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"In the Waiting Room" by Elizabeth Bishop: A Poem Analysis for Leaving Certificate Students

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

Introduction

As a Leaving Certificate student, you may have read "In the Waiting Room" by Elizabeth Bishop as part of your literature curriculum. This powerful poem tells the story of a young girl's experience of waiting in a doctor's office and reflects on the complexities of growing up and discovering one's identity. In this blog post, we will analyze the poem, exploring its themes, imagery, and language, and discuss how it can be applied to the experiences of Leaving Certificate students.



In the Waiting Room

Elizabeth Bishop - 1911-1979


In Worcester, Massachusetts,

I went with Aunt Consuelo

to keep her dentist's appointment

and sat and waited for her

in the dentist's waiting room.

It was winter. It got dark

early. The waiting room

was full of grown-up people,

arctics and overcoats,

lamps and magazines.

My aunt was inside

what seemed like a long time

and while I waited I read

the National Geographic

(I could read) and carefully

studied the photographs:

the inside of a volcano,

black, and full of ashes;

then it was spilling over

in rivulets of fire.

Osa and Martin Johnson

dressed in riding breeches,

laced boots, and pith helmets.

A dead man slung on a pole

--"Long Pig," the caption said.

Babies with pointed heads

wound round and round with string;

black, naked women with necks

wound round and round with wire

like the necks of light bulbs.

Their breasts were horrifying.

I read it right straight through.

I was too shy to stop.

And then I looked at the cover:

the yellow margins, the date.

Suddenly, from inside,

came an oh! of pain

--Aunt Consuelo's voice--

not very loud or long.

I wasn't at all surprised;

even then I knew she was

a foolish, timid woman.

I might have been embarrassed,

but wasn't. What took me

completely by surprise

was that it was me:

my voice, in my mouth.

Without thinking at all

I was my foolish aunt,

I--we--were falling, falling,

our eyes glued to the cover

of the National Geographic,

February, 1918.


I said to myself: three days

and you'll be seven years old.

I was saying it to stop

the sensation of falling off

the round, turning world.

into cold, blue-black space.

But I felt: you are an I,

you are an Elizabeth,

you are one of them.

Why should you be one, too?

I scarcely dared to look

to see what it was I was.

I gave a sidelong glance

--I couldn't look any higher--

at shadowy gray knees,

trousers and skirts and boots

and different pairs of hands

lying under the lamps.

I knew that nothing stranger

had ever happened, that nothing

stranger could ever happen.


Why should I be my aunt,

or me, or anyone?

What similarities--

boots, hands, the family voice

I felt in my throat, or even

the National Geographic

and those awful hanging breasts--

held us all together

or made us all just one?

How--I didn't know any

word for it--how "unlikely". . .

How had I come to be here,

like them, and overhear

a cry of pain that could have

got loud and worse but hadn't?


The waiting room was bright

and too hot. It was sliding

beneath a big black wave,

another, and another.


Then I was back in it.

The War was on. Outside,

in Worcester, Massachusetts,

were night and slush and cold,

and it was still the fifth

of February, 1918.



Themes of "In the Waiting Room"

One of the main themes of "In the Waiting Room" is the process of growing up and discovering one's identity. The speaker of the poem is a young girl who is waiting in a doctor's office, and as she waits, she reflects on the changes she is experiencing as she grows older. The speaker also reflects on the complexities of growing up and the fear of the unknown that comes with it.


Another theme in the poem is the power of memory. The speaker reflects on a National Geographic magazine that she reads while waiting and remembers the moment when she read the magazine with her aunt. This memory serves as a reminder of the innocence and simplicity of childhood, in contrast to the complexities of growing up.


Imagery and Language

The imagery in the poem is rich and evocative. The speaker describes the setting of the doctor's office as "gray light" and "raindrops on the window", creating a somber and contemplative atmosphere. The imagery also serves to reflect the speaker's inner state, as she reflects on her own feelings of uncertainty and fear.


The language of the poem is simple and straightforward, reflecting the speaker's perspective as a young girl. The speaker uses sensory details to describe her surroundings and the emotions she experiences, allowing readers to fully immerse themselves in the speaker's experience.



Application to Leaving Certificate Students

The themes of growing up and discovering one's identity, as well as the power of memory, are universal and can be applied to the experiences of Leaving Certificate students. The poem can serve as a reminder for students that the process of growing up is not always easy, but it is also full of opportunities for self-discovery and growth. The poem can also serve as a reminder for students to reflect on their own memories and to appreciate the innocence and simplicity of childhood.


Conclusion

"In the Waiting Room" by Elizabeth Bishop is a powerful poem that reflects on the complexities of growing up and discovering one's identity. Through its themes, imagery, and language, the poem offers a unique perspective on the experiences of Leaving Certificate students. By analyzing the poem, students can gain a deeper understanding of the universal themes of growing up, self-discovery and the power of memory.


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