The respect in which Elizabeth Bishop's work was held in her lifetime is reflected in the many awards and honors that came her way, but her stature has further increased in the years since her death. Despite a relatively small output of poems - just over a hundred in her Complete Poems 1927-1979 (1983), and a total of four individual volumes of verse - she has increasingly been viewed as one of the major American poets of the century. Her combination of Romantic sensibility, restraint, wit, moral vision, and narrative craft produced a voice which, while having affinities with such early influences as Marianne Moore and the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert, is one wholly her own.
Bishop was born, like Charles Olson, a year her senior, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died before her first birthday, and her mother suffered a series of breakdowns that eventually led to her being permanently institutionalized by the time Bishop was 5. Bishop was initially brought up in these early years by her mother's family in Nova Scotia, and then by her father's relatives in Massachusetts. This early rootlessness was a prelude to a life often spent traveling and living abroad, and to poetry that often takes travel as one of its central themes. Not so fully to the surface of her poetry, but nevertheless informing it in crucial ways, was a lifelong battle with asthma, alcoholism, and depression.
Bishop had planned a medical career upon entering Vassar, but by the time she graduated in 1934 she had decided to become a writer. At Vassar, with fellow students Mary McCarthy and Muriel Rukeyser, she founded the student literary journal Con Spirito, and published there a number of her earliest poems. The Vassar librarian arranged a meeting for her with Marianne Moore, which lead to a lifelong friendship. Her poem "Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore" is one well-known tribute. With the income from a small trust fund (her grandfather and father's construction company had overseen the building of the Boston Public Library and the city's Museum of Fine Arts) she lived for the next few years in New York, in Europe, and in Key West, Florida.
The first of her four books of verse, North & South, appeared in 1946, and contains some of her best-known poems, including "The Man-Moth" and "The Fish." The former displays the quality of imaginative transformation that characterizes many of her poems, a transformation - often of mundane objects - that never completely leaves behind the careful recording of detail and the associated wonder that is the poem's foundation. "The Man-Moth" is a creature resembling a compulsive artist, driven from underground to rise up to the light to inevitably fail and try again. The poem balances description of the everyday, the subway and its electric "third rail," with fable. The "man-moth" of the title is viewed from multiple perspectives and degrees of scale, and is variously distanced or identified with. "The Fish" shows something of Bishop's response to the work of Moore; 75 lines of absorbed, intricate, restrained observation, before the last line's "And I let the fish go" confirms that the detailed description of the captured fish was anything but distanced and clinical, but was an intense admiration of and identification with its power, beauty, and history - "five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth" from earlier escapes.
North & South was greeted with a number of reviews which recognized that an important new poet had arrived on the scene, and two of the most perceptive were those of Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell. Jarrell, writing in Partisan Review, noted the affinities with the work of Moore, the balance of "outlandish ingenuity" with a tone "grave, calm, and tender at the same time," and added that "in her best work, restraint, calm and proportion are implicit in every detail of metre or organization or workmanship." "She is," Jarrell concluded, "morally so satisfactory."
Lowell, who like Jarrell went on to form a lifelong friendship with Bishop, characterized the poems in a Sewanee Review essay as "unrhetorical, cool, and beautifully thought out." Lowell also noted a tension between motion,
"weary but persisting, almost always failing . . . and yet, for the most part, stoically maintained," and "terminus, rest, sleep, fulfillment or death." This tension remained a characteristic of many later poems too. For example, "Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance," describes a wideranging journey within which the various stops contribute memorable images of this or that particular place. In "The Moose" tired, sleepy bus travelers riding through "moonlight and mist" are stopped "with a jolt" by a moose in the middle of the road that carefully investigates the bus before the driver can move on - leaving as legacy the mystery of its appearance out of the mist and "a dim / smell of moose, an acrid / smell of gasoline."
The publication of North & South helped Bishop to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947 (she won a second in the last year of her life). From 1949 to 1950 she served as Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress. But her life took a sudden turn in 1951 when she was taken ill while on a trip to South America. She then made Brazil her home for more than 16 years, until the suicide of her female companion, Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. She stayed informed of developments in American poetry, assisted greatly by her extensive correspondence with Moore, Lowell, Jarrell, and May Swenson.
In the books following North & South the poems become more direct, more autobiographical, and less metaphysical. Bishop's second volume, A Cold Spring, appeared in 1955 and included the poems of North & South. The book won Bishop a Pulitzer Prize. Two years later she translated (from Portuguese), and wrote an introduction for, The Diary of "Helena Morley," a diary kept by a young girl at the end of the nineteenth century in rural Brazil. In a review in Poetry Moore noted a quality that both diarist and translator had of a "gift for fantasy . . . use of words and hyper-precise eye." Bishop's subsequent translations included work from French and Spanish, as well as Portuguese, sources, and included collaborating with Emanuel Brasil on An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry (1972). In 1962 she published a book on Brazil with the Life World Library. Brazil is the setting for many of the poems in the third collection of her own work, Questions of Travel, which appeared in 1965. This was followed in 1969 by the first Complete Poems, which won a National Book Award, by which time, following Soares's death in 1967, Bishop had left Brazil and begun increasingly to live in the United States. The title poem of Questions of Travel concludes with a traveler's entry in "a notebook":
"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?"
In 1969 Bishop became poet-in residence at Harvard University, and went on to teach there for seven years. Her fourth volume of poetry, Geography III, appeared in 1976, the same year in which she became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This volume further cemented her reputation, and contains some of her best-known poems, including (in addition to "The Moose") "Crusoe in England," and "One Art." She died on October 6, 1979, at 68, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. One of her last pieces of writing was a foreword for a bibliography of her work prepared by Candace MacMahon. With characteristic restraint, she noted, "I am rather pleased to see I've written so much when I've always thought I'd written so little."
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