| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
(1911 - 1979)
Elizabeth Bishop was the only child of William
Thomas Bishop and Gertrude (Bulmer) Bishop. William, the oldest son of John W.
Bishop of Prince Edward Island, was a contractor responsible for many public
buildings in Boston (including the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public
Library). He married Gertrude Bulmer of Great Village, Nova Scotia, and died
when Elizabeth was but eight months old. When the poet was four years old, her
mother, after years of nervous breakdowns, was permanently placed in a mental
institution. She spent summers with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia,
was intermittently cared for by her paternal grandparents in Worcester and
later by a married but childless aunt in and around Boston. Bishop’s childhood
was spent in the company of adults; in her early years, she had little
opportunity for contact with members of her own generation.
ill with asthma, Bishop was unable to attend school until 1927, when she
enrolled at Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts. Sailing (two months at
“The Nautical Camp for Girls” on Cape Cod), reading, and music were her early
and enduring enthusiasms. When she entered Vassar College in 1930 she was
undecided as to whether she would major in music, literature, or medicine.
Though that Vassar class would come to be known as a particularly literary
group (Muriel Rukeyser and Mary McCarthy were co-editors with Bishop of the
student literary magazine, Con Spirito), Bishop did not meet her literary
mentor, Marianne Moore, at Vassar, but in the entry way of the New York Public
Library. The Vassar College librarian had arranged a meeting after Bishop
expressed an interest in Marianne Moore’s poetry; the meeting led to a lifelong
Moore was Bishop’s first life-example, editor, confidante, and typist. In an
age when women lacked women as role models, Moore emerged as one of the
earliest as well as most significant reference points in the younger poet’s
world. As Bishop would later recall, Moore offered a rare confluence of manners
and morals, a life as distinctly styled as her poetry. Correspondence between
the poets reveals a protégée influenced by, yet resistant to, the poetic style
of her mentor. While comparisons are inevitable, Bishop repeatedly
distinguished her aesthetic as quite traditional in comparison with Moore’s
unique brand of Modernism. Curiously, poets as diverse as George Herbert and
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emerson, Thoreau, and Neruda greatly influenced Bishop’s
Lowell’s intuitive and precise review of North & South (Sewanee Review,
1947) brought the poets together for a lifetime of correspondence. Though
Lowell repeatedly confessed his debt to Bishop’s poetry, her debt to his is
less well known. For Bishop, Lowell represented the quintessential American:
male and historically significant. Indeed, he became her “other.” Even as
Questions of Travel seems a reply to Lowell’s earlier Life Studies, Geography
III seems unimaginable without Lowell’s struggle to place life at the center of
Moore and Lowell served as her sponsors, Bishop returned that favor in
correspondence, friendship, and support of May Swenson. The voluminous
collection of letters between these poets (Washington University Library
Special Collections) describes a mutual female bonding and support. Swenson is
as tough-minded as the young Bishop was but she refuses to see the role of
mentor as exclusively Bishop’s. Swenson enters into a lively critical
discussion with Bishop, often assuming the role of teacher herself. The reserve
that marks the Moore-Bishop letters fades into an eloquent democracy in the
literary development is best known through letters because she spent most of
her adult life in Brazil, away from the stresses and competitiveness of the New
York literary world. Though Moore, Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Swenson kept
her informed about the American poetry world, she was able to live a life of
tropical remove with her Brazilian friend, Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares.
Witness to overwhelming poverty, political instabilities, and a mixture of
foreign cultures, Bishop, armed with a small trust fund, could afford to keep
these distractions at bay while she traveled, observed, and wrote.
observed description and a dependence upon the things of this world
characterize Bishop’s work. In language, she is a direct descendant of what
Perry Miller called the American plain stylists. Like Robert Frost, she effects
a wide tonal range within a remarkably narrow range of words, often
accomplished through formal means. In “Filling Station,” Bishop uses the
restrictions of form to impose limitations upon the tone and atmosphere of the
poem. Solitary figures in the landscape abound in her poems and suggest the
familiar Romantic lyric of the isolated hero, the Wordsworthian
self-discoverer; yet she systematically rejects epiphany, preferring the
familiarity of the phenomenal world. Bishop’s early interest in surrealism
surfaces throughout her work in dreamscapes of different sorts. “The Man-Moth”
explores the nightmarish uncertainties of the night world, while invoking the
poet’s interest in the perceptions of exiles. Like many American writers, she
prizes the isolated moral force. Like Emerson’s poetry, Bishop sees, names, and
gives the landscape a moral form and purpose.
has been made of Bishop’s reticence. Octavio Paz proclaimed it a power, a
womanly strength; Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich, searching for appropriate
woman poets as models, rejected it as a kind of repression. Bishop’s refusal to
appear in women’s anthologies did not stem from an avoidance of women’s issues
(she had lived her life as an independent artist), but rather from a lifelong
commitment to the transcendent potential of art, a belief that literature
should address that world beyond life’s limitations.
C. K. Doreski|
In the Heath Anthology
At the Fishhouses
North & South
Poems: North & SouthA Cold Spring
Questions of Travel
The Complete Poems
The Complete Poems, 1927-1979
The Collected Prose
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Academy of American Poets
Provides a hypertext biography, bibliography, links, and several poems.
Elizabeth Bishop: American Poet
Describes the Vassar Collection of Bishop's work, a bibliography, and electronic versions of Symposium (1994) papers.
Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art": A Review
From Harvard's Advocate Online, Summer 1994.