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BISHOP, ELIZABETH

BISHOP, ELIZABETH (1911–1979). Elizabeth Bishop, American poet
for whom the coastlines of North and South America served as powerful
sources of inspiration, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father
died when she was eight months old, and her mother, after suffering mental
breakdowns, was permanently institutionalized by the time Bishop was five.
An only child, Bishop was raised alternately by her maternal grandparents
in Nova Scotia and by relatives of her father in Worcester and Boston. She
remembered these households fondly, but her childhood of ill health, transience, and emotional loss instilled in Bishop a lasting reminder of how
provisional is one’s sense of “home.”
In her senior year at Vassar College, Bishop was befriended by Marianne
Moore,* who encouraged her in the writing of poetry. After graduating in
1934 with a degree in English, Bishop led a genteel, but nomadic, existence
throughout her adult life, living for substantial periods in New York, Key
West,* Brazil, and Boston; her poems record the perceptual flux experienced
by the lifelong traveler. The sea and its margins provided almost a laboratory
environment to investigate these “questions of travel” (this phrase became
the title of one of Bishop’s volumes), and her poetry is rich with the vocabulary of bay, cape, port, wharf, quay, bight, sand, and swamp. Adept in the
use of traditional metrical forms, Bishop more often gave her poems flexible
and elastic dimensions, gaining resonant effects through alliteration, repetition, and the use of colloquial language. Steeped in the scenic and visual,
well over a third of her 100 or so poems make significant reference to the
sea.
Bishop displays an initial debt to Herman Melville* in her sea poems, but
her distinctiveness emerges as nameless oceans become domestic sites that
resist the speculations of the romantic. The speaker of “The Unbeliever”
(1946) sits Ishmael*-like atop the mast, dreading a fall into the ocean; “The
Imaginary Iceberg” (1946), similar to Melville’s “The Berg” (1888), posits
the iceberg as an image of impenetrable sublimity. Poised against this early
attraction to the sea as a Melvillean arena of philosophical assertion, however, is a clear-eyed modernist skepticism about the very nature of that attraction. In this way, Bishop’s poems often engage in a psychic sifting and
refinement; her speakers test and question in essential ways. In this process,
land and sea serve as the poles of a subliminal argument, with the back-andforth dynamic leading Bishop’s speakers from a comfortable surface of received wisdom or romantic declaration into indeterminate depths of
qualified insight and elusive psychological control.
Defining the precise relation of earth to water was, in one sense, a career long endeavor for Bishop. In “The Map” (1946), the first poem in her first
published volume of verse, Bishop begins with a simple statement—“Land
lies in water; it is shadowed green”—but she insistently undermines it in
the course of the poem. Her final published work, Geography III (1976),
begins by quoting a nineteenth-century school primer (“Of what is the
earth’s surface composed? Land and water”) and raising questions that once
again erode objective, maplike representations.
For the most part, Bishop’s sea, unlike Melville’s, is never very far from
shore; earth and water give scale and temporary sense to one another. In
the long, lush opening of “The Moose” (1976), Nova Scotia tides serve as
an avenue into a deepening meditation. The poem “Questions of Travel”
(1965) begins with a scenic contrast of Brazilian waterfalls and mountains;
with these sites established, the poem expands into a consideration of what
“home” means. In “The Fish” (1946), Bishop’s speaker holds a creature
from the sea “half out of water” and attains a qualified epiphany by letting
it go. Similarly, the seashore serves as an environment conducive to psychic
revision in “Seascape” (1946), “Florida” (1946), “The Bight” (1955),
“Cape Breton” (1955), “Sandpiper” (1965), “The End of March” (1976),
“Santarem” (1979), and “Pleasure Seas” (1979).
Bishop’s most complete sea poem is “At the Fishhouses” (1955), which
revisits Marianne Moore’s poem “A Grave” (1924). A figure for knowledge
itself, “a transmutation of fire,” the icy sea in Bishop’s poem takes one
beyond the normal registers of sensation, memory, and sequential thinking.
The speaker’s awareness of the sea’s informing, indifferent power is poignantly combined with a sense of her own inability to know the knowledge
the sea has to offer.
Bishop’s volumes of poetry include North and South (1946), A Cold
Spring (1955), Questions of Travel (1965), and Geography III (1976). Her
Complete Poems was published in 1979. Her Collected Prose (1984) also
contains some seaborne sketches.