Five Flights Up

Do you ever feel like humans make life way more complicated than it needs to be? Have you ever looked at a cat lounging in the sun in the middle of the day and thought, Wow, why do I have to work when they can just enjoy life? In her 1974 poem "Five Flights Up," Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) considers the peaceful lives that a bird and a dog live, free from any anxiety about the future or shame about the past. The speaker yearns to be as worry-free as the animals in her neighborhood, who live uncomplicated lives. Bishop examines themes like the human tendency to complicate life and the animal tendency to live in the moment. 

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Table of contents

    Five Flights Up at a Glance

    Written By

    Elizabeth Bishop

    Publication Date



    Free verse

    Rhyme Scheme


    Poetic Devices









    Frequently noted imagery

    Unknown bird sits on his usual branch

    Little dog next door barks in his sleep

    Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous

    Gray light streaking each bare branch

    Glassy veins

    Bird yawning

    Little black dog runs in his yard

    Bounces cheerfully up and down

    Fallen leaves

    Impossible to lift


    Peaceful, calm, yearning

    Key themes

    Animals have no inhibitions or expectations

    Humans are burdened by their own expectations


    Animals can experience peace more deeply than humans can because they don't worry about the future or carry the burden of the past. Humans complicate their own lives because they worry about things they can't control and create enormous expectations for themselves.

    Five Flights Up Poem by Elizabeth Bishop

    "Five Flights Up" was originally published in the print edition of The New Yorker in 1974. It was one of Elizabeth Bishop's later poems, written just a few years before her death. It was republished in Geography III (1976), the last poetry collection of Bishop's to be published while she was alive. Geography III established Bishop as a popular poet to the general public, whereas she had been previously been thought of as a poet's poet for the majority of her career. "Five Flights Up" was written when Bishop was 63 and had already experienced much of the pain, excitement, and turbulence that her life was defined by.

    Perhaps a meditation on her own busy life, Bishop's "Five Flights Up" considers the differences between the simple lives that animals live naturally and the complex lives that humans force upon themselves. Are expectations a burden or a blessing? Does worrying about the future benefit humans or simply crush us with anxiety? Bishop examines all of these questions and more in "Five Flights Up."

    Five Flights Up, Mind, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Bishop's "Five Flights Up" examines the way humans complicate their own lives while animals live naturally simple lives.

    Five Flights Up Poem Text

    Still dark.The unknown bird sits on his usual branch.The little dog next door barks in his sleepinquiringly, just once.Perhaps in his sleep, too, the bird inquiresonce or twice, quavering.Questions—-if that is what they are—-answered directly, simply,by day itself.Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous;gray light streaking each bare branch,each single twig, along one side,making another tree, of glassy veins…The bird still sits there. Now he seems to yawn.The little black dog runs in his yard.His owner's voice arises, stern,"You ought to be ashamed!"What has he done?He bounces cheerfully up and down;he rushes in circles in the fallen leaves.Obviously, he has no sense of shame.He and the bird know everything is answered,all taken care of,no need to ask again.—-Yesterday brought to today so lightly!(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)"

    Five Flights Up Poem Summary

    The speaker wakes up early in the morning while it's still dark outside. From her position five flights up, she has a distant view of the world below. She sees a bird on a branch and hears her neighbor's dog barking in his sleep. The bird sits in the tree, unbothered, as day begins. The dog runs outside and the speaker hears her neighbor chastise him, telling him he needs to be ashamed. The speaker wonders what the dog has done and notes that he seems unfazed by his owner's negative attitude, he simply runs around, bouncing up and down. At the end of the poem, the speaker seems jealous of the bird and the dog. Their lives are uncomplicated: they don't have to worry about the future and have all of their needs met. Meanwhile, the speaker is haunted by the past and anxious about her expectations for the future.

    Five Flights Up Tone

    The tone of the poem is peaceful, calm, and yearning. The poem begins with a quiet early morning. The rest of the world seems to still be asleep as the speaker watches the bird and listens to the dog. Then sunlight begins to seep into the sky: "Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous" (10). It does so slowly but carefully, without feeling the need to rush or hurry. The bird even seems to yawn, not out of boredom, but out of a quiet sleepiness. Every question the dog or the bird have seem to be answered directly by the day, and neither one is burdened by any feelings of anxiety. Peace and calmness dominates the tone in the first half of the poem.

    The tone shifts slightly in the latter half of the poem when the speaker reflects on her own feelings. Although the morning is still calm and gentle, the speaker yearns for the same peace that the dog and bird enjoy. She knows that the animals have been "all taken care of" (23) and she longs for that for herself as well. As opposed to the bird and dog who do not worry about the past or the future, she finds yesterday "almost impossible to lift" (26). She yearns for the peace and assurance that the bird and dog experience in their simple lives.

    The only thing that breaks up the calm of the poem is the speaker's neighbor yelling at the dog. How does that affect the tone of the poem? What do you make of that outburst in relation to the otherwise peaceful morning?

    Five Flights Up Poem Literary Devices

    The main literary device in "Five Flights Up" is juxtaposition, presented through symbolism, imagery, and personification.

    Symbolism and Imagery

    The poem begins with the simple imagery "Still dark" (1) to describe the morning. In literature, darkness often stands as a symbol for ignorance and uncertainty, as it does here. It is important to note that there are no humans around, but the speaker notices

    The unknown bird sits on his usual branch.The little dog next door barks in his sleep" (2-3).

    The animal world, though cloaked in darkness alongside humankind, is still active. Neither the dog nor the bird allows the darkness to stop them from enjoying and living life. They are comfortable in darkness—both literally and symbolically as they do not allow unknowns to upset them.

    Symbolism: one person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea.

    Imagery: descriptive language that appeals to one of the five senses

    The second stanza begins with the introduction of light—traditionally a symbol of enlightenment and knowledge—cutting through the darkness of the early morning. The speaker observes,

    Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous;

    gray light streaking each bare branch" (10-11)

    This imagery gives the reader a vivid image of daybreak and transports them into the poem where they can physically see the sky. It also functions symbolically because the light symbolizes understanding and knowledge. It is during the dawn that the people begin to wake up.

     Five Flights Up, dawn in woodland, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The imagery of dawn functions is a symbol for enlightenment and knowledge.

    Interestingly, the bird and dog seem just as content with the daylight as they did when it was dark outside. Their reaction to symbolic ignorance and enlightenment shows that they are comfortable either way. Unlike humans, they don't need to have all of the answers or light to be content, and they aren't afraid of the dark or the unknown.


    Personification further shows the relationship that the animals have with the unknown. The speaker says,

    The little dog next door barks in his sleep

    inquiringly, just once.

    Perhaps in his sleep, too, the bird inquires

    once or twice, quavering.

    Questions—-if that is what they are—-

    answered directly, simply,

    by day itself" (3-9)

    The bird's and dog's ease isn't because they know everything. In fact, they arguably know less than the people do. But instead of worrying about things that are beyond their control, they focus on the things in front of them. Just once the dog and the bird inquire about what the day will bring. And the personified "day itself" answers. Everything they need to know in life can be found out directly by examining the things in front of them. They don't worry about what ifs and expectations and hypotheticals. Rather, their questions are simple, direct, and easily answerable.

    Personification: attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.

    Juxtaposition and metaphor

    The second half of the poem are dominated by juxtaposition and metaphor. This begins when humans are first introduced with the neighbor:

    The little black dog runs in his yard.

    His owner's voice arises, stern,

    'You ought to be ashamed!'

    What has he done?


    Obviously, he has no sense of shame." (15-21)

    The dog's carefree attitude is set in opposition to his owner's seriousness. His owner wants him to be ashamed of his actions because the dog has not met his owner's expectations, whatever they may be. But, as the speaker states, dogs have no sense of shame and they set no expectations for themselves. They live in the moment and don't feel guilty for their past.

    Juxtaposition: when two things are placed close together that have contrasting effects/images

    This shows one of the inherent differences between animals and humans: animals live life without thinking about the past or future, whereas humans allow their past actions and their future expectations to completely control their lives. This theme is reinforced when the speaker yearns to be free of her anxiety and guilt. She says,

    —Yesterday brought to today so lightly!

    (A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)" (25-26).

    In this final stanza, the speaker presents the major juxtaposition. In nature, time and life flow so seamlessly. Today comes gently and steadily, without a second thought. But for humans, who have made life so complicated, the past and the future control most of our present. Time might pass effortlessly, but it constantly brings new challenges to humans who constantly struggle to make the most of their time and deal with the unknowns.

    The metaphor in the last two lines show the effect time has on humans. Yesterday became today lightly, there was no fanfare or force. But for the speaker, who struggles with her past, yesterday was metaphorically almost impossible to survive. She compares it to something heavy that she could barely lift, that would probably crush her if she made a misstep. Today might be gentle, but yesterday was brutal and tiring. While time might go on smoothly, because of the expectations humans place upon themselves, some days feel like a heavy, impossible burden.

    Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as

     Five Flights Up, weights and burdens StudySmarterFig. 3 - The speaker compares the past to a heavy burden she found "almost impossible" to lift.


    The alliteration in the poem is gentle and comforting. Occurring in every stanza, the alliteration is a mix of different sounds, and the gentle repetition helps to create the peaceful tone. In stanza one consider the lazy, unhurried repetition of the "B" and "U" sounds in line two with "The unknown bird sits on his usual branch." A few words separate the alliteration in this stanza, making it slow and gentle like the morning light filtering through the trees. Alliteration also occurs in the first stanza with "D" in "dog next door" (3) and the "Q" in "quavering. / Questions" (6-7).

    Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words

    Alliteration continues throughout each of the four stanzas. Though consistent, it is not overbearing. The alliteration reflects the day, which unfurls naturally, untempered by human expectations. Consider the "M" in "morning, ponderous, meticulous" (10), the "B" in "bare branch" (11), and the "S" in "still sits."

    In stanza three, the "H" sound is repeated with "has he" (18), and answered in stanza four with "he has" (21). Finally, alliteration wraps up neatly in line 24 with "no need." All of the alliterative sounds are used to describe the natural world itself, free from human influence.

    Read the poem aloud! Do you notice any other way the poet uses syntax to influence the poem? What effect does this have on your interpretation?

    Five Flights Up Themes

    The themes in the poem examine how animals and humans differ in their relationship to life: while animals live uncomplicated lives, humans burden themselves with their own expectations.

    Animals have no inhibitions or expectations

    From the beginning of the poem it is apparent that the bird and dog are rather unfazed by the craziness of life. They are uncertain about the future and ask questions about it, but they don't allow their ignorance to wreak havoc on their happiness. Even when the dog gets chastised by his owner, he doesn't allow his owner's bad mood to effect his own happiness:

    He bounces cheerfully up and down;

    he rushes in circles in the fallen leaves." (19-20)

    Five Flights Up, happy dog, UnsplashFig. 4 - The dog is happy because he has no concept of shame or expectations.

    Animals, in short, have no inhibitions or expectations for their lives. They flow wherever life takes them and don't worry about their next meal or how they're going to pay their bills. Their lives are free because they are so uncomplicated. The speaker states,

    (The dog) and the bird know everything is answered,

    all taken care of,

    no need to ask again." (22-24)

    They don't worry about their future and its unknowns or their actions in the past. They simply believe that life will provide for them, so life is naturally easy and carefree.

    Bishop's reflection on anxiety and inhibitions could have been inspired by the Bible.

    Matthew 6, verses 26-27 read: "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?"

    What do you make of these discussions about worrying and life? Can you find any meaning in this passage from the Bible or Bishop's poem? Or do you think these interpretations of worry and anxiety are too reductive for the 21st century?

    It would be so nice to just stop working and not worry how to make ends meet, but it's not really realistic today, is it? What other interpretations can you come up with?

    Humans are burdened by their own expectations

    On the other hand, the humans in the poem are presented as being unhappy in varying degrees. The neighbor yells at his dog for not doing what he thought the animal should do. And the speaker herself is deeply anxious about the past and future. She is even jealous of the ease with which the animals live their lives, introducing her unhappiness almost like an aside in lines 25 and 26, when she reflects of the pain of yesterday.

    Unlike the dog and bird, she is acutely aware of her own shame and anxieties. She asks questions that do not have a natural, simple answer. Human nature makes everything so much more complicated, raising the stakes of getting life "right" or "wrong." The speaker, like all humans to some extent, is burdened by her own expectations and that which society forces upon her.

    Five Flights Up Meaning

    "Five Flights Up" essentially examines the differences between how humans and animals live their lives. On one hand, humans set all these expectations for themselves: do well in school, get a good job, have a family, be successful, etc. When things don't go according to plan even for one singular day, they see that as failure. Society shoves these expectations onto people until they internalize it, defining success and fulfilment only by these characteristics.

    For animals, though, there aren't any set definitions of success or expectations placed on them. They are free to live their lives and truly experience each moment without worrying about the future. Instead of actively fighting against time, animals are free to simply experience each day without any expectations.

    Animals can experience peace more deeply than humans can because they don't worry about the future or carry the burden of the past. Humans complicate their own lives because they worry about things they can't control and create enormous expectations for themselves.

    Five Flights Up - Key takeaways

    • "Five Flights Up" was written by Elizabeth Bishop in 1974. It was published first in the New Yorker and then republished in her collection Geography III in 1976.
    • It was published towards the end of her life and may reflect Bishop's desire to slow down after living a busy life full of travel, trauma, and tempestuous lovers.
    • The tone of "Five Flights" up is peaceful, calm, and yearning.
    • The themes in the poem are animals have no inhibitions or expectations and humans are burdened by their own expectations.
    • The meaning of the poem is that humans complicate their own lives because they worry about things they can't control and create enormous expectations for themselves, while animals just accept life for what it is.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Five Flights Up

    What is the poem "Five Flights Up" about?

     "Five Flights Up" essentially examines the differences between how humans and animals live their lives. Humans complicate their lives by having such high expectations, whereas animals are free to enjoy life for what it is rather than trying to achieve an ideal. 

    How would you characterize the diction of the poem "Five Flights Up"?

     The diction is mostly colloquial, although it becomes poetic when the speaker is describing the dawn. 

    When was the poem "Five Flights Up" written?

    It was written in 1974, towards the end of Bishop's life.  

    What is the tone of the poem "Five Flights Up"?

    The tone is peaceful, calm, and yearning.  

    What is the main literary device in the poem "Five Flights Up"?

    The main literary device is juxtaposition, depicting the differences between the humans and animals.  

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