Elizabeth Bishop 1911~1979

by David Staines

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador's yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oild 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 finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

"The Map" (The Complete Poems)

If home is where one starts from, Elizabeth Bishop's home was Great Village, Nova Scotia.  Her paternal grandfather left his birthplace of White Sands on the southeastern coast of Prince Edward Island at an early age for Providence, Rhode Island and, later, Worcester, Massachusetts.  His son John was thirty-seven years old when he married Gertrude Bulmer, ten years his junior, a girl of frail emotional health from the Acadian countryside of Nova Scotia.  In the third year of their marriage, on February 8,1911, their only child Elizabeth was born in Worcester; eight months later John Bishop died suddenly.  Unable to recover from the shock, his wife entered a sanitarium; she never did recover.  Their daughter was taken from Worcester to live with her mother's family in Great Village.  When she was less than a year old, she lost, in effect, both her parents.  She saw her mother only one more time before her death in 1936.

     Located near the head of the Bay of Fundy, Great Village offered Elizabeth Bishop a first world of family affection, simple dignity, and life close to the soil and the sea.  At the age of six she returned to Worcester to live with her paternal grandparents.  Poor health, the consequence of many and frequent childhood diseases, prompted her grandfather to send her to Boston to live with her mother's married but childless sister.  The young girl's health did improve, but, for a time, not enough to permit her to attend regular school, and she passed many hours writing poems and practicing the piano.  The joyous times were the summers, some spent at a summer camp in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, others back in Great Village.

     In 1930 Elizabeth entered Vassar College.  New friends, including Mary McCarthy (with whom she helped found a literary magazine), presented her with a stimulating environment.   After her sophomore year she returned with a college classmate to the Maritimes, this time to Newfoundland to take a walking tour of the island.  When a senior she was introduced to Marianne Moore, destined to become a close friend and a formative influence on her career.  Their friendship may well have been the cause of Elizabeth's decision to pursue writing rather than medicine.  Upon graduation she moved to New York City and then, the following year, to Europe.  Throughout her life she was passionately fond of the adventure of travelling, the education offered by new settings.  France and Florida, Mexico and Brazil, these were her homes for extended periods.  "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?" ("Questions of Travel").  Or later: "I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. / I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster" ("One Art").

     In 1970 she returned to the United States to settle in Boston and to accept a teaching position at Harvard University, the kind of employment, she openly admitted, she had avoided until an inheritance from her father ran out.  For seven years she taught creative writing and modern poetry, though she was never happy in an academic milieu.  Her initial shyness, her natural reticence (Octavio Paz has written that "the power of reticence" is one of the features of her poetry), her impossibly high demands upon creative writing both her own and that of her students, all this did not make the classroom any kind of home for her private person and her lyric talent.  After her retirement from Harvard she taught for one term at New York University.  The award of a second Guggenheim Fellowship allowed her to leave the classroom again.  "I hope with luck never to have to teach again," she wrote me.  In the fall of 1979, however, she returned to the academic world, this time to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to teach a poetry-writing course.

     During her lifetime she published five volumes of poetry, North and South (1946), A Cold Spring (1955), Questions of Travel (1965), The Complete Poems (1969), and Geography III (1977).  These books are complemented by her translation of The Diary of Helena Morley (1957), a travel book entitled Brazil (1962), an Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry (1972), and several short stories.  Her writings do not offer any exhaustive philosophy or approach to life.   Rather she shows the rich texture and variety of the world with all its joys and pains, injustices and confusions.  Her poetry is deceptively simple.  The seeming artlessness of its careful observation and extraordinary detail hides the continual reworkings and polishings that are the hallmark of her verse.  "I work so slowly," she often told me, yet each poem became a perfectly polished gem.

     She was the last surviving member of the generation that included Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke, John Berryman and Randall Jarrell.  The latter wrote of her:

She is morally so attractive . . . because she understands so well that the wickedness and confusion of the age can explain and extenuate other people's wickedness and confusion, but not, for you, your own; that morality, for the individual, is usually a small, personal, statistical, but heartbreaking or heartwarming affair of omissions and commissions the greatest of which will seem infinitesimal, ludicrously beneath notice, to those who govern, rationalize, and deplore; that it is sometimes difficult and unnatural, but sometimes easy and natural, to "do well"; that beneath our lives "there is inescapable hope, the pivot," so that in the revolution of   things even the heartsick Peter can someday find "his dreadful rooster come to mean forgiveness."

     No poet of our time has been more honoured than Elizabeth Bishop.  Among her numerous awards are the Houghton Mifflin Award (1945), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1951), the Shelley Memorial Award (1952), the Partisan Review Fellowship (1956), the Pulitzer Prize (1956), the Academy of American Poets Award (1964), the National Book Award (1970), the Order of Rio Bronco (1971), to name only a few.  In 1976, the year she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she became the first woman and the first North American to receive the Books Abroad / Neustadt Award for Literature.  In sponsoring her for the latter, Marie-Claire Blais pointed out: "The body of her work is relatively small, but one cannot read a single line either of her poetry or prose without feeling that a real poet is speaking .  .  .  whose eye is both an inner and outer eye.  The outer eye sees with marvellous, objective precision, the vision is translated into quite simple language, and this language with the illuminated sharpness of something under a microscope works an optical magic, slipping in and out of imagery, so that everything seen contains the vibrations of meaning on meaning."

     I first met Elizabeth in the early seventies.  Literature naturally formed the major topic of so many wonderful conversations, and she spoke often of her childhood, her Nova Scotia years, her explicitly Maritime writings, her recollection of the gentlemanly kindness of her grandfather in "Manners," the haunting evocation of a young child's first exposure to death in "First Death in Nova Scotia," the majestic descriptions of "Cape Breton," the poignant veiled autobiography of "In the Village."

     Often Elizabeth took me to a large granite warehouse, Lewis Wharf, on the Boston waterfront.   Here she had bought a fourth-floor apartment in the gutted 1830 building and was designing her new home.  Following her example, I donned the required hardhat as she led me through the construction.  With a balcony overlooking the harbour she had returned to the sea of her childhood.  She reminded me, then and in subsequent years, that there had been regular boat service between Boston and Nova Scotia.  For her and for so many Maritimers Nova Scotia and New England were part of the same long eastern coast.  Distinctions between Canadian and American were superfluous.

     When Northrop Frye was Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, he told me of his eagerness to meet Elizabeth.  And she too had mentioned her own desire to meet this visiting Canadian.  Accordingly I arranged a small dinner for the Fryes and Elizabeth.  The shyness of the guests made the initial conversation tentative and sparse, but when Elizabeth asked about the driving conditions during Frye's childhood ("Which side of the road did they drive on in New Brunswick?"), the critic with memories of his Moncton upbringing and the poet with memories of her rural Nova Scotia formed an instant friendship.  On other meetings we talked of Canadian literature, for Elizabeth was familiar with many writers and eager and willing to read more.  She knew the work of many poets, among them E.J. Pratt, A.M. Klein, and P.K. Page, and even some of the younger writers, including Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.

     When I was teaching Canadian literature courses at Harvard, Elizabeth playfully threatened to audit some of my lectures.  She never did attend, though we spoke often on the telephone and over lunch about Canadian writers.  I gave her volumes of fiction and poetry, and she repaid me with informed reflections on their quality.  Her criticism was sometimes complimentary, more often harsh though kind, for she applied to all writing, whether it was Canadian, her own, or that of her young students, the same demand for perfect clarity of thought and expression.

     In her poetry Elizabeth often juxtaposes geographical locations that she knew from personal experience.  And her earliest world was the sea and the soil of the Maritimes.   In Questions of Travel she counterpoints Nova Scotia and Brazil; elsewhere she does the same with New England and Florida.  She once said: "I think geography comes first in my work." Robert Fitzgerald would agree: "The large subject of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry is geography, that of the world and the human imagination.  Places, lives, the sea, ships, animals, and works of art interested her; causes, fashions, movements, and programs did not.  She had the stubborn individuality characteristic of writers whose own distinctive visions enable them to create original works of art."

     In 1979 Dalhousie University conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws on Ellizabeth Bishop.   Though many American universities and colleges had bestowed similar honours, Dalhousie was the only Canadian institution to pay such respect.  In its presentation the University recognized "a distinguished poet and friend of Nova Scotia":

     Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, of Maritime parentage (her father was from Prince Edward Island, her mother from Great Village, Nova Scotia).  Because of her father's sudden death and her mother's illness, Miss Bishop spent her early years at the home of her maternal grandparents in Great Village.  She has travelled much and lived for many years in Brazil, but the mark of her Nova Scotia years is discernible in the setting, the imagery and the temper of some of her most memorable work.

     Elizabeth Bishop's poetry is notable for its clarity of perception, its sculptured finish, its quiet but searching wit, its compassion, and its capacity to reveal the extraordinary in what had seemed to be the ordinary stuff of daily life.

     On October 6, 1979 Elizabeth Bishop died.  As she requested, her body was cremated; there was no funeral.  Her legacy is her writing, and it is impressive.

     At the beginning of her Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry she placed a brief poem, "My last Poem," by Manuel Bandeira which she had translated.  The lyric captures the beauty and the fragility of Elizabeth's own vision:

I would like my At poem thus

That it be gentle saying the simplest and least intended things
That it be ardent like a tearless sob
That it have the beauty of almost scentless flowers
The purity of the flame in which the most limpid diamonds are consumed
The passion of suicides who kill themselves without explanation.