The Poets Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)


About the Poet

Treasured for spare elegance, imagery, and precise language, Elizabeth Bishop revealed her thoughts to readers through regular poetry submissions to The New Yorker magazine. She was skilled at dreamy fantasy and detachment as well as solid description, and she filled her work with the places and emotional states that marked a life much influenced by nomadic travel, lesbianism, depression, and alcohol. In addition to poetry collections, she produced a musical score, juvenile verse, and translations of the poems of Octavio Paz. She also introduced the English-speaking world to Brazilian poetry.

Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. The instability of her childhood derived from the death of her father from kidney failure when she was eight months old and the permanent committal of her mother to an asylum five years later. From that point on, Bishop never saw her mother again. Deprived of interaction with her peers, she grew up among adult relatives.

Placed with maternal grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia, Bishop attended a one-room school at age six. Her elementary education was sporadic because of frequent attacks of asthma, bronchitis, and eczema. She then returned to Worcester and lived with an aunt while attending two Massachusetts boarding schools: North Shore Country Day School in Swampscott and Walnut Hill School in Nantick. At both schools, she published in student newspapers and composed poems and skits for class performance.

While attending Vassar, ostensibly to study piano, Bishop read Henry James and Joseph Conrad and discovered American poets H. D., Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. She regretted that she did not study more Greek and Roman poets, whom she considered sources of mastery. When the editors of The Vassar Miscellany rejected a submission of modern verse, she joined with classmates Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark, and Muriel Rukeyser in founding a less conventional literary journal, Con Spirito. With the aid of the college librarian, in 1934, Bishop established a friendship with mentor Marianne Moore that lasted until Moore's death in 1972. After graduating, Bishop produced evocative verse while living on an inherited income. Moore published a few of Bishop's poems in 1935 in Trial Balances, a collection of the works of beginning poets.

Bishop spent the next three years in Europe and North Africa, then settled in Key West, Florida, where the vigor of storms at sea and fishing trips empowered her verse. She then moved to Mexico. Her work appeared in Partisan Review and, in 1945, she won a $1,000 Houghton Mifflin Poetry Fellowship. In the late 1940s, friendships with Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell sparked a new literary direction. From 1949 to 1950, she served the Library of Congress as poetry consultant, a prolific period that earned her the American Academy of Arts and Letters award and a Houghton Mifflin honor for North and South (1946).

In 1951, after a bout of gastitis sidelined her from a South-American cruise, Bishop remained behind in Brazil, where she established a satisfying relationship with Lota de Macedo Soares. She earned critical acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize for poetry for a collection set in Nova Scotia, A Cold Spring (1955). In her Brazilian period, she translated Alice Brant's The Diary of "Helena Morley" (1957) and composed Brazil (1962), an overedited volume stressing the struggle of South America under entrenched patriarchy. She followed with a National Book Award-winner, Questions of Travel (1965).

After the death of her mate in 1967, Bishop returned to the United States and wrote a volume of children's verse, The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon (1968). In 1969, she began a satisfying teaching career as Harvard's poet-in-residence. During this period, she issued Complete Poems (1969), edited An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry (1972), and published Geography III (1976), which earned her an election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Book Critics' Circle award. Bishop died of a cerebral aneurysm in Boston on October 6, 1979. Posthumous works include The Complete Poems (1983) and The Collected Prose (1984).

Chief Works

A model of Bishop's tendency toward singular or isolated figures, "The Man-Moth" (1946) opens on an incisive description that was her trademark. The image of a man standing in moonlight depicts him as "an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon." With a deft twist, she envisions him like toothpaste in a tube "forced through . . . in black scrolls on the light." Unlike the man himself, the "man-moth" shadow attempts the unthinkable by climbing buildings and trailing along behind his source "like a photographer's cloth." The fourth and fifth stanzas imperil the shadow during a subway ride, where he "always seats himself facing the wrong way" and cowers from the dangers of the third rail. The poet merges the play of light on dark with fantasy in the sixth stanza, in which the shadow, like a mime, acquires humanity by squeezing out a tear, the pure substance of "underground springs."

Critics have characterized Bishop's detachment as the result of emotional inertia, the atmosphere of "The Fish" (1955). The vignette inventories physical parts, which she catalogs without dissection. The fish, sapped of fight, becomes an elder statesman who bears the marks of past challenges. The poet-speaker delights in his "medals with their ribbons/frayed and wavering"; then, in line 75, experiences an unforeseen surprise of "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow." Her victory over the fish gives place to admiration. In sympathy with the water world below, she exults, "I let the fish go."

Similarly immersed in minutiae, "At the Fishhouses" (1955) notes a paradox: the inflexible rule of change. The poem moves through crisp air beyond the net-mender's niche to seaside structures and equipment that wear has silvered with "creamy iridescent coats of mail." Similar in color imagery to "The Fish," the poem equates the shimmer of scales with a store of experience. Through a simple poet's trick, Bishop compares coastal glamour to the old man's "Lucky Strike," a cigarette logo rich in implications of sensory wealth.

Beginning at line 41, Bishop speculates on the net-mender's milieu. In an atmosphere "Cold dark deep and absolutely clear," the poet-speaker encounters a familiar companion, a seal "curious about me." The semi-serious bombardment with Martin Luther's hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" earns the seal's disinterest, as though fundamentalist theology "were against his better judgment." In place of sectarian assurance, the poet-speaker turns to experience — the swift plunge of hand and arm into icy depths. The burning pain of freezing water and the bitter, briny taste of the sea crystallizes an analogy: Knowledge is likewise "dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free." Unlike philosophy, the experience with cold salt water is a paradox: a constant flux, "historical, flowing, and flown."

"Filling Station" (1965), one of Bishop's more whimsical poems, offers a snoopy inventory of elements in the life of a working-class family. Soiled with the grease inherent to their trade, they exist in "a disturbing, over-all / black translucency," another example of illustrative paradox. In the third stanza, the poet-speaker moves into the private realm of family life, including the oil-stained family's dog. The fourth stanza introduces evidence of sensibility in comic books, a doily atop a drum-shaped table, and a hairy begonia.

As though questioning the individual's right to examine a life, the poet-speaker reaches a peak of interest with three parallel questions: "Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily?" The answer lies in the "somebody" who loves the father and sons. Bishop extends domesticity to an image of murmuring, a shelf of oil cans whispering "Esso-so-so-so," a play on the original logo of the Eastern Standard Oil Company. With a teasing twist, the poet-speaker concludes with the reassurance, "Somebody loves us all."

Another of Bishop's poems is less assuring. Dedicated to Robert Lowell, her lifelong friend and fellow poet, "The Armadillo" (1965) is a naturalistic meditation on skepticism. The poem focuses on an unforeseen clash between fire balloons and frail beings on the ground below. Composed in a precise quatrain rhyming abab with abcb, the poem follows a pattern of iambic trimeter in lines 1, 2, and 4 with line 3 expanding to five beats. The masculine rhymes vary from exact patterns (year/appear, night/height) to approximate rhyme (alone/down) and conclude with aaxa in the union of mimicry/cry/fist/sky.

Early on, the poet introduces hints of instability with "frail, illegal fire balloons" and the flicker of light like a beating — or possibly inconstant — heart. She compacts the action as the wind carries shapes that "flare and falter, wobble and toss" toward the constellation known as the Southern Cross, a literal crux of the action. Repeated present participles (receding, dwindling, forsaking, turning) exaggerate the mobility of the image to a height in line 20, which concludes with a warning of danger.

In the final five stanzas, Bishop describes in detail the fall of a large balloon, which "splattered like an egg of fire," an introduction to the destructive power that looms above living creatures. The first, a pair of owls, shriek as they flee the combustion in their ancient nest. The lone armadillo departs like an exile, "head down, tail down," leaving the poet-speaker to marvel at an ashy-soft baby rabbit whose gaze carries the fire in "fixed, ignited eyes." The final italicized stanza reproves a scene that is "too pretty," turned hellish as "falling fire" injures and terrorizes unseen life-forms below. As the title directs, the poem focuses on the seemingly protected armadillo, an image of unsuspecting weakness. Like the armadillo, the poet implies that human beings make weak provisions for catastrophes that can fall from an unidentified source. Written at the height of the Cold War, when people built bomb shelters to protect them from atomic attack, the poem expresses a realistic doubt that any man-made shell can erase a pervasive unease.

One of Bishop's autobiographical commentaries, "In the Waiting Room" (1976), returns to the end of her sixth year with a serendipitous coming-to-knowledge. Set precisely on February 5, 1918, while her Aunt Consuelo keeps a dental appointment in Worcester, Massachusetts, the young speaker must entertain herself with a copy of National Geographic. A precocious reader, she examines articles in a revealing order — the inside of a volcano, the explorations of Osa and Martin Johnson, and photos of bare-breasted native women. In line 36, the poem's high point, an unsolicited burst of emotion, like a volcanic eruption, surprises the speaker, who at first believes the sound bursts from her "foolish, timid" aunt, who quails at dental treatment. Discovering that the cry came from her own mouth, the child experiences an emotional plunge.

At the climax of observation, Bishop notes that the child identifies with "them," the other people in the waiting area. Personalized as an "I," she wonders at the listing of human beings according to physical and cultural traits. The sensation of fainting "beneath a big black wave, / another, and another," precedes a return to reality through the immediacy of the room, the cold outdoors, and World War I, which evidences the child's awareness of current history. The simplistic child's world picture exalts the flexibility of the imagination, which can catapult the mind into exotic locales, then reel it in to a fixed point. Like an aerial artist on a maiden leap, the speaker is surprised that she recovers so quickly from the first mental venture beyond self-imposed boundaries.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Explain James Merril's tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, whom he characterizes as "a Dream Boat / Among topheavy wrecks."

2. What does the image of a man standing in moonlight in "The Man-Moth" symbolize? How does Bishop use light to create feeling in the poem?

3. Ally images from "In the Waiting Room," "Sestina," and "In the Village" with situations and events in Bishop's childhood.

4. Discuss the image of fire balloons in "The Armadillo." What do the balloons symbolize?

5. Contrast realistic details in Bishop's "Filling Station" and John Updike's "The Ex-Basketball Player."