Elizabeth Bishop: A Growing Legacy
By Barbara Page
Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English
Elizabeth Bishop now stands as a major mid-twentieth century American poet, whose influence has been felt among several subsequent generations of poets. Highly regarded by critics such as Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, her rising reputation rests on the admiration of poets, including, among the Americans, James Merrill, John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, and, among world poets, Nobelists Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. Her place in the canon of American poetry is secure.
At her death in 1979, Bishop’s place among poets was less certain. True, she had won many prizes: the Pulitzer, two Guggenheims, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and Brazil’s Order of Rio Branco. The author of four volumes of poetry and a number of distinctive short stories, she had translated poems in three languages, as well as prose, notably the Diary of Helena Morley, a memoir of a girl growing up in the inland mountains of Brazil. She had written a volume in the Life World Library on Brazil, and had co-edited An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry. But the work came slowly. Bishop’s first book of poems, North & South, appeared in 1946; the second, Poems (including North & South and A Cold Spring), in 1955; the third, Questions of Travel, in 1965, and the last, Geography III, in 1976. Although her poems appeared periodically in The New Yorker, in her lifetime Bishop was overshadowed by more prolific and public contemporaries, even though they held her in high esteem, as, in Ashbery’s words, “a writer’s writer’s writer.”
In the 1980s, however, a new consideration of her reputation began, with the publication of The Complete Poems 1927-1979, The Collected Prose, and One Art, a selection of letters that revealed Bishop’s multifaceted gift for friendship and her brilliance as a correspondent. To date, she has been the subject of a full-dress biography, many scholarly books, and hundreds of scholarly and popular articles, a stream of commentary and interpretation that continues unabated. Commonly, a poet’s posthumous star dims for a while, but Bishop’s has risen steadily, and has itself become subject to study — in critic Thomas Travisano’s word, a “phenomenon.”
Bishop’s beginnings were inauspicious. She was born on 8 February 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts, but her father died when she was eight months old. Her Nova Scotian mother fell into a mental illness from which she was unable to recover, suffering frightening breakdowns and hospitalizations. In 1916, after the last crisis, Bishop never saw her again. Under the care of her maternal grandparents and aunts, she found comfort in the provincial village life of Nova Scotia, but with overtones of sorrow, represented in her “Sestina”:
September rain falls on the house,
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.
The next year, Bishop’s paternal grandparents arrived to remove her to Worcester, where, they believed, she would have more advantages. The child Elizabeth, however, felt as though she had been kidnapped, and to the end of her life saw herself as a displaced “Country Mouse”— the title of one story. Uprooted, she fell ill with asthma and eczema, alarming her grandparents, who finally farmed her out to a maternal aunt, living in modest circumstances in Boston. Her poem “In the Waiting Room” captures the child’s dawning recognition of herself among relations and in the world:
you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
Bishop, though often ill, passed a relatively uneventful childhood and youth, attending public school, then boarding schools, and spending summers at Camp Chequesset on Cape Cod. She read voraciously, and began to write. Entering Vassar College in 1930, she first thought to study music, took Greek, and concentrated on literature. At times, she wished she were a painter, and, off and on throughout her life, made casual sketches and water color paintings.
When she and her friends were excluded from the official student literary magazine, she — with Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark and others — founded Con Spirito as a rival, until the editors capitulated and agreed to publish their work. She began to send out poems and to be published. Most important to her transition into a postgraduate life in poetry, however, was her introduction, in her senior year, to modernist poet Marianne Moore, who became both friend for life and mentor and champion during her early career. In 1935, three of Bishop’s early poems appeared for the first time between book covers in the anthology Trial Balances, introduced by Moore.
For the next several years, Bishop moved unhappily among hotels in New York City and traveled in Europe and North Africa. In the winter of 1937, with her classmate Louise Crane she went on a fishing trip to Florida, and soon discovered Key West, where she would settle into the first of the “three loved houses,” mentioned in her poem “One Art.” There she met artist Loren MacIver, who became a lifelong friend, and philosopher John Dewey, and took to life at the southernmost reach of the country. Like Nova Scotia, Key West gave Bishop a setting for her imagination and the environs of a number of notable poems, including her much-anthologized “The Fish,” and “The Bight,” the last lines of which were to become her chosen epitaph: “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.”
Mobilization for war turned the funky fishing village into a military encampment; in this charged atmosphere Bishop felt displaced and resumed her fitful travels, north and south, with brief residence in Mexico. Although she returned to Florida for a time at war’s end, for her Key West “wasn’t the same.” Although the postwar years brought forth her first book and a lasting friendship with poet Robert Lowell, Bishop felt adrift. Never happy living in New York City, she tried stays at the arts colony Yaddo, drank heavily, and with great reluctance accepted appointment as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. A notation on her calendar for the year 1950 read: “Just about my worst so far.” Relief came in the form of a traveling fellowship from Bryn Mawr College. Departing in 1951, she resolved to travel around the world by freighter. Her first stop was Brazil, and “Arrival at Santos”: “Here is a coast; here is a harbor; / here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery. . . .”
Leaving Santos, Bishop stopped in Rio de Janeiro to visit acquaintances she had met some years before, including the lively, cosmopolitan, well-connected Lota de Macedo Soares, who was at the time overseeing construction of a high-modernist home in the mountains near Petrópolis, north of Rio. By fortuitous misfortune, Bishop was stricken with a severe allergic reaction to the fruit of the cashew nut that delayed her departure — a delay that stretched into some seventeen years’ residence in Brazil. In Lota, she had found the most profound love of her life. From early childhood, homelessness had been her condition, and it became a subject of her poems. When Lota invited Elizabeth to live with her in Samambaia, and offered to construct a studio for her behind the new house, she said, “It just meant everything to me.”
Bishop loved country life, rural people and folk traditions, and was charmed by Lota’s wit and eclectic knowledge of the arts and architecture. Together they settled into a decade of happiness at Samambaia — Bishop’s second “loved house” of “One Art”— with visits to Lota’s apartment overlooking Copacabana Beach in Rio. She learned Portuguese well enough to translate Brazilian poems, stories, and The Diary of Helena Morley, a memoir set in the mountainous mining region of Minas Gerais, where Bishop would later purchase and restore in Ouro Prˆeto the last of her “loved houses.”
Brazil extended Bishop’s south far beyond the Key West of her first book of poems, and brought forth a large correspondence with friends in the north. Her unmistakable voice is heard everywhere in her letters, an impressive addition to her poems and stories. Brazil provided both a new subject for poems and distance that allowed a gathering of childhood memories to enter her work. The centerpiece of her 1965 book, Questions of Travel, is a long story, “In the Village,” recounting the child’s response to her mother’s decline into madness.
Lota and Elizabeth’s life in Samambaia, a bustle of visiting friends and neighbors, adoptive children, servants and pets, gradually felt the intrusion of the growing political and economic turmoil in Brazil, as a long dictatorship gave way to chaotic struggles for power, and exponential inflation battered the country. Lota’s friend and neighbor Carlos Lacerda emerged as a leading spokesman against dictatorship and was elected governor of the region surrounding Rio. Lota brought him a proposal: give me the landfill along a several-mile stretch of Copacabana Beach and I will build you a people’s park. He did, and she did, but not without dire consequences for her life with Elizabeth and her own health. The park devoured Lota’s attention as she was undermined by opposition and resistance at every turn. Elizabeth was obliged to spend more time in Rio and felt neglected. Always susceptible to collapses of morale and the temptation of alcohol, she began to drink heavily. Lota, distracted and by disposition impatient, grew angry.
By the mid-sixties, both Elizabeth and Lota were strapped for cash. Elizabeth decided to accept a term of teaching offered by the University of Washington, over Lota’s vociferous objection. She went, began an affair, which of course Lota discovered, and returned to more misery in Brazil. Lota’s health had become perilous, plainly made worse by her struggle to build the park. She fell ill; Elizabeth drank and fell ill. Doctors recommended that Elizabeth withdraw from the country, hoping that a separation might allow Lota to recover. Reluctantly, Elizabeth returned to New York, but against medical advice Lota determined to follow her. The two spent one evening together that Elizabeth believed was peaceful, but she woke in early morning to find Lota collapsing from an overdose. Lota lingered for a week in St. Vincent’s Hospital, then died.
On returning to Brazil, Bishop was further devastated to find that some friends blamed her for Lota’s death, and that Lota’s sister was attempting to break the will. After several listless years of uncertainty, she realized that Brazil was lost to her, and moved north for good. For a time, Bishop thought that her creative life was over, but happily she was mistaken. Brazil remained with her as she recovered her voice to write some of the finest poems of her career, of both north and south, culminating in Geography III.
After a brief time in San Francisco, Bishop moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, invited by Robert Lowell to teach his courses at Harvard while he was on leave. Although she harbored great reservations about teaching, teach she did, at Harvard and elsewhere, compelled by the need to earn a living. With equal reluctance, she began to give readings, and gradually her literary profile grew. By the end of her life, she had been the recipient of many honorary degrees, and in 1976 became the first American and the first woman to receive the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. In Cambridge, too, Bishop met the last love of her life, Alice Methfessel, who became the dedicatee of Geography III and the immediate subject of Bishop’s masterful villanelle of loving and loss, “One Art,” which culminates:
— Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
For years, Bishop hoped to pull together her prose writings about Brazil, and she worked at an elegy for Lota, but these, sadly, remained unfinished. On 6 October 1979 she died of a cerebral hemorrhage in her apartment at Lewis Wharf, Boston. She is buried in Worcester, Massachusetts.