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date: 02 June 2020

Bishop, Elizabethfree

(08 February 1911–06 October 1979)
  • Anne Agnes Colwell

Elizabeth Bishop

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-117839).

Bishop, Elizabeth (08 February 1911–06 October 1979), poet, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the daughter of Gertrude Bulmer and William Thomas Bishop, owners of the J. W. Bishop contracting firm. Bishop’s childhood was filled with a sense of loss that pervades her poetry. Her father died from Bright’s disease when she was eight months old. Her mother, psychologically distraught, spent the next five years in and out of psychiatric hospitals. With William’s death, Gertrude lost her U.S. citizenship and, when she experienced the decisive breakdown in her family home in Nova Scotia, was hospitalized in a public sanatorium in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Elizabeth Bishop was five when this breakdown occurred; she later recounted it in her prose masterpiece “In the Village.” Her mother, diagnosed as permanently insane, never saw Elizabeth again.

After her mother’s hospitalization, Bishop lived in Great Village, Nova Scotia, with her mother’s family, in a loving, comforting atmosphere. However, the equilibrium that she had gained was upset by her paternal grandparents’ decision to raise the child with them in Worcester. In her prose memoir “The Country Mouse,” Bishop writes,“I had been brought back unconsulted and against my wishes to the house my father had been born in, to be saved from a life of poverty and provincialism.” There, in isolated wealth, Bishop keenly felt her lack of relations. She wrote, “I felt myself aging, even dying. I was bored and lonely with Grandma, my silent grandpa, the dinners alone. … At night I lay blinking my flashlight off and on, and crying.”

When her mother’s sister, Maud Bulmer Shepherdson, rescued Bishop in May 1918, even her paternal grandparents saw that their “experiment” had failed. Never a strong child, Bishop now suffered from eczema, asthma, St. Vitus’s dance, and nervous ailments that made her nearly too weak to walk. Maud Shepherdson lived in an apartment in a South Boston tenement. An unpublished manuscript, “Mrs. Sullivan Downstairs,” recounts Bishop’s love for this neighborhood. There, Bishop later recalled, she began to write poetry, influenced by Aunt Maud’s love of literature.

As she grew stronger, Bishop spent her summers in Nova Scotia and attended Camp Chequesset on Cape Cod. Her unusual circumstances and poor health limited her formal schooling before age fourteen. However, she was an excellent student, and following her time at the Walnut Hill School for Girls, Bishop entered the Vassar College class of 1934.

At Vassar, Bishop, with novelist Mary McCarthy and others, began an underground literary magazine, Con Spirito, publishing a more socially conscious and avant-garde selection than the legitimate Vassar Review. In the spring of 1934, the year her mother died and the year of her graduation, Bishop met and became friends with poet Marianne Moore. Through Moore’s influence, Bishop came to see poetry as an available, viable vocation for a woman. Moore recommended Bishop for the Houghton Mifflin Prize, and Bishop’s manuscript North and South was chosen for publication in August 1946 from over 800 entries.

North and South introduces the themes central to Bishop’s poetry: geography and landscape, human connection with the natural world, questions of knowledge and perception, and the ability or inability of form to control chaos. Before Robert Lowell reviewed North and South, he met Bishop at a dinner party, a meeting that marked the beginning of a crucial, if complicated, friendship. Lowell, like Moore, showed Bishop possibilities—practically, in the form of grants, fellowships, and awards, and artistically. In 1950 Lowell helped Bishop secure the post of poetry consultant for the Library of Congress while she worked on her second book.

Bishop won the Lucy Martin Donnelly Fellowship from Bryn Mawr College in 1950 and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1951 she traveled to South America to see the Amazon. However, before she could leave for the dreamed-of voyage, Bishop ate a cashew fruit to which she had a violent allergic reaction that kept her bedridden. As Bishop recovered her health, she fell in love, both with Lota de Macedo Soares, her friend and nurse, and with the landscape and culture of Brazil. For fifteen years Bishop lived with Soares, in the mountain town of Petropolis and in Rio de Janeiro. This new love and home offered Bishop happiness she had known only briefly in Great Village. She wrote to Lowell that she was “extremely happy for the first time in my life” (28 July 1953).

In April 1954 Bishop made an agreement with Houghton Mifflin to publish her second book, A Cold Spring, in a volume that included the poems from her first book, under the title Poems: North and South—A Cold Spring. This book won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize. When the book appeared in August 1955, the reviews were laudatory: Donald Hall called Bishop “one of the best poets alive.”

After publishing A Cold Spring, Bishop spent the next three years translating a popular Brazilian work, the diary of “Helena Morely” (Dona Alice Brant) called Minha Vida de Menina. The story of Helena’s life in the small town of Diamantina in 1893 reminded Bishop of her 1916 Great Village, and translating this work while reflecting on and writing about her own childhood helped Bishop explore her past as artistic material. The translation was published under the title The Diary of Helena Morely by Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy in 1957.

Bishop’s third book, Questions of Travel (1965), includes both reflections on her childhood experiences and poems about her new home in Brazil. The book is divided into two sections, Brazil and Elsewhere, with the prose piece “In the Village” placed between the divisions. Bishop returns to themes of geography, form, and landscape, but here she allows more intimacy, both between viewer and landscape and between reader and poet. Questions of Travel garnered positive reviews. Robert Mazzocco in the New York Review of Books (Oct. 1967) called Bishop “one of the shining, central talents of our day.” The book is filled with the description for which Bishop received so much praise, but it is also filled with an unmistakable sense of what Wyatt Prunty calls “the askew,” moments in which the senses fail to report reality, slide off into the mysterious, terrifying, or ecstatic.

Throughout the mid-1960s, life in Brazil grew difficult for Bishop. Lota de Macedo Soares, involved in the politics of Rio, had taken charge of a public parks project that absorbed her time and attention. As the political situation worsened, Bishop felt more uncomfortable in her Brazilian home. In 1966 Bishop spent two semesters as poet in residence at the University of Washington but returned to Rio in the hope of reestablishing her life there. Both Bishop and Soares suffered physical and psychological distress and were hospitalized in Brazil. When Bishop grew stronger, she left for New York with the expectation that Soares, as soon as she was well enough, would join her. Soares arrived in New York on the afternoon of 19 September 1967 and later that evening took an overdose of tranquilizers and died at age fifty-seven.

This loss proved terribly difficult for Bishop personally, although she continued to write and publish. In 1969 Bishop published Complete Poems, a volume that included all of her previously published poems and several new pieces. This book won the National Book Award for 1970. When the ceremony took place, Bishop was once again trying to reestablish a Brazilian life. However, the politics, along with Bishop’s inability to negotiate the culture without Soares’s help, finally convinced her that a Brazilian life was impossible. In the fall of 1970 she returned to the United States to teach at Harvard. There Bishop met the woman who became a source of strength and love for the rest of her life, Alice Methfessel.

Bishop eventually signed a four-year contract with Harvard. Although she never felt completely comfortable as a teacher, her students report learning much from her precision, from the quiet conversation that constituted her class. In 1976 Bishop became the first American and the first woman to be awarded the Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature. In that year she also published her last collection of poetry, Geography III, which won the Book Critics’ Circle Award for 1977. This volume of nine beautifully crafted poems returns to themes of North and South but with greater intimacy and immediacy. Alfred Corn, writing in the 1977 Georgia Review, gives a clear and insightful reading of Geography III that could apply to all Bishop’s work. He praises

a perfected transparence of expression, warmth of tone, and a singular blend of sadness and good humor, of pain and acceptance—a radiant patience few people ever achieve and few writers ever successfully render. The poems are works of philosophic beauty and calm, illuminated by that “laughter in the soul” that belongs to the best part of the comic genius.

When Bishop submitted her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship on 1 October 1977, she indicated that she would work on a new volume, tentatively titled “Grandmother’s Glass Eye,” and a book-length poem, Elegy. Four poems of the new volume, “Santarem,” “North Haven,” “Pink Dog,” and “Sonnet,” were complete when Bishop died in Boston, Massachusetts. Bishop’s poems have been collected in The Complete Poems, 1927–1979, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1983).

Bibliography

Elizabeth Bishop’s papers are in both the Houghton Library, Harvard University, and Vassar College Library special collections. Brett C. Millier’s biography Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (1993) is a valuable resource, as is Candace W. MacMahon’s bibliography Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927–1979 (1980). Other important critical assessments of Bishop’s work include Bonnie Costello, Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (1991); David Kalstone, Becoming a Poet (1989); Jeredith Merrin, An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition (1990); Robert Dale Parker, The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (1988); and Thomas Travisano, Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development (1988). Her prose is in The Collected Prose (1984), with a helpful introduction by Robert Giroux. Giroux also edited and published Bishop’s letters, masterpieces in themselves, in One Art: Letters (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times, 8 Oct. 1979.