Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was a poet whose vivid sense of geography won her many honors.

Elizabeth Bishop barely knew her parents. Her father died of Bright's disease eight months after she was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, February 8, 1911. Her mother, Gertrude, never got over the death of her husband William and suffered a nervous collapse, eventually going insane. She was removed to a sanatorium when her young daughter was five.

One of her earliest and most vivid memories of her mother was of a ride in a swan boat in the Boston Public Garden. Bishop was dressed in black, as had been her wont since her husband's death. "One of the live swans paddling around us bit my mother's finger when she offered it a peanut," Bishop wrote. "I remember the hole in the black glove and a drop of blood on it." Thus was the beginning of a lifelong habit of observing minute, yet significant, details.

Most of her early years were spent with relatives, whom Bishop later described as taking care of her because they felt sorry for her. She did not stay in one place too long, not always by choice. Her sudden removal from her carefree childhood home with her maternal grandparents in the coastal town of Great Village, Nova Scotia, was a traumatic experience. She loved Canada and was unhappy at the wealthy Bishop residence in Worcester, where her father had been born. She wrote in "The Country Mouse," which was published posthumously:

I had been brought back unconsulted and against my wishes … to be saved from a life of poverty and provincialism, bare feet, suet puddings, unsanitary school slates, perhaps even from the inverted r's of my mother's family. With this surprising extra set of grandparents, until a few weeks ago no more than names, a new life was about to begin.

In "The Country Mouse," a humorous account of the nine months spent as a reluctant guest at the home of Sarah and John Wilson Bishop, a successful contractor who had erected buildings at Harvard and Princeton, Bishop presents some of the scenes which found their way into her poems. One of the most poignant was the waiting room of a dentist office to which she had accompanied her Aunt Jenny (Consuelo in the poem). Although she was not yet seven, she was able to read and was browsing through the pages of a 1918 National Geographic while her aunt was being ministered to.

"Suddenly, from inside, came an oh of pain—Aunt Consuelo's voice—"

This did not surprise her, because she thought of her aunt as "a foolish, timid woman." What caught her off guard was the realization that she was her "foolish aunt … falling, falling … into cold, blue-black space."

"…I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them."

It was the first time she had ever referred to herself in her poetry.

Bishop was more the observer with a vivid sense of place. She visited the Nova Scotia of her childhood, spent two years in Europe shortly after she graduated from Vassar, and travelled to North Africa, Mexico, Key West, and Brazil. She had stopped off in Rio de Janeiro en route to sailing the Strait of Magellan, but suffered a violent reaction after eating a cashew fruit. When she recovered she stayed on in Brazil for 15 years.

Bishop wrote sparingly, publishing only five slim volumes of poetry in 35 years, but what she wrote received high acclaim. In 1945 her work was selected from among over 800 entries in the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Competition, and the 30 poems submitted were published the following year as North & South. This collection, together with her second volume, A Cold Spring, earned her the Pulitizer Prize for 1956. She received the National Book Award for The Complete Poems in 1970, was the first American to receive the Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature —she was chosen by an international jury of writers—and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Geography III, her last book of poems, in 1977.

As one can tell from her titles, her lifelong passion for travelling influenced her poetry. "I think geography comes first in my work," she told an interviewer, "and then animals. But I like people, too. I've written a few poems about people."

Appropriately, one of her earliest poems, "The Map," describes "Labrador's yellow, where the moony Eskimo has oiled it" and points out that because of cramped space the names of seashore towns run out to the sea and cities cross neighboring mountains. Yet maps are not merely guides to geographical places, nor are they aesthetic objects only. As with most of her poems, "The Map" one sees is not just the colors of the rainbow confined to irregular shapes. One sees Bishop's poem as a guide to the way she views and senses the patterns of life.

"Man-Moth," inspired by a typographical error in the New York Times—the intended word was mammoth— describes the nocturnal New Yorker whose home is "the pale subways of cement" where

Each night he must be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams. Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie his rushing brain…. He has to keep his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.

The fantasy of the man-moth travelling through New York's underground and, when occasionally emerging to the street, seeing the moon "as a small hole at the top of the sky" has a Kafkaesque quality. When asked to contribute her favorite poem to an anthology called Poet's Choice, Bishop submitted "Man-Moth," commenting on the misprint that gave her the idea: "An oracle spoke from the page of the New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me, at least for the moment."

Other of her poems that have been highly praised included "The Burglar of Babylon," a ballad set in Rio; "A Miracle for Breakfast," about hunger; "Jeronimo's House," one of her Key West poems; "The Moose," about a bus trip; and "The Fish," her most popular poem.

So frequently has this poem been anthologized that shortly before her death Bishop declared that she would rather have any of her poems but "The Fish" included in a collection, and, if publishers insisted, she asked that they print three of her other poems with it. In the poem the fish, wearing five old pieces of broken lines "like medals," gets a reprieve and is returned to the sea.

One of the reasons for the popularity of this poem was the strong praise it received from Randall Jarrell. Bishop, who was uncommitted to any school of poetry, was also admired by poets as disparate as John Ashbery, Octavio Paz, Robert Lowell, and Marianne Moore. She also knew Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, and Carlos Drummond, one of Brazil's most popular poets, whose work she translated from the Portuguese.

But it was Marianne Moore who had the greatest influence of all of these. While still at Vassar, Bishop met Moore through the college librarian, Fanny Borden, niece of the accused ax-murderer Lizzie Borden. After an initial interview in the New York Public Library, the two poets began a long friendship, launched when Bishop helped Moore pilfer a few hairs from a baby elephant at a circus to replace strands of the rare hair on her bracelet. Bishop kept the adult elephants and the guard busy while Moore snipped away.

Moore helped to convince Bishop to abandon her plans to study medicine and to work at her poetry instead. Critics have said that the two poets shared the same gift of acute observation and understated wit. And each of them was fond of animals. Besides Moore, Bishop credited George Herbert and Wallace Stevens as being important influences on her.

Bishop died suddenly of a ruptured cerebral aneurism in her Boston apartment on October 6, 1979. She was 68 years old.

Further Reading on Elizabeth Bishop

A critical study of Bishop's work is Anne Stevenson's Elizabeth Bishop (1966). Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art was edited by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess (1983). The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 supersedes the earlier Complete Poems (1969). Elizabeth Bishop: The Collected Prose, edited by Robert Giroux in 1984, contains essays and accounts of her life not published when she was alive.