them to those of a cat. This comparison not only creates a sense of stealth and agility but also adds to the overall tone of the poem. Overall, Bishop’s use of figurative language in “The Burglar of Babylon” enhances the poem’s meaning and creates a rich and complex reading experience.

Irony and Paradox

Irony and paradox are two literary devices that Elizabeth Bishop employs in “The Burglar of Babylon” to create a sense of tension and ambiguity. The poem’s title itself is paradoxical, as a burglar is typically associated with theft and criminal activity, while Babylon is a symbol of wealth and power. This contradiction sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is filled with unexpected twists and turns.

One example of irony in the poem is the description of the burglar’s actions. Despite his criminal intentions, he is portrayed as a skilled and meticulous craftsman, carefully removing the jewels from their settings and leaving no trace of his presence. This contrast between his criminal behavior and his careful attention to detail creates a sense of unease, as the reader is forced to question their own assumptions about right and wrong.

Another example of paradox in the poem is the way in which the burglar is described. He is both a criminal and an artist, using his skills to create something beautiful out of something stolen. This duality is reflected in the poem’s language, which is both lyrical and precise. The burglar’s actions are described in detail, but the poem also contains moments of poetic imagery, such as the description of the jewels as “little bright umbrellas” and the comparison of the burglar’s movements to a dance.

Overall, the use of irony and paradox in “The Burglar of Babylon” adds depth and complexity to the poem, forcing the reader to question their assumptions and consider the multiple layers of meaning at play.

Contrasts and Contradictions

One of the most striking aspects of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon” is the stark contrast between the opulence of the setting and the desperation of the characters. The poem takes place in a luxurious hotel room in Baghdad, complete with “Persian carpets,” “marble walls,” and “gold-plated faucets.” Yet the speaker, a burglar who has broken into the room, is clearly struggling to make ends meet. He is “thin and ragged,” and his “shoes are split.” This contrast between wealth and poverty highlights the inequality that exists in society, even in supposedly glamorous locations. Additionally, the poem is full of contradictions, such as the burglar’s simultaneous desire for both money and revenge. These contradictions add depth and complexity to the character, and suggest that there is more to his story than meets the eye. Overall, the contrasts and contradictions in “The Burglar of Babylon” serve to underscore the poem’s themes of inequality and human complexity.

Setting and Atmosphere

The setting and atmosphere of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon” play a crucial role in the overall tone and message of the poem. The poem is set in the city of Babylon, which is known for its historical significance and cultural richness. The city is described as “ancient” and “mysterious,” which creates a sense of nostalgia and longing for the past. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the use of vivid imagery and sensory details, such as the “smell of spices” and the “sound of prayer.” These details transport the reader to a different time and place, and create a sense of wonder and awe. The setting and atmosphere also serve to highlight the theme of cultural identity and the loss of tradition. The poem suggests that the modern world has lost touch with its cultural roots, and that we must look to the past in order to understand who we are and where we come from. Overall, the setting and atmosphere of “The Burglar of Babylon” are essential elements that contribute to the poem’s overall meaning and impact.

Interpretation and Meaning

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon” is a complex poem that requires careful analysis to fully understand its meaning. At its core, the poem is about the struggle between the desire for adventure and the need for stability and security. The burglar, who represents the desire for adventure, is contrasted with the narrator, who represents the need for stability and security.

The poem is also about the power of imagination and the role it plays in our lives. The burglar’s imagination allows him to escape the mundane reality of his life and experience the thrill of adventure. However, his imagination also leads him to make poor decisions that ultimately lead to his downfall.

Another important theme in the poem is the idea of cultural imperialism. The burglar’s desire to steal artifacts from Babylon represents the Western world’s desire to possess and control the treasures of other cultures. The poem suggests that this desire is ultimately destructive and leads to the loss of cultural heritage.

Overall, “The Burglar of Babylon” is a thought-provoking poem that raises important questions about the human experience. Through its complex imagery and themes, the poem challenges readers to consider the role of imagination, the struggle between stability and adventure, and the impact of cultural imperialism on our world.

Contextual Analysis

Contextual analysis is an important aspect of literary analysis as it helps readers understand the historical, social, and cultural background of a particular work. In the case of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon,” understanding the context in which the poem was written is crucial to fully appreciating its meaning. The poem was written in the 1940s, a time when the United States was involved in World War II and tensions between the US and the Middle East were high. This context is reflected in the poem’s themes of war, imperialism, and cultural clashes. Additionally, Bishop’s own experiences as a traveler and expatriate in countries such as Brazil and Morocco likely influenced her portrayal of the Middle East in the poem. By examining the context in which “The Burglar of Babylon” was written, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the poem’s themes and the author’s intentions.

Gender and Feminism

In Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon,” gender roles and feminism are prominent themes. The poem explores the idea of a male burglar breaking into a woman’s home and the power dynamics at play. The woman in the poem is portrayed as strong and independent, while the burglar is seen as weak and vulnerable. This reversal of traditional gender roles challenges societal norms and highlights the importance of feminism in literature. Bishop’s use of language and imagery also adds to the feminist message of the poem, as she portrays the woman as a force to be reckoned with and the burglar as a mere intruder. Overall, “The Burglar of Babylon” serves as a powerful commentary on gender and feminism, and the need for more diverse and inclusive representations in literature.