A stunning trove of letters from Elizabeth Bishop to her therapist sheds light on the personal secrets that shaped her poetry.
Photograph: Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Library
“The enormous power of reticence,” Octavio Paz wrote in 1977, “is the great lesson of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.” Many critics have echoed his praise since her death in 1979. “Bishop wrote delicately and elliptically,” Kathleen Spivack sums up in her 2012 memoir With Robert Lowell and His Circle. “What is most important is what is not said.”
Bishop’s reputed reserve has taken on new significance in light of personal correspondence discovered in 2009. When Bishop’s lover Alice Methfessel passed away, her heir found a locked box containing some of Bishop’s photographs and personal documents, including three remarkable letters she wrote to her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Foster, in 1947. These letters were written at a crucial moment of Bishop’s career, and their discovery calls for a reassessment of her lyric development and legacy.
But their intensely private nature also raises questions about the ethics of archival reconnaissance. Scholar Lorrie Goldensohn, who first wrote of the discovery in January 2015, noted that the letters appear to have been carefully copied and preserved, perhaps by Bishop herself. The poet might have wished her oeuvre to be understood by a future generation alongside the secrets that, in her lifetime, she kept so carefully from view. Biography, when it resists hagiography, can’t help but adjust the light in which we assess a writer’s art. In Bishop’s case, the light limns astonishing shadows.
• • •
Bishop’s confessional peers made it easy for her to be miscast as a cautious dowager. In the late 1950s and ’60s, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton, among others, boldly capitalized on the mid-century zeitgeist of domestic rebellion, writing poems that explored alcoholism and suicide, incest and infidelity, nuclear bombs and non-nuclear families—subjects that many Americans still regarded as taboo. By contrast, Bishop’s poems had a “Cordelia-like” quality, as Seamus Heaney described it: a sense that secrets were held in abeyance or dimly glossed as she rendered natural tableaux, ekphrastic meditations, and impersonal love poems, offering the reader startling moments—“the little that we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust”—without the full, wearying poignancy of what it took to arrive at them.
Bishop indeed avoided what she termed “the tendency . . . to overdo the morbidity” that became common as confessionalism—or Robert Lowellism—came into vogue, spearheaded by her close friend and correspondent. Lowell’s Life Studies was published in 1959, offering portraits of his Beacon Hill childhood and bipolar episodes, his dread of Eisenhower, and his drunken nights with Delmore Schwartz and a taxidermied, rum-pickled duck. A few years later, Sexton, Lowell’s student, electrified the Boston poetry scene with her rock band and poems about suburban despair—thrilling audiences with her well-dressed rebelliousness, chthonic verse, and lean good looks. The poetry reading had not been so sexed up since W. H. Auden had read at Harvard in his scuffed-up bedroom slippers.
Bishop did not approve. Writing to Lowell from her expatriate residence in Brazil in 1960, she asserted that Sexton’s poems “had a bit too much romanticism and what I think of as the ‘our beautiful old silver’ school of female writing. . . . They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to mis-place them socially, first.” Aware of how a poet might capitalize on gender, class, and family name, Bishop largely steered clear of autobiographical conceits and political critique in her first collection, North & South (1946). Later, as her poems engaged more directly with the plights and pleasures of the individual, they never showed up with a bassist, a menstrual cycle, or an aristocratic clan primed for desecration. Alongside the confessionals’ striptease, Bishop appeared reliably clothed.
Yet her poems are unflinchingly, unceasingly modern. With more subtlety and nuance than many of her peers, Bishop explored the marketplace of love and the homely accident of happiness; the arrogations of empire and ego; beauty’s unlikely appearance in the ugliness of a child’s death, an electric storm, or a blood-splattered armadillo; and art’s frail attempt to answer to life’s dinning disasters. A poet of broad sensibility and exacting technique, she excelled in classical forms, but she also riffed on blues songs and nursery rhymes, folk ballads and news broadcasts, building poetic structures of uncanny paradox, urbane surrealism, and figurative experiment. Few twentieth-century poets have been so proudly, possessively claimed by both new formalists and anti-lyricists, by the so-called establishment and the avant-garde.
It is ironic that Bishop should achieve the status of aesthetic alma mater of contemporary poetry. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911, she lost her father in her infancy and her mother, Gertrude Bulmer, to psychiatric incarceration in 1916. The hospital file notes that Bulmer tried to hang herself with a sheet and to strangle Bishop’s grandmother; she spent the remaining eighteen years of her life in Nova Scotia Hospital, and Bishop never saw her after she was committed. The unearthed Foster letters fill in long-standing biographic lacunae regarding the extent of Bishop’s mourning for her mother and her other personal travails. They suggest that her reticence served as both a psychic and an aesthetic strategy. In the adage of Marianne Moore, Bishop’s mentor, the younger poet’s “omissions are not accidents.”
• • •
Bishop’s letters to her psychiatrist are newsy and notational. One begins with a friend surprising her “with a birthday cak[e] and some mimosa” and concludes with a hairstyling appointment before dinner with Randall Jarrell. But she also uses the letters as an extension of psychoanalysis, detailing a schoolgirl crush, for example, as well as a daring escape from a mixer party with “strange boys” that entailed hitchhiking and sleeping overnight in the Natick woods. The greater biographical significance of the letters lies in their revelation that Bishop suffered from incest and physical abuse as well as alcoholism and familial estrangement, subjects that many of her confessional peers explored publicly—often hyperbolically—in their poems. Although Bishop’s struggles with drink and parental loss have been well documented, these letters provide an aperture into her suffering, new information about her childhood traumas, and a compelling portrait of the solace she found in her psychiatrist’s understanding—a key to the poetics of recognition that marks her mature work.
Bishop’s epistolary persona is chatty and self-deprecating, even as she relates painful memories and concerns, including a growing dependency on drink. Alcoholic admissions punctuate her narrative: “while I was in my cups—kegs I should say”; “it’s taken three quarts of whiskey”; “I was so drunk I kept falling off my bicycle”; and “if only I didn’t feel I were that dreadful thing an ‘alcoholic.’” She traces her addiction back to the collegiate year in which her mother died and her unrequited love, the painter Margaret Miller, refused her. Bishop describes, too, her bouts of social anxiety (“I wanted to go but couldn’t damn fool that I am”) and her memory of a harrowing car accident in France that resulted in Miller’s arm being amputated. Poignantly, she recounts seeing in a lover’s expression at the moment of sexual climax, in “that mask of anguish we call joy,” the look of her late mother and “some connection with the word madness.” Bishop appears to have been haunted by her mother in some of the most private moments of her adult life.
In fits and starts, Bishop gradually relates the “long sad tale of Uncle George,” husband of her maternal aunt Maud Shepherdson. George began abusing Bishop when she was eight and continued well into her adolescence. He was an accountant for General Electric and a sadistic “storm trooper type” in his off hours; Bishop recalls instances in which he “lowered me by the hair over the second story verandah railing,” handled her sexually in a bathtub, and threatened to beat her without provocation. Altogether, the letters display an enabling trust between patient and doctor while providing new information about the poet’s hidden difficulties. In the gathering, concentric energy of these letters, Bishop shares confidences more intimate than what might be conveyed to a priest or a mother.
• • •
While these letters testify to a deep bond between analyst and analysand, they are also something of an ars poetica. Citing Edward Degas’s adage that “art doesn’t grow wider, it recapitulates,” Bishop credits Foster for helping her to “get over the fear of repetition.” She reports that she has begun to see each poem not as an “isolated event” but as part of “really all one long poem anyway” as “they go on into each other or over lap.” Bishop also situates the activity of writing poetry alongside dreaming and painting and emphasizes the genesis of her poems in fully formed, integral images.
Speaking of her poem “At the Fishhouses,” for example, she notes, “The day I saw this poem I was in Lockeport.” The poem is something seen, not just conceived. Bishop recounts awaking hungover, then taking a long bicycle ride “by way of punishment” to the ocean shore where she sat on the rocks, “cried for a while,” and visited with an Atlantic seal. That episode, she says, reanimated an earlier dream about a “wild & dark” storm in which she witnessed herself, “baby size,” feeding at Foster’s breast, a posture that she wryly rationalizes must be “a common dream about a woman analyst.” Bishop confides in Foster that this mammary imagery informs “At the Fishhouses,” in which the narrator describes knowledge as “drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts / forever.” Later on, addressing her psychiatrist as “Ruth,” Bishop indicates their shared vulnerability: “You once said that I wouldn’t think you had once been shy . . . . I should have been more empathic I think—I fel[t] right away that you had once . . . been frightfully shy and that was an other reason why I took to you.”
Shyness, in Bishop’s published work, often intimates the richness of a subject’s inner life, a capacity for ambivalence, or a retreat from socialized shame. Lovelorn narrators in her poems “One Art” and “Insomnia” and returned exiles in “The Prodigal” and “Crusoe in England” explore the anxiety of carrying secrets that have no place in the social order, that catalyze a “driving to the interior.” Yet shyness in Bishop’s poetry also frequently marks the empathic bond forged between self and other; to be shy in Bishop’s poetry is to accept the ostracon of self-knowledge and to relate to others on the basis of shared liability.
In her poem “In the Waiting Room,” Bishop depicts a child named Elizabeth waiting for her aunt at the dentist’s office. The six-year-old narrator reads an issue of National Geographic with pictures of naked African women. Intrigued by their “awful hanging breasts,” she finds herself “too shy to stop,” drawn onward by her curiosity about the scripts of gender and conscription of somatic suffering. This emboldened reticence, tied to an eros for knowledge without prohibition, informs Bishop’s mature style and the epiphanies in her Foster letters.
• • •
After her psychiatrist’s death in 1950, Bishop wrote to Moore that Foster had “certainly helped me more than anyone in the world.” In two years of treatment, Foster had reassured Bishop that she was “lucky to have survived” her childhood. Although analysis did not alleviate her alcoholism, Bishop was able to transmute her experiences into a poetics of psychological depth and acuity.
Not all mid-century poets were so lucky. In 1974, having spent her secrets in explicit poems and having been betrayed by a psychiatrist with whom she had an affair, Sexton embraced oblivion in her parked red Mustang, asphyxiating in her home garage. She joined the ranks of her generation’s other notorious poet-suicides, including Plath (1963) and Berryman (1972).
With Foster, Bishop had found a different way of navigating her troubled life in her art. Reading their correspondence illuminates not only the secrets Bishop kept hidden but also the intimate recognition and humane knowledge embodied in her poetry and prose.
For Michael Harper
The English critic John Bayley is, I believe, quite wrong when in his book, The Characters of Love, he says of Conrad: “He has no myth with a view to insight: he has scenes and he has people.” But no more apt a formula could be devised for such a poet as Elizabeth Bishop: she is, indeed, a poet without myth, without meta- , physic, without commitment to any systematic vision of the world, perhaps the most thoroughly secular poet of her generation—and it makes an impressive, attestation to her extraordinary record of successes in her dealings simply with the world of eye and ear that, even so, she was well-nigh universally regarded at the time of her death in October 1979 as one who had ridded something to our literature in the ways that only genius can.
Since by some quirk of misfortune she won no “myth with a view to insight” such as a Yeats or a Stevens or an Auden was granted, it was no doubt inevitable that her poetry should always be (as one of her critics has remarked) a kind of expedition, just as her own life was that of the constant voyager to Brittany and Paris, to North Africa and Spain, to Mexico and Scandinavia and Brazil. When she accepted the Neustadt International Prize for Literature at the University of Oklahoma in the spring of 1976, she spoke about how all her life she had “lived and behaved very much like . . . . [a] sandpiper—just running along the edges of different countries and continents, “looking for something.”” Which is not unlike what her poetry is doing, what indeed it has to be doing, since there is no controlling myth to chart and guide its motions: it is forever turning to this and that and something else and saying (as does the final line in the great poem “The Monument”), “Watch it closely.” “I require of you only to look,” says St. Theresa—which might be thought to be the imperative in which the morality of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry is grounded. For, since her poetry is unregulated by any metaphysic wherewith the things and creatures of earth might be ordered into a system of total meaning, it must be continually searching for significances, looking here and looking there till (in the final phrase of “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”) it has “looked and looked our infant sight away.” We dwell, as she sees it, in a world whose variousness is beyond all calculation, a world of continents and cities and mountains, of oceans and mangrove swamps, of buzzards and alligators and fireflies, of dews and frosts, of light and darkness, of stars and clouds, of birth and death, and of all the thousands of other things that make up the daily round of experience. And, amidst “the bewilderingly proliferating data of the universe,” a poet of her stamp must take it for granted, as John Ashbery says, that “not until the senses have all but eroded themselves to nothing in the process of doing the work assigned to them can anything approaching a moment of understanding take place.” The attention bestowed upon whatever comes one’s way must be so pure, so absolute, so intransitive, as to allow us to hear (as she phrases it in her story “In the Village”) “the elements speaking: earth, air, fire, water.” And, in this way, even without myth or metaphysic, we may win through to knowledge, fundamental knowledge—
What one ought to want in art, said the poet in a letter to Anne Stevenson, “is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration”—on all the various particulars that surround us and that are freighted with meanings so abundant that we may find the consolations of systematic philosophy to be quite inessential.
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world. . . .
(“At the Fishhouses”)
Indeed, the posthumously issued Complete Poems might well have been given the title that Bishop chose for her book of 1965, Questions of Travel, for, in its search for significant particulars, the poetry is constantly moving from Wellfleet, Massachusetts, to Paris, from Florida to Nova Scotia, from New York to Brazil, and on to still other scenes and regions. “There are in her poems,” says David Kalstone, “no final visions—only the saving, continuing, precise pursuits of the travelling eye.” Which may well be why, as one moves through her work from her first book North & South (1946) to A Cold Spring (1955), Questions of Travel (1965), Geography HI (1976), and on to the last poems, one has no sense of any progress or growth, as one does in contemplating the whole career of Eliot or Auden or Lowell: poem after poem is recording utterly discrete perceptions, and though, taken poem by poem, her work is powerfully unified and cogent, the poems altogether seem to be an affair of “Everything only connected by “and” and “and”” (“Over 2,000 Illustrations . . .”).
So, for the reader tackling Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry for the first time, it makes little difference where one begins, since, in whatever one turns to, one finds oneself in the hands of a poet who is saying, “But surely it would have been a pity/not to have seen” this or “not to have pondered” that—as she does in the beautiful poem called “Questions of Travel” which invites us to contemplate a luxuriant Brazilian landscape which is all an affaire de trop: “too many waterfalls,” “streams [that]/hurry too rapidly down to the sea,” and “so many clouds on the mountaintops.” “But,” says the poem,
And the tone in which the closing question of the poem is asked clearly indicates that this poet wants it to be answered in the negative. For she takes a skeptical view of Pascal’s injunction that we forswear the temptations of divertissement and remain quietly in our own chamber. So she rarely situates her poetic topos “ at home, /wherever that may be”: she wants to be in other places; as Wallace Stevens says (in “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”):
surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists robed in pink,
—Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
—A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque. . . .
—Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr’dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages. . . .
—And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians’ speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:
“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?
Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”
From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.
The world that Elizabeth Bishop looks out upon, for all its blazoned days, often appears to be hard indeed. Hers was, of course, a sensibility too chaste for her ever to have moaned about falling on the thorns of life, and she had nothing but impatience with “the tendency . . .to overdo the morbidity” in much recent “confessional” poetry: “You just wish,” she said, “they’d keep some of these things to themselves.” Yet she reserved a certain mistrust for what in the poem called “Roosters” she speaks of as the “vulgar beauty of iridescence.” In “Florida,” for example, she remarks the irony that “the state with the prettiest name”
Or, in the strange poem called “The Unbeliever,” we are told that he—whoever he is—”sleeps on the top of his mast/with his eyes closed tight” and that, when a “gull inquired into his dream,” it turned out to be
floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrove roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
Or, again, in “Questions of Travel,” she speaks of how, as one peers up at the Brazilian highlands, “the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships, /slime-hung and barnacled.” And in the great poem “Crusoe in England” in Geography III, she has the solitary back at home on his native isle remembering his former place of exile which—unlike the rough, craggily grand landscape that Defoe’s protagonist subdued— was “a sort of cloud-dump” over which “all the hemisphere’s left-over clouds” appeared to hang. The volcanoes were “miserable, small. . .—volcanoes dead as ash heaps.” Everywhere there was aridness and desiccation: the waterspouts would “come and go, advancing and retreating,” and they offered “not much company.” Even the little volcano that he christened “Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair” seemed never to confirm either designation. And the goats and the gulls as they went “Baa, baa, baa, and shriek, shriek, shriek,” offered only “equivocal replies” to his tacit questions. It was a mute world which held forth not the merest promise of any kind of reciprocity, an “island [that] had one kind of everything” (“one tree snail,” “one variety of tree,” “one kind of berry”), but with nothing seeming inclined to become for this isolé (as Martin Buber would say) a thou.
”I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”
It is, in other words, with an unblinking clarity that Elizabeth Bishop views the world, and she has no recourse to any kind of sentimental pastoralism. Her way of rendering the natural order would have made it wholly appropriate for her to say, with the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Man looks at the world, and the world does not look back at him.” Yet, hard as it is, for all its blazoned days, she bestows upon it and all its creatures an attention so passionate that very often the distinction between the self and the not-self seems nearly altogether to have been dissolved, so much so that the confession of Byron’s Childe Harold could be hers:
I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me . . .
. . . .. . . .. . . ..I can see
Nothing to loathe in nature, save to be
A link reluctant in a fleshly chain. . . .
Are not the mountains, waves, and skies
Of me and of my soul, as I of them?
Indeed, Elizabeth Bishop’s meditation, for all its secularity, cannot but paradoxically put one in mind of the meditative methods underlying the religious poetry of the English 17th century which Louis Martz has scanned so profoundly in his book The Poetry of Meditation. Professor Martz has shown how greatly the sensibilities and poetic procedures of those writers whom we speak of as “metaphysical” (such as Donne and Herbert) were formed by all the various Counter-Reformation treatises on meditation that drifted into England from the Continent during the 16th and 17th centuries. It began, this art of applying the understanding to things for the sake of exciting holy affections, with what Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises called the “composition of place, seeing the spot”: that is to say, the scene or object (or, more preferably, as Ignatius specifies, “Christ our Lord”) prompting the meditation needed to be seen by “the eyes of the imagination” with the greatest possible intensity. Then the meditant needed most strenuously to reflect on the import of what was beheld for the ultimate profit of the “whole soul.” And, finally, for the empowerment of the affections, there needed to be a “colloquy,” preferably with God, though permissibly also with ourselves, or even, as St. Francis de Sales allowed, with “insensible creatures.” The great fascination of Professor Martz’ book grows out of its various disclosures of how deeply English meditative poems of the 17th century were affected by this discipline, even when they departed in one particular or another from the prescriptions laid down by devotional manuals of the period.
Now Elizabeth Bishop did, to be sure, have a great admiration for George Herbert, but her own idioms would suggest that she was perhaps far more immediately influenced by Hopkins and Stevens and Marianne Moore than by the Metaphysicals in general. Certainly she was most insistent on her neutrality in regard to any form of religion. Yet, again and again, her own style of thought moves from a “composition of place” or object to reflection on its anagogical import and on to a “colloquy” either with herself or with her reader. The central masterpiece in A Cold Spring, “At the Fish-houses,” presents a case in point. The setting of the poem is a town in Nova Scotia, in the district of the local fishhouses. And the “composition” of the scene, for all its apparent casualness, is wrought with the utmost care:
Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing oh their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Thus it is that, with a most deliberate and meticulous kind of literality, the scene is “composed” with such an exactness as will lock us up within the closet of that which is to be meditated. At a later point in the poem the speaker declares herself to be “a believer in total immersion,” and this is what she wants for us: total immersion in the tableau presented by this old fisherman weaving his net on a bleak, cold evening down at the waterfront where everything seems to have been either iridized by the sun or plastered and rusted over by the erosive power of the sea. Indeed, it is not until we have been fully drawn into this scene that the poem allows it to quiver into life: the speaker offers the old man a cigarette, and they begin to “talk of the decline in the population/and of codfish and herring,” as “he waits for a herring boat to come in.”
So, then, we are
And having been made to contemplate the “cold dark deep and absolutely clear” waters of the sea, waters “bearable . . . to fish and to seals” but “to no mortal,” the scene is at last fully composed, and thus the meditation begins, issuing finally into a colloquy with the reader who is directly addressed as “you”:
Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water. . . .
The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
By this point the lone fisherman and his shuttle and net have quite faded into the background, and the speaker has realized that what most urgently asks to be pondered is the sea itself, “dark, salt, clear.” And the rippling sibilance with which it is described—”slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones, /icily free above the stones”—does, as it echoes the rising and falling of the waters, make for a very intense realization of the briny, inscrutable abysm beyond the land’s edge. But the result of this meditation is the grave recognition that the sea is much like something in the affairs of human life with which we must reckon, and thus the poem is ready to eventuate in the final colloquy which the speaker addresses at once to herself and to her reader. “If you should dip your hand in, /your wrist would ache immediately, /your bones would begin to ache. . . .” “If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, /then briny, then surely burn your tongue.” And then, with what is for her an uncharacteristic explicitness, Bishop specifies the referent of which the sea is a symbol: “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be., ..” Here it is that the poem at its end formulates the idea to which it would have the “whole soul” give heed, that a truly unillusioned awareness of our place and prospect is won only by facing into the cold, hard, bedrock realities of our mortal condition and that, however circumspect and sober it may be, even at its best it remains something “historical,” something needing to be revised over and again, flowing and flown— like the sea. So to render Bishop’s final lines is, of course, to betray them, but it is, one feels, to something like such a conclusion that she is brought on that cold evening in a Nova Scotia town, down by one of the fishhouses where an old man sits netting, as he waits for a herring boat to come in.
Now it is undoubtedly her deep formation by the kind of meditative discipline underlying this poem that accounts for the extraordinary sympathy with which Elizabeth Bishop approached a world which, however intently it is scanned, seems not to look back at us. In this connection one will think of such poems as “The Weed” and “Quai d’Orléans” and “Rooster” in North & South, “The Riverman” and “Sandpiper” in Questions of Travel, and “The Moose” in Geography III. And certainly one will think of the beautiful prose poems, “Giant Toad” and “Strayed Crab” and “Giant Snail,” that make up the sequence called “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics.” The Giant Snail, for example, gives this account of his situation:
Here, like Wordsworth, she is looking steadily at her subject, but—again, like Wordsworth—not from a merely analytical, matter-of-fact perspective: on the contrary, she is facing a wordless creature with so much of affectionate responsiveness that not only (in Coleridge’s phrase) does “nature [become] thought and thought nature” but there occurs even an interchange of roles, the snail becoming a speaking I as the poet becomes a listening thou. And the result is a well-nigh preternatural commingling of love and awe before the sheer otherness of the things of earth.
The rain has stopped. The waterfall will roar like that all night. I have come out to take a walk and feed. My body—foot, that is—is wet and cold and covered with sharp gravel. . . . I have set myself a goal, a certain rock, but it may well be dawn before I get there. Although I move ghostlike and my floating edges barely graze the ground, I am heavy, heavy, heavy. My white muscles are already tired. I give the impression of mysterious ease, but it is only with the greatest effort of my will that I can rise above the smallest stones and sticks. And I must not let myself be distracted by those rough spears of grass. Don’t touch them. Draw back. Withdrawal is always best. . . .
Rest a minute; relax. Flattened to the ground, my body is like a pallid, decomposing leaf. What’s that tapping on my shell? Nothing. Let’s go on.
My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from front to back, . . . I am cold, cold, cold as ice. . . . Ah, but I know my shell is beautiful, and high, and glazed, and shining. I know it well, although I have not seen it. . .
But O! I am too big. I feel it. Pity me.
Perhaps the most notable instance in Bishop’s poetry of this genius for empathy is the great poem in North & South that has been so frequently anthologized, “The Fish.” The poet has caught “a tremendous fish” and is looking at him, as she holds him, “battered and venerable/and homely,” half out of water beside her boat. She watches his gills “breathing in the terrible oxygen,” and she notices his eyes which shift a little, “but not/to return my stare.” Then, as she admires “his sullen face” and “the mechanism of his jaw,” she sees
Like Hemingway’s old Santiago, who, after he hooks his great marlin, yet pities him in his wounded, massive dignity and pain, this poet, too, is deeply moved by the pathos that belongs to this scarred survivor of man’s predatoriness:
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces offish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
And the victory that fills up the little rented boat? To whom does it belong? It is a question by no means simple. It belongs in part, of course, to the fish who in the end manages to escape “the terrible oxygen” and to return to his watery home. But the greater victory surely belongs to the poet herself who, despite her first satisfaction in winning her prey, yet succeeds in quelling the sportswoman’s aggressiveness to the point of being able to respond to that in this creature which asks to be saluted and admired. And thus, the fish being allowed (in Coleridge’s phrase) “its moment of self-exposition,” everything becomes “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!”
Elizabeth Bishop’s remarkable powers of sympathy are not, however, reserved merely for fish and snails, for birds and weeds, for rocks and mountains, for the insensible or subhuman things of earth: they also extend far into the realm of what Martin Buber called “the interhuman,” and she presents many poignantly drawn and memorable personages. Her readers will tend perhaps most especially to recall the Brazilian portraits in Questions of Travel which focus not on people of importance but on the humble and the lowly, on those who perch ever so lightly on some narrow and incommodious ledge of the world. One thinks, for example, of “Squatter’s Children,” with its picture of “a specklike girl and boy” playing “on the unbreathing sides of hills/. . .near a specklike house” and of how, as clouds pile up and a great storm gathers, “their laughter spreads/effulgence in the thunderheads.” And there is “Manuelzinho,” with its account of a young man—”half squatter, half tenant (no rent)”—who is supposed to supply the poet with vegetables but who is “the world’s worst gardener since Cain”:
Manuelzinho is shiftless and improvident and unreliable, but, with his “wistful face,” this “helpless, foolish man” is irresistible: so Bishop says: “I love you all I can,/I think.”
The strangest things happen, to you.
Your cow eats a “poison grass”
and drops dead on the spot.
Nobody else’s does.
And then your father dies. . . .
I give you money for the funeral
and you go and hire a bus
for the delighted mourners,
so I have to hand over some more
and then have to hear you tell me
you pray for me every night!
Affectionate sarcasm and lenity give way, however, to a tone of unqualified solicitude and pity in the moving ballad called “The Burglar of Babylon.” The setting of its narrative is “the fair green hills of Rio” that are fearfully stained by the hordes of the displaced and the impoverished who build their little shacks there “out of nothing at all” and who on these uplands that rise above the city cling and spread “like lichen.” The hills all bear names—”the hill of Kerosene, /And the hill of the Skeleton, /The hill of Astonishment”—and the poem is devoted to a young man of “the hill of Babylon” named Micuçú, “a burglar and killer, /An enemy of society,” who “had escaped three times/From the worst penitentiary.” In his last escape he wounded three policemen: so the soldiers are after him. “Ninety years they gave me,” he says. “Who wants to live that long?/I’ll settle for ninety hours, /On the hill of Babylon.” The rich people in their apartments watch the whole drama of the search through binoculars, as the soldiers, nervous with their tommy guns, swarm all over the area. Meanwhile, Micuçú hides in the grasses and stares down at “the long white beaches/And people going to swim, / With towels and beach umbrellas.” Through a long night he remains hidden in the hills. The next morning he can hear the soldiers panting in their pursuit, and, while the morning is still young, as they open fire, one gets him behind the ear— and he is dead. Soon after his burial
the little soldiers
Are on Babylon hill again;
Their gun barrels and helmets
Shine in a gentle rain.
Micuçú is buried already.
They’re after another two,
But they say they aren’t as dangerous
As the poor Micuçú.
The poem, like so many of Elizabeth Bishop’s finest statements, asks for no “explication”: its plea is unmistakable, that, whatever the particular legalities may be, we give our sympathy to this poor devil who has never had any large chance at life or liberty or the pursuit of happiness and for whom the world has always been like a wilderness. And it is a similar triumph of moral imagination and fellow feeling that one encounters again and again in such poems as “Cootchie” and “Faustina, or Rock Roses” and the beautiful poem in Geography HI, “In the Waiting Room.”
The immaculate precision of her language has led many of the commentators on her work to speak of Elizabeth Bishop as a “poet’s poet”—which is a bit of fanciness that, prompted by however much of appropriate admiration and respect, may be more than a little questionable. For the tag “poet’s poet” tends to suggest an imagination sufficient unto itself, taking its own aseity for granted and, with a royal kind of disdain for the world, making poetry out of nothing more than the idea of poetry itself. But nothing could be further from the sort of metier to which Bishop kept an absolute commitment, for she was a poet without myth—even about the poetic vocation itself. And, as she makes us feel, when she in the act of composition crossed out a word and replaced it with another, she did so not for the sake merely of the particular mosaic of language being fashioned but because the stricken word did not adequately render this or that detail of something she had observed. Which is to say that her primary fidelity was to the Real and to Things. And though there are numerous poems— like “The Burglar of Babylon” and “Visits to St. Elizabeths” and “In the Waiting Room”—that find their space in the realm of “the interhuman,” she was most principally a poet of the subject-object relationship.
So it is something like “Cape Breton”—one of the most perfect poems of our time—that presents her characteristic manner and method. The setting of the poem, again, is Nova Scotia, and the poet is standing somewhere on the Cape one quiet Sunday morning, looking out on “the high “bird islands,” Ciboux and Hertford”:
Not only is the sea overhung by mist, but so, too, are “the valleys and gorges of the mainland,” a mist that seems like “the ghosts of glaciers” or like “rotting snow-ice sucked away/almost to spirit.” The entire scene is enveloped by an eerie kind of chill—and everywhere there is silence, a silence so absolute one can hear it, as one hears the silence in many of Edward Hopper’s paintings. A wild, abandoned road “clambers along the brink of the coast,” but the yellow bulldozers that are scattered along its track are “without their drivers, because today is Sunday.” And the little white churches in the area appear to “have been dropped into the matted hills/like lost quartz arrowheads.” The poem says:
the razorbill auks and the silly-looking puffins all stand
with their backs to the mainland
in solemn, uneven lines along the cliff’s brown grass-frayed
while the few sheep pastured there go “Baaa, baaa.”
(Sometimes, frightened by aeroplanes, they stampede
and fall over into the sea or onto the rocks.)
The silken water is weaving and weaving,
disappearing under the mist equally in all directions,
. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . .. . . .
and somewhere the mist incorporates the pulse,
rapid but unurgent, of a motorboat.
Nor is anything much revealed by the surrounding regions— which “have little to say for themselves.”
Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have
unless the road is holding it back, in the interior,
where we cannot see. . . .
For the merest moment this silent, empty world appears to be perhaps at the point of coming to life. A small bus, filled with passengers, comes along, past “the closed roadside stand, [past] the closed schoolhouse,” and stops to discharge “a man carrying a baby.” But, after getting off, he
The human presence, when at last it appears, leads us to expect that surely now something will be disclosed, that whatever this landscape had of meaning will now be shown not altogether to have been abandoned. But there is no epiphany: the man simply disappears into the interior, “where we cannot see”—and that is all.
climbs over a stile, and goes down through a small steep
which establishes its poverty in a snowfall of daisies,
to his invisible house beside the water.
One commentator has suggested that “”Cape Breton” is a glimpse into a heart of darkness,” and this indeed is what the poem seems to be peering into, the dark, uncommunicative, and unknowable noumenality at the heart of the world. The speaker is looking at this landscape as intently and as piercingly as she can—but it does not look back at her: whatever there is of meaning remains hidden, and on this quiet Sunday morning “the high “bird islands”” and the weaving waters and “the valleys and gorges of the mainland” and the road clambering along the edge of the coast and the man carrying a baby “have little to say for themselves.” All is enveloped in mist, and the scene is overborne by “an ancient chill.”
Yet, recalcitrant though the world may be, Elizabeth Bishop could find nothing else to depend upon except what she could see and observe; and thus she seems never to have been inclined to reach what was at one point Stevens’ exasperated conclusion, that “reality is a cliche” which the poet had better try to do without; on the contrary, she represents a constantly unquerulous, and sometimes even exuberant, submissiveness to the hegemony of l’actuelle, always taking it for granted that (as Jacques Maritain says in his book The Dream of Descartes) “human intellection is living and fresh only when it is centered upon the vigilance of sense perception.”
Unlike Stevens, it was not her habit to discuss her poetics in her poetry, but the endlessly absorbing and subtle poem called “The Map” conveys, for all its indirection, perhaps the best inkling to be found anywhere of how she viewed her special responsibility as a poet. She is looking at a printed map, and she notices how the land which is “shadowed green” appears to lie in water. But then she wonders if indeed the land may not “lean down to lift the sea from underdrawing it unperturbed around itself.” May it not be the case that the land is “tugging at the sea from under?” And, as she gazes at this map, she marvels at the transforming perspective that the mapmaker’s art casts upon the surfaces of the earth:
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
—the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.
Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
—What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’
Now, of course, the unspoken premise of the poem is that the cartographer’s craft is a mode of art. And his images, like those of any true artist, practice a very radical kind of metamorphosis upon the things of earth: they make the peninsulas of the land appear to be “flat and still”; they render the waters of the sea as calm and quiet, when actually they are roiled with agitation; they make it appear that Norway is a sort of hare running south; and—in, as it were, a spirit of frolic—they organize themselves into highly intricate patterns of figuration that belong to the order of the metonymic. Yet the cartographer’s “profiles investigate” topographical actualities: he is not free to rearrange at will the contours of geography: he must be faithful to the given literalities of nature. And thus he supervises a very “delicate” art indeed—an art, as Bishop may be taken to be implying, not unlike that of poetry itself.
So it is amor mundi, never contemptus mundi, that one feels to be inscribed over her entire work. Though on occasion (as she suggests in “Wading at Wellfleet”) she considers the sea to be “all a case of knives,” she loves it nevertheless. Though the “huntress of the winter air” (in “The Colder the Air”) consults “not time nor circumstance,” she admires “her perfect aim.” And, as she tells us (“The Imaginary Iceberg”), she’d “rather have the iceberg than the ship.” Like the black boy Balthazar in “Twelfth Morning; or What You Will,” she thinks “that the world’s a pearl,” and thus her poems want (as she says of the crude artifact being described in “The Monument”) “to cherish something” and want to say “commemorate.” Hers, as Robert Mazzocco says, is “the middle range, the middle style.” “History as nightmare, man as a cipher”—these “de rigueur subjects . . .[she] subverts.” And thus she has never claimed the wide popularity that is more easily won by those writers who offer some kind of existentialist frisson. But her deep influence is easily to be traced in the work of such poets as Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur and John Ashbery and James Merrill. And in “The Map,” “The Monument,” “Roosters,” “The Fish,” “Cape Breton,” “The Armadillo,” and scores of other poems she appears as one of the most remarkable poets to have graced the American scene, no doubt not a major figure—not in the range of a Frost or a Stevens or a Carlos Williams—but one whose legacy will long be a bench mark against which false sentiment and specious eloquence will be severely judged.