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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Elizabeth Bishop
(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.

Chronically 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 friendship.

Marianne 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 early work.

Robert 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 the lyric.

Although 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 Bishop-Swenson letters.

Bishop’s 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.

Keenly 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.

Much 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
Boston University

In the Heath Anthology
The Fish (1946)
The Man-Moth (1946)
At the Fishhouses (1955)
Filling Station (1965)

Other Works
North & South (1946)
Poems: North & SouthA Cold Spring (1956)
Questions of Travel (1965)
The Complete Poems (1969)
Geography III (1976)
The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (1983)
The Collected Prose (1984)

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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.

Secondary Sources