English Literature
Five Flights Up

Five Flights Up

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Exploring the Simplicity of Life in "Five Flights Up" by Elizabeth Bishop

Ever feel like humans tend to make life more complicated than it needs to be? It's a common thought when observing animals, who seem to effortlessly live in the moment. In her 1974 poem "Five Flights Up," Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) delves into this idea, exploring the peaceful lives of a bird and a dog and the human tendency to complicate life.

The Poem at a Glance

"Five Flights Up" was written by acclaimed poet Elizabeth Bishop and first published in The New Yorker in 1974. It was later included in her collection Geography III (1976), which propelled her into the public eye and solidified her place as a beloved poet. Bishop wrote the poem at the age of 63, drawing from her own life experiences to examine the contrast between the simple lives of animals and the complex lives of humans.

The poem raises questions about the role of expectations in our lives and whether worrying about the future is beneficial or only adds unnecessary stress.

The Poem Text

The speaker in "Five Flights Up" awakens in the darkness of early morning and observes the world from their fifth-floor view. A bird perches on a branch, still and peaceful, while their neighbor's dog barks and plays without a care in the world. The dog's owner reprimands them, but the carefree canine remains unfazed, bouncing and running in the leaves. The speaker envies the simplicity of the animals' lives as they require no worries for the past or future.

Poem Summary

In "Five Flights Up," the speaker watches the world from their fifth-floor vantage point and longs for the carefree lives of a bird and dog they observe. The bird and dog represent an ideal simplicity, free from the burdens and anxieties that fill the speaker's own life.

Poem Tone

The tone of the poem is peaceful and calm in the morning's early hours, with a hint of longing. The world is still asleep, and the bird and dog seem to exist in a tranquil state, unaffected by worries or stress. However, the tone shifts in the latter part of the poem as the speaker reflects on their own complicated life and their desire for the peace and assurance displayed by the animals in their neighborhood.

The poem's juxtaposition of the peaceful animals and the speaker's longing for that same peace is amplified through the use of symbolism, imagery, and personification. The darkness of the early morning symbolizes ignorance and uncertainty, highlighting the contrast between the animals' simple lives and the speaker's own complexities.

Bishop's "Five Flights Up" is a poignant exploration of the human tendency to overcomplicate life and the yearning for the simplicity of the animal world. It serves as a reminder to take a step back, appreciate the present, and not get too caught up in the worries of the past or the expectations of the future.

The Serenity of Animals and the Burden of Human Knowledge

The absence of humans in a peaceful scene can emphasize the animals' comfort and contentment. In the poem "Five Flights Up," the speaker notices the animals' carefree attitude towards both the darkness and the light, highlighting their ease with the unknown. This is in contrast to humans, who constantly seek knowledge and answers. Through the use of literary devices such as juxtaposition, personification, and metaphor, the poem depicts the stark contrast between animals and humans and the challenges that come with human consciousness.

The Symbolism of Dawn Breaking

As dawn breaks, the introduction of light is often associated with enlightenment and knowledge. In the poem, the speaker witnesses this transformation from darkness to light, but notes the contrast between the animals' carefree behavior and the weight of human knowledge. The "gray light streaking each bare branch" (11) symbolizes the struggle between the animals' contentment and the burden of human consciousness.

Personification: Animals at Ease with the Unknown

The poem also utilizes personification to portray the animals' attitude towards the unknown. The dog "barks in his sleep/ inquiringly, just once" (3-4) and the bird "inquires/ once or twice, quavering" (7-8), showing their ease and lack of worry about the unknown. They live in the moment and do not need to understand everything, finding contentment in simplicity.

The Contrast Between Humans and Animals

The second half of the poem employs juxtaposition and metaphor to highlight the contrast between humans and animals. The introduction of humans, specifically the neighbor yelling at his dog, sets the tone for the rest of the poem. The serious scolding from the owner towards the carefree dog exemplifies the expectations and guilt that humans have, in comparison to the animals who live in the moment without any regrets or expectations.

The Metaphor of Living in the Moment

The final lines of the poem, "Obviously, he has no sense of shame" (21), utilize the metaphor of the dog's carefree attitude. Unlike humans, who set high expectations for themselves and feel guilty for not meeting them, the dog lives in the moment without shame for his actions. This message highlights the idea that sometimes, living in the moment and not worrying about the unknown can bring true peace and contentment.

The Pursuit of Peace and Contentment

In conclusion, "Five Flights Up" uses literary devices such as juxtaposition, symbolism, imagery, and personification to highlight the contrasting attitudes towards the unknown between animals and humans. The speaker's desire for the same peace and contentment that the animals possess emphasizes the message that sometimes, living in the moment and not dwelling on the past or future can bring true joy and satisfaction.

The Uncomplicated Lives of Animals and the Weight of Human Expectations

In Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Five Flights Up," she reflects on the relationship between animals and humans through the use of alliteration. The recurring use of specific letters throughout the poem depicts the effortless passage of time in nature. For instance, the letter "M" in "morning, ponderous, meticulous" (10), the letter "B" in "bare branch" (11), and the letter "S" in "still sits" (12) all serve to paint a picture of the simple, unadulterated world of animals, untouched by human influence.

The Contrast Between Animals and Humans

The alliteration in the poem also highlights the theme of how animals and humans differ in their relationship with life. While animals live uncomplicated, carefree lives, humans burden themselves with expectations and inhibitions. The poem opens with a bird and a dog, both unfazed by the chaos of life. Though they may have questions about the future, they do not let their lack of knowledge affect their happiness. Even when the dog is scolded by its owner, it continues to frolic and play, unaffected by societal expectations (19-20).

Living Without Expectations

Animals, unlike humans, have no concept of shame or expectations. This allows them to live in the present without worrying about their next meal or financial stability. As the speaker states, "They and the bird know everything is answered, all taken care of, no need to ask again." (22-24). Their simplistic outlook on life frees them from the burden of expectations, making their lives naturally easy and carefree.

Bishop's contemplation of anxiety and inhibitions may have been influenced by biblical teachings. In Matthew 6, verses 26-27, it states: "Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?" This verse raises questions about the effects of worry on one's life. Is there significance in this passage from the Bible in relation to Bishop's poem? Or are these interpretations of worry and anxiety too simplistic for modern society? While it may seem ideal to live without worrying about financial stability, it may not be a practical option in the 21st century. What other perspectives can be drawn from discussions about worry?

Unlike the animals in the poem, humans are portrayed as being discontent in various ways. The neighbor scolds his dog for not behaving as expected, and the speaker herself is burdened by anxiety about the past and future. In lines 25-26, she even reveals her envy towards the carefree lives of animals, hinting at her own discontent. Unlike the dog and bird, she is deeply aware of her own shame and worries. She poses questions that do not have simple answers, highlighting the complexities of human nature and the pressure to live up to societal expectations. Humans, like the speaker, are weighed down by their own expectations and those imposed by society.

The Burden of Human Expectations

"Five Flights Up" explores the contrast between the lives of humans and animals. While humans strive to meet high expectations, such as excelling in school, having a successful career, starting a family, and achieving success, any deviation from these expectations is considered a failure. Society imposes these expectations on individuals until they are internalized, defining success and fulfillment strictly based on these criteria. In contrast, animals live without any preconceived notions of success or expectations from others. They are free to embrace each moment without worrying about the future. Instead of constantly resisting and fighting against time, animals experience each day without the burden of expectations. As a result, they are able to find a deeper sense of peace than humans who constantly worry about the unknown and place immense pressure on themselves.

Published in the New Yorker and later included in her collection Geography III in 1976, "Five Flights Up" was written by Elizabeth Bishop towards the end of her life. It may reflect her desire to slow down after a busy life filled with travel, trauma, and tumultuous relationships. The tone of the poem is tranquil, serene, and wistful. It explores the theme of animals living without inhibitions or expectations, while humans are constrained by their own expectations. Ultimately, the poem's message is that humans create unnecessary complications in their lives by worrying about things beyond their control and setting high expectations for themselves. Meanwhile, animals simply accept life as it is.

Exploring the Meaning of "Five Flights Up": A Contrast between Human and Animal Life

Have you ever wondered about the significance behind the title "Five Flights Up"? This poem delves into the juxtaposition between the way humans and animals live. While humans tend to complicate their lives with expectations, animals find inner peace living in the present moment without them.

So, how would you describe the language used in this poem? The diction is mostly informal, but there are moments of poetic language, particularly when describing the dawn.

But when exactly was "Five Flights Up" written? It was penned in 1974, towards the end of the poet Elizabeth Bishop's life.

What is the overall tone of the poem? The tone is one of serenity, tranquility, and longing, reflecting Bishop's contemplative state towards the end of her life.

Furthermore, the main literary device employed in this poem is juxtaposition. By highlighting the stark contrast between human and animal existence, Bishop invites readers to reflect on the complexities and struggles of human life.

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