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Elizabeth Bishop’s reputation as an accomplished poet rests on a small but significant body of highly crafted poems that have been praised for their precise observations and understated, descriptive quality. Honored in her lifetime with numerous literary awards by both critics and poets, Bishop is now gaining the attention of literary historians for the imagination and intensity of her poems.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Rootlessness in Youth
Bishop was born in 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Eight months later, Bishop’s father died and her mother suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. During her childhood, Bishop lived first with her mother until the latter was institutionalized and then with her maternal grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia. She later moved to the home of her father’s parents in Worcester and then to her aunt’s in Boston, Massachusetts. The memories of these early years are expressed in much of Bishop’s poetry through the theme of rootlessness. As a child, Bishop suffered from a variety of illnesses and thus spent a great deal of time alone, acquiring an early interest in reading and writing poetry.
A lonely child in Great Village and Worcester, Bishop found ”a much more congenial and sympathetic world for herself in books,” according to biographer Anne Stevenson. In a 1966 Shenandoah interview with Ashley Brown, Bishop recollected that while her relatives were not literary, they did own many books, that she started reading poetry when she was eight years old, and that she was also ”crazy about fairy tales—Andersen, Grimm, and so on.” In ”Influences,” a memoir published in the American Poetry Review, she remembered how old English ballads, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and riddles affected her as a child and later as a poet. Bishop told Brown during the 1966 interview that when she was thirteen she discovered Walt Whitman; at about the same time, she encountered Emily Dickinson, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Joseph Conrad, and Henry James. Soon after, she first read some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry, which captivated her.
From Vassar to the Library of Congress
In 1930, she entered Vassar College, where she distinguished herself as a member of the intellectual circle that included future authors Mary McCarthy and Eleanor Clark, with whom she co-founded the literary magazine Con Spirito. An admirer of Marianne Moore’s poetry, Bishop met the elder poet in 1934 and the two quickly developed a lifelong friendship. Moore also became Bishop’s mentor, encouraging the younger woman to write and offering editorial advice early in her career. Upon graduating from Vassar in 1934, Bishop moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, publishing her early poems in the anthology Trial Balances in 1935. During the next few years, she traveled extensively in North Africa and Europe, settling briefly in Paris, France. In 1939, Bishop moved to Key West, Florida, but frequently journeyed along the Eastern seaboard and to Mexico. In 1946, she published her first volume of poetry, North & South, for which she received the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award. That same year Bishop met poet Robert Lowell, with whom she developed an enduring friendship based on a mutual admiration of each other’s works.
In 1949, Bishop was named poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and moved to Washington, D.C. However, she admitted to both Anne Stevenson and Elizabeth Spires that she did not enjoy the year. As she told Spires,
There were so many government buildings that looked like Moscow. There was a very nice secretary … [who] did most of the work. I’d write something and she’d say, ‘Oh, no, that isn’t official,’ so then she’d rewrite it in gobbledegook. We used to bet on the horses. She and I would sit there reading the Racing Form when poets came to call.
Relocation to Brazil
In 1951, Bishop set out on a trip around the world. Her first stop was in Rio de Janeiro in order to visit Lota de Macedo Soares and Mary Morse, two women she had met in New York in 1942. Soares and Morse owned an apartment in Rio and were building a house on Soares’s estate, Samambaia, near Petropolis. Bishop spent three weeks touring the countryside in Soares’s Jaguar sports car and writing in the Rio apartment. She was scheduled to rejoin her freighter on January 26. However, sometime in mid-December Bishop sampled the exotic fruit of the Brazilian cashew tree and fell violently ill with an allergic reaction: her face and hands swelled so that she could neither see nor write. Three weeks later she was still bedridden but was nonetheless astounded by the love and care shown her by Soares and Morse as well as by the household servants and their children. By mid January she had decided to stay and recuperate for at least another month. By February she admitted that the idea of continuing her trip, or of going back to the United States, was farther and farther from her mind. For her birthday a neighbor gave her a toucan, and with her new pet she settled into Soares’s half-finished house, high on a mountainside amid ”fantastic” scenery. In April, Bishop, accompanied by Soares, returned to New York to arrange for the shipping of her possessions to Brazil.
During those first few months back in Brazil, Bishop continued her recovery and in the process fell in love with Lota Soares. Meanwhile, she planned to complete A Cold Spring. It would be three years before the book appeared, and she would be unable to finish any of the older poems she hoped to include. But, she immediately began ”Arrival at Santos” and by the end of August had finished ”The Shampoo.” The two Brazilian poems would give A Cold Spring a strange, forward-looking lift at the end.
Ten years passed between the publication of A Cold Spring and Bishop’s next book of poetry, Questions of Travel (1965), a period also marked by the appearance of a pictorial history, Brazil, which Bishop wrote with the editors of Life. Her perception of herself and her world changed recognizably during these years. There she found a culture that contrasted in values and priorities with the North American culture she had known. It is no wonder that the poems in Questions of Travel often explored previously unfelt or rediscovered emotions set vibrating by this exotic, emotional culture.
When the reviews of Questions of Travel began to appear in the spring of 1966, Bishop was in the United States, having taken on the first teaching job of her life. At the University of Washington in Seattle she taught poetry and creative writing. The job at first terrified her. She had never worked for a living; she had been out of the country for fifteen years, and all of the transformations of the 1960s were new to her. She found that she was able to do it, especially with the help of good friends. Early in her stay in Seattle, Bishop fell in love with a young woman, and with that relationship, her Brazilian life began to fall apart.
By 1976 Bishop, having returned to the United States, no longer treated Brazil in her poetry. The lush, colorful, and sometimes humorous dimensions that Brazil inspired in her verse therefore disappeared, and Geography III, which was published eleven years after Questions of Travel, possessed a much more subdued form, tone, and emphasis. While part of Questions of Travel’s thematic preoccupation had been the struggle for vision and its ensuing perceptions, Geography III seemed to take that vision for granted and to concentrate instead on observing the world with an unfaltering, unclouded eye.
Elizabeth Bishop started publishing poems about 1935, but her reputation as one of the best American poets has emerged rather slowly. She never rushed into print, and only in her last years did she give public readings of her work. She was honored in a number of ways. In 1976 she was the first American writer to receive the Books Abroad / Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and in the following year the poet Anthony Hecht, writing in the London Times Literary Supplement, said that ”Hers is about the finest product our country can offer the world; we have little by other artists that can match it.” Bishop died of a cerebral hemhorrage in 1979.
Works in Literary Context
Because Bishop’s poems were often difficult to place in a particular style and because nearly a decade elapsed between publications of each of her collections, several critics have suggested that the works of her contemporaries overshadowed her own. Recent criticism has viewed Bishop’s poetry within a broader context, focusing on her unique imaginative vision. Considered masterpieces of descriptive verse, her works are praised for their calm, understated tone and for the ease with which she gradually shifts from observations of ordinary objects to philosophical insights. Although her poems are often personal, critics note that Bishop avoids self-pity and egoism to extend her themes from the specific to the universal.
Travel, Loss, and the Search for Self
A fascination with travel in Bishop’s own life also occupies an important place in her poetry, as in the collection Questions of Travel. The theme of travel imbues Bishop’s poems with varied settings and images and also becomes a central metaphor, often signifying the search for self. This theme is suggested by the final line of ”Arrival at Santos” in which Bishop writes that ”we are driving to the interior.” Dislocation, loneliness, and doubt are associated with such a search, but an acceptance of hardship prevails in these poems. In ”Questions of Travel,” Bishop ponders the wisdom of leaving the stability and familiarity of home to travel abroad. The poem implies that without continual risk and uncertainty there can be no spiritual growth. In addition to verse in the first section of Questions of Travel describing the exotic Brazilian landscape, Bishop also included works that recall her previous homes and points of travel under the heading ”Elsewhere.” These poems are concerned with such diverse subjects as a sandpiper, her childhood in Nova Scotia, and her observations on Ezra Pound, whom she had visited while he was a patient in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental institution, in Washington, D.C. ”First Death in Nova Scotia” is a highly personal poem about her childhood, a subject she had previously eschewed in her poetry. This treatment marked an increased focus on personal loss, which became significant in her later poems.
Works in Critical Context
Perhaps because of their friendship and because Marianne Moore helped get Bishop’s work published in the anthology Trial Balances, the introduction of which included Moore’s statements appreciative of Bishop, early reviewers continually linked Bishop’s poetry with Moore’s. They noticed that both poets often described animals and emphasized a visual quality in their work. In a review later collected in Poetry and the Age, Randall Jarrell wrote of a poem in North & South, ”you don’t need to be told that the poetry of Marianne Moore was, in the beginning, an appropriately selected foundation for Miss Bishop’s work.” Less enthusiastically, Louise Bogan noted in a 1946 New Yorker review Bishop’s slight addiction to the poetic methods of Marianne Moore.”
In his book American Poetry since 1945: A Critical Survey, Stephen Stepanchev made astute observations about North & South and A Cold Spring that apply to the rest of Bishop’s canon. He declared that Bishop’s ”At the Fishhouses” ”tells brilliantly what Miss Bishop thinks of human knowledge, which is always undermined by time, by change. It is obvious that change is the most disturbing principle of reality for her.”
Elizabeth Bishop’s critical reputation has grown steadily since her death in 1979. Always a respected poet honored by her peers, Bishop was not well known outside the poetry circles of New York and Boston during her lifetime. Today her poems are widely read and taught in classrooms, and a steady stream of essays and books about her life and work has followed since the publication of The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 in 1983. One can account for this extraordinary attention in several ways: the rise of feminist scholarship and the attendant search for neglected female writers; the continuing respect for Bishop’s poems shown by teachers and other poets; and most important, the simultaneous profundity and accessibility of the poems and the remarkable appeal of the distinctive and personal voice in which they are written.
Questions of Travel
In The New Republic, Frank J. Warnke noted that “Questions of Travel is impressively varied in its forms and modes.” Warnke found ”the Brazilian half of the book more exciting” but pointed out the technical achievement of ”Visits to St. Elizabeth’s,” which recounted the poet’s responses to Ezra Pound, who had been confined to a mental hospital for his pro-Mussolini broadcasts during World War II. Remarking on the revolutionary quality of Bishop’s verse, Willard Spiegelman in the Centennial Review found a natural hero” in Bishop’s work, a hero who occupies a privileged position which is unattainable by the super— or unnatural—exploits of masculine achievement which the poetry constantly debunks.”
While critics twenty years later would see that Bishop was strongly involved with the world, most contemporary reviewers of Questions of Travel missed this characteristic amid the more spectacularly dramatic political movements and poetry of the time. Stepanchev, among others, felt that public events, political issues, or socioeconomic ideology” did not inspire Bishop and that her poetry left readers unaware of Hitler and World War II: ”Unlike many of her Auden-infuenced contemporaries, she distrusts history, with its melodramatic blacks and whites, and prefers geography, with its subtle gradations of color.”
- Bishop, Elizabeth and George Monteiro. Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
Elizabeth Bishop: A References, 1927-1979, compiled by Candace MacMahon. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1980.
- Fountain, Gary and Peter Brazeau. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.
- Lombardi, Marilyn May. The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University, 1995.
- McCabe, Susan. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.
- Schwartz, Lloyd and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1983.
- Shigley, Sally Bishop. Dazzling Dialectics: Elizabeth Bishop’s Resonating Feminist Reality. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.
- Stevenson, Anne. Elizabeth Bishop. Boston: Twayne, 1966.
- Elizabeth Bishop at Vassar College. Retrieved September 20, 2008, from http://projects.vassar.edu/bishop.
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