Brazil, January 1, 1502

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Brazil, January 1, 1502

Elizabeth Bishop 1960

Author Biography

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

Elizabeth Bishop’s “Brazil, January 1, 1502” appeared in a 1960 volume of New Yorker magazine. The poem would also appear five years later in Bishop’s verse collection titled Questions of Travel. A U.S. citizen, Bishop spent fifteen years in Brazil. She was enamored with the nation and its landscape, but she also questioned her place—as an outsider—in the country. “Brazil, January 1, 1502” explores that idea from an historical perspective. The poem’s title refers to the day that the Portuguese anchored at Guanabara Bay, Brazil, and claimed the country as part of their empire. (In 1494, Spain and Portugal had signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing the non-Christian world between them.) Bishop begins her poem with a quote from Sir Kenneth Clark’s Landscape Into Art and goes on to examines the European perception of nature in this poem about colonial conquest.

Author Biography

Elizabeth Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts, to a well-off family. She was an only child whose father died when she was eight months old. Four years later, her mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. (After the age of five, Bishop would never see her mother—who was diagnosed as permanently insane—again.) Young Elizabeth was sent to Nova Scotia to live with her maternal grandmother

until she was six, then she moved in with her father’s parents, and, finally, she settled in her aunt’s home in Massachusetts. Although her formal education was spotty, Bishop did attend high school until 1930. She then spent four years at Vassar College, during which time she developed as a poet because of her education, the influence of her classmates (several of whom, including Muriel Rukeyser, Mary McCarthy, and Eleanor Clark, would also become noted writers), and through her friendship with the already well-known poet Marianne Moore, whom she met through a librarian. It was Moore who helped convince Bishop to renounce her plans to become a doctor and instead focus on poetry.

After graduating from Vassar College in 1934, the same year her mother died, Bishop moved to New York City, where she continued living comfortably off her father’s estate. In 1935, Bishop had a poem published in Moore’s anthology titled Trial Balances. For the next three years, Bishop traveled to Europe and north Africa; she also bought a house in Key West. From 1945 to 1951, Bishop lived in New York, and she published her first book, North and South, in 1946. Her personal life was not happy, however; she suffered from asthma, depression, and alcoholism and was alienated by her status as an orphan, woman poet, and lesbian. At the advice of her doctor, Bishop set off on a cruise around the world in 1951. One of her first stops was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she visited Lota de Macedo Soares, a friend she had met at a party in New York. The two began a relationship, and Bishop stayed in Brazil until 1966.

Bishop returned to the United States to take a job at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1966. After her longtime friend Robert Lowell retired in 1969, Bishop assumed his post as poet-in-residence at Harvard University. By the time Bishop died in 1979 in Boston of a cerebral aneurysm, she had won the Pulitzer Prize for Poems: North and South—A Cold Spring (1955), a National Book Award for Complete Poems (1969), and a National Book Critics Circle Award for Geography III (1976).

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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Poem Summary

Lines 1-13

The poem’s title situates the poem in place and time: January 1, 1502, marked the day of the Portuguese sighting of and landing at Rio de Janeiro (River of January); it was the first time European eyes saw this place. According to the first two lines, nature has not changed much from the days of “theirs” (Portuguese invaders) to the present day of “our eyes” (readers of the poem). In other words, every January is pretty much the same, with the Brazilian, summer landscape dense with foliage and flowers. Bishop’s description lets readers know that the most remarkable things a person not from the tropics might notice about Rio’s nature is its size (“giant leaves,” “monster ferns,” and “flowers like giant water lilies”), its density (indicated by “every square inch filling in with foliage”), and its variety (the palette of colors, gradations of sizes, contrasts, and, even, textures—as in “satin underleaf”).

Lines 14-15

These two lines are crucial in that they compare nature, for the first time in the poem, to an artwork. Notice that Bishop states this obliquely (poetry being the art of stating indirectly): she does not use the word “tapestry” but instead refers to the “frame” from which the tapestry is removed; we know this artwork is not a painting, because paintings are most often displayed with the frame. This reference to tapestry refers us back to the epigraph, words from Kenneth Clark’s book, which we can assume sparked some of the ideas for this poem.

Media Adaptations

  • Elizabeth Bishop, One Art can be found in the PBS Voices and Visions series, New York: Center for Visual History Productions

Lines 16-23

Lines 16 and 17 describe the upper portion of the landscape tapestry: sky, foliage (“simple web”), and the birds (“feathery detail”). “Brief arcs, a pale-green broken wheel” might indicate the arching palm branches with limp-hanging fronds, looking like a spoked wheel without hub or lower half. In the palms are birds, most likely macaws (a kind of parrot); these birds are not only identified with South America, but with a rich symbolic heritage—most generally as a solar symbol, as an avatar of heavenly fire—among the tribes of Brazil. These birds, Bishop seems to notice, are usually depicted in profile, perhaps to show off their magnificent beaks. They are likely quiet because asleep. As in a still life or tapestry, a general stillness pervades these lines.

Lines 24-32

The word “foreground” calls further attention to this scene as a tapestry. Line 24 is important for the word “Sin,” capitalized to link it with the idea in Christianity. What will be important for the following lines is nature seen in terms of Christian symbolism. For example, sin is figured as “five sooty dragons near some massy rocks.” Dragons, often linked to serpents, are paradigmatic symbols of original sin. “Sooty” might be linking dragons to the fires of hell (described later as “hell-green” to link nature with fallen nature, nature as sinful). The rocks appear to symbolize earth attacked from below by hellish forces and from above by heavenly forces—earth is depicted as a battleground in the war between God and Satan. For example, the spreading “moonbursts” of lichens overtaking the rocks link the scene to a pagan and feminine, not a Christian, scene: the moon—a body that changes earth’s tides, glows with indirect light, and proceeds through phases—is linked with earth, woman, and sin. With line 32, we are assured that the aforementioned lines have been a Portuguese, not a Brazilian Indian, conception of landscape, since the vine, attacking from above, is described in Portuguese. The “yes and no” alternating ladder pattern is the vine as a Christian symbol of passage to heaven, a conduit from earth to paradise.

Lines 33-36

These four lines describe the “sooty dragons.” They turn out to be five lizards—four males, one female. The lizards are sinful because they are depicted as ready for sex (earthly and sinful in strict Christian terms). The female lizard, like Eve and woman generally, is shown to be even more sinful—at least in the older Christian worldview— because females are supposedly changing creatures (their bodies change with pregnancy and with menses, and they are said to be fickle) and they lure men to their demise—in this case, with an alluring, yet “red-hot,” “wire” in their tail.

Lines 37-46

The “Just so” identifies the Christians with the lizards above, probably in separate areas of the tapestry. The Christians are depicted as nails, because they are dressed in armor and are violent, but there is also phallic symbolism attached to the description. The Portuguese Christians find Brazilian nature somewhat familiar because they had some experience with gardens back home. Kenneth Clark reports that gardens were the model for Paradise, a nature made altogether friendly to humans. True, the Brazilian rain forest did not have “lovers’ walks” and the other amenities once part of the gardens of a flourishing aristocracy (persecuted in the late 1400s by the Portuguese king, John II), but the jungle was beautiful. And it even contained “a brand new pleasure” that was not part of Portuguese gardens: Brazilian women.

Lines 47-53

Upon landing at what would become Rio de Janeiro, the Portuguese invaders hold a Mass on the beach where they sing, perhaps L’Homme armé, a Mass telling the basic story of Jesus and asking Him for mercy. Immediately afterward, the Christians walk into the jungle, tearing their way through with their swords (slashing at the fabric of the “tapestry” of nature) to chase the Indian women who hide behind the foliage. While the real Portuguese who ripped away the “hanging fabric” were outside of the tapestry, the Portuguese of Bishop’s poem are also made part of the textile tapestry through Bishop’s textual tapestry. This is only to say that the Portuguese were both of and not of nature. On the other hand, the Brazilian women are embedded so deep into the tapestry as to almost disappear behind it. They, like nature, are treated by the Portuguese as part of the scene—at one with the jungle’s flora and fauna, as susceptible to capture and overpowering as macaws chased for their feathers.


American Dream

Bishop’s poem commemorates a particular New Year’s Day in 1502, when the crew, Captain Gonçalo Coelho, and the pilot major/scribe, Amerigo Vespucci, sailed for the first time (for Europeans) into what would eventually become the city of Rio de Janeiro on a continent eventually named for Vespucci, “America.” The Portuguese had what is now known as the American Dream—in this case an early and somewhat different version of that dream. It was a dream of wealth gained by exploiting the people and nature of new lands. In the Portuguese version, the wealth consisted largely of logs of Brazil wood, a red wood processed for its crimson dye, and the wealth of birds and bird feathers. Both of these items were acquired from Brazilian natives in exchange for iron axes, used partially to cut down the trees for Portuguese manufacturers who would process the logs, sell the dye, and give part of their proceeds to the crown. This was the American dream in its original character—a dream to get rich, to get ahead by exploitation. This early version of the American dream would eventually become the dream of individuals all over the world who were willing to work hard and honestly to move from poverty to wealth, or at least to prosperity.

Nature and Its Meaning

In Bishop’s poem, the Portuguese view nature as feminized, with native Brazilian women being part of that nature. Woman has long been considered more a part of nature than man; woman is associated with “mother earth,” while man is associated with father sky. But many people still believe that it was dark skin that really led to white domination of native peoples. Hannah Arendt, in speaking of the colonization of Africa in Imperialism(1968), casts doubt upon this conception: “What made [Africans] different from other human beings was not at all the color of their skin but the fact

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the flora and fauna native to Brazil. Then find out what has happened to the rain forest in the last several decades.
  • Do a comparative study between the letters of Amerigo Vespucci on the Brazilian Indians and studies done in the twentieth century, such as those by Claude Levi-Strauss. How do the writings differ or remain the same?
  • Research Christian conceptions of nature. An excellent beginning would be the book Traces on the Rhodian Shore by Clarence Glacken.

that they behaved like a part of nature, that they treated nature as their undisputed master, that they had not created a human world, a human reality, and that therefore nature had remained, in all its majesty, the only overwhelming reality—compared to which they appeared to be phantoms, unreal and ghostlike. They were, as it were, ‘natural’ human beings who lacked the specifically human character, the specifically human reality, so that when European men massacred them they somehow were not aware that they had committed murder.” Elizabeth Bishop, herself, in her book, Brazil (1962) makes clear that it was not dark skin that led the Portuguese to degrade the Brazilian Indians, nor, particularly, the women: “The Portuguese had always been romantically drawn to women of darker races; they had long taken Moorish wives and Negro concubines, and there were already many Negro slaves in Portugal. In Brazil it was only natural for them to become eager miscegenationists almost immediately.” Thus, the Brazilian woman becomes prey for the Portuguese not because she is dark, but because she seems so much part of the tapestry of nature, even more so than the Brazilian man. The Christian meaning, then, of woman was nature, and the meaning of nature (in its vulnerability, changeability, its ability to give birth to plants) was woman. The naturalization of women and the feminization of nature has led, as Bishop indicates, to rape, rapine, murder, and the obliteration of nature.

Art and Experience

The Portuguese explorers were perhaps familiar with the art that depicted nature as filled with Christian symbology. Kenneth Clark, in Landscape Into Art, theorizes why nature was made into a hollow shell inserted with Christian symbols of human construction: “If ideas are Godlike and sensations debased, then our rendering of appearances must as far as possible be symbolic, and nature, which we perceive through our senses, becomes positively sinful.” With the Christian worldview as put forth by Clark, the experience of art becomes more important than the experience of nature, since art is what reveals the true meaning within or behind nature. Art, therefore, is not separate from experience, but is experience. On the other hand, nature becomes a kind of false or fallen experience. The Portuguese conception of nature as a tapestry then, is more akin to Christian truth than nature as itself truth—the latter a blasphemy that would diminish the importance of God, who is believed to have created nature. To the Christian, artistic experience, not experience in nature, is the way to God.


“Brazil, January 1, 1502” is a modernist poem in free verse, or verse without established meter that may or may not employ rhyme. Bishop’s poem seems to be the freest of free verse, without rhyme or metrics. Close to prose, every line is like a phrase between punctuation marks, the whole punctuated just like prose. There are, however, three stanzas, but without pattern in their number of lines. Why did she create such an unpoetic poem? Perhaps because its subject is so unpoetic, so antiromantic: these Portuguese Christians, neither chivalrous nor heroic, are uncritical plunderers, destructive of both nature and native peoples. Bishop might have used stanzas because the subject matter breaks up into parts: the first, describing nature in nonsymbolic fashion; the second, showing nature in terms of Christian symbols, and the third, positioning humanity’s complex connection to nature as both insider and outsider. There is occasional alliteration in the poem (such as “puffed and padded”) and occasional repetition of sound (such as the “f” sound in “fresh as if just finished / and taken off the frame”), but a prose writer might just as much seek such repetition. Perhaps what most characterizes “Brazil, January 1, 1502” is its mimicking of the way the explorers approached Rio. In other words, readers come to this poem as explorers, hardly

Compare & Contrast

  • 1960: The population of Brazil stands at over 70,000,000.

    1995: The population more than doubles to 156,000,000, almost all of which claims Christianity as their religion.

  • 1960: Brazilian coffee production totals 3,576,000 metric tons.

    1996: Production decreases to 1,290,000 metric tons.

  • 1960: Brazilian passenger car production amounts to 133,000,000 metric tons.

    1995: Production increases to 357,000,000 metric tons.

knowing at all where they are going as they move slowly through its lines, only coming to “conquer” the poem with repeated readings and study. Though this poem may be as difficult to initially move through as a Brazilian rain forest, it should be stated that Bishop objected “rather violently” to other people’s footnotes, perhaps because they seemed to her a kind of colonizing by literary critics, an easing of exploration of a place better left intact and without amenities—better left in its original state.

Historical Context

Brazil was the only Latin-American country to be colonized by Portugal, and Pedro Alvares Cabral was the first European to see Brazil. At this time, Spain and Portugal, the first imperial powers, ruled what had been discovered of the world. After the first explorations of Brazil in the early days of the 1500s, the Portuguese crown sent an expedition to establish fifteen captaincies to be administered by hereditary rulers. The rulers enjoyed a great deal of autonomy from the Portuguese crown until 1808. In that year, Napoleon invaded Portugal and forced King Joao VI to flee to Brazil. As a result of the king’s residency, Brazil’s economic life became consolidated and centralized. In 1821, Joao returned to Portugal; the next year, the king’s son, Pedro, had himself crowned emperor of an independent Brazil. Pedro I had to contend with regular conflicts with the aristocracy over the degree of centralization, including a clash over slavery. The slave trade had begun in the mid-sixteenth century but was outlawed in 1850. In 1888, ownership of slaves was abolished, but the landed elite expressed their discontent over this and other issues by getting the military to depose Pedro in a bloodless coup. This was the beginning of Brazil’s first attempt at a republican style of government, referred to as “the Old Republic.” Oligarchies henceforth ruled individual states and were bound together in a kind of federalism—called a polity of governors—not ruled by a central government, but more, dominated by the prominence of two states, Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo. Rights and freedoms were scarce, especially for immigrants. In 1930, the oligarchies of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais could not agree on who they would make president. Amidst the confusion, Getúlio Vargas seized power, made himself president, and dissolved the Old Republic. Vargas ruled like a dictator, even dissolving the constitution when he saw fit. His Estado Novo, or New State, not only abolished all political parties, but consolidated the labor movement under Vargas’s control. Vargas ruled as a dictator for another six years, until increasing pressure for a return to democracy led him to call an election. When it seemed as though he would again act the dictator and tamper with the results, the military stepped in and removed him from office. Getúlio Vargas, however, would remain a profound influence in his old government: there would continue to be a strong central government, weak oppositional parties, a co-optation of labor and class-based movements, and the consolidation of government with business interests. After the dissolution of the Estado Novo, the military played a larger and larger part in the governing of Brazil. They ran candidates in every election, and though they won only the first, the military finally took power in a coup in 1964, the beginning of two decades of military rule.

Elizabeth Bishop had this to say about the government of Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-60), the period in which she wrote “Brazil, January 1, 1502”: “Under Kubitschek industrialization began in earnest: iron ore exports were doubled and a Brazilian automobile industry was started. He began an ambitious highway program and undertook the construction of great dams in order to increase the country’s supply of electrical power. But the Kubitschek government was susceptible to corruption and graft…. Control of the country remained in the hands of a few powerful political and economic groups. While the south remained rich and prosperous, the northeast was still abysmally poor.” The same kinds of divisions between rich and poor, dominators and dominated had continued for four hundred years. The only difference was that the Brazilian Indians were all but wiped out through miscegenation, slavery, disease, and murder.

Critical Overview

“Brazil, January 1, 1502” has been much written about, mostly late in Bishop’s career or after she died. Likely, this is due to the poem being slightly ahead of its time, at one with a growing demand (at least in the West) for greater feminist, anti-colonial and multicultural awareness. In a 1977 assessment, David Kalston remarked on Bishop’s view of the tapestry of nature: “The tapestry—initially it seemed like a device to domesticate the landscape—instead excludes invaders from it…. Nature’s tapestry endures, renews itself. After our initial glimpse of order, we shrink like Alice or Gulliver—toy intruders, marvelling.” In The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Parker follows with a virtuoso examination of the poem—which he calls “grandly historical”—over the course of eight pages. He says that Bishop’s conquistadors regard nature as symbol, seeing, for example, lizards as dragons as “Sin.” But when the poet identifies the conquistadors themselves as lizards, it is they who become sinful and entrapped by their own symbol-making. As Parker says, the conquistadors “sin against the common creed of nature” and thereby become degraded by it. And true to Bishop’s point, history has increasingly condemned these early “explorers.”

In an article titled “Bishop’s Sexual Politics,” Joanne Feit Diehl comments, “The torn tapestry becomes the violated body of nature itself.” But it is not simply the conquistadors who tear the tapestry and “tear after” the rain-forest women, but anyone who understands nature as a cultural artifact or an empty structure containing within it the more important germ, or essence, of what is symbolized. Diehl believes this implicates the reader in the very first lines; “Januaries, Nature greets our eyes / exactly as she must have greeted theirs.” Thus, the poem becomes a cautionary tale for those in the business or habit of turning nature to symbolic ends (especially theologians, writers, painters, filmmakers, etc). In Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss, Susan McCabe writes that Bishop composed her “exquisite” poem on New Year’s Day. In a comparison between a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” McCabe indicates an historical progress in the general perception of these explorers: while Fitzgerald imagines these explorers as vessels overflowing with wonder, Bishop fills them with lust. Marilyn May Lombardi, writing in The Body and the Song, points out the link between the activity of conquering and that of translation that she believes Bishop, a translator of Brazilian poetry, was likely to have seen: “The conquering imagination of the translator has supreme power over the inert, obedient body of the original poem, just as the conquistador imposes his own values on the landscape that greets his eyes.” Finally, Anne Colwell, in Inscrutable Houses: Metaphors of the Body in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, makes a comparison between tourists/travelers and conquistadors, both of whom enter into a foreign landscape only to be swallowed up by it. Colwell asserts that “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” is “about the soldiers, the tourist, all of us, being drawn into what we draw in.”


Marisa Anne Pagnattaro

Marisa Anne Pagnattaro, J.D., Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer and a Robert E. West teaching fellow in the English Department at the University of Georgia. In the following essay, Pagnattaro explores Bishop’s depiction of the colonial conquest of Brazil.

In 1951, Elizabeth Bishop boarded a ship for Tierra del Fuego and the Straits of Magellan, eventually headed to Europe. Along the way, she planned to stop in Brazil and visit friends. At the age of 40, Bishop left behind New York, having yet to come to terms with a troubled childhood and her sexuality. Her biographer, Brett C. Millier, speculated in Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It that Bishop “left the United States for South America contemplating … questions of lifestyle and identity, specifically of a lesbian lifestyle as it might relate to her public and private identity.” Courageously she set out to contemplate her life far removed from the northeastern United States where she had grown to adulthood.

After her arrival at Santos, Brazil, a port just south of Rio de Janeiro, Bishop boarded a train and was captivated by the landscape she saw. Millier incorporates Bishop’s observations in her biography:

Brilliant scenery suddenly appeared, in sunlight … A feathery quality to the landscape—the grass has that bright but sparse look of Mexican grass—the lush banana trees, etc.,—but against the sky the bamboos & flamboyants & all the Lent trees—rather pale & lacy, slightly Chinese—& this effect appears in all the old engravings, I think.

Amazed by the Brazilian landscape, Bishop captured her fascination in her 1965 collection of poems, Questions of Travel. Dedicated to her long-time companion, Lota de Macedo Soares, many of the poems have personal resonances. For example, the title poem, “Questions of Travel,” describes the speaker’s process of trying to find herself in a distant place. Unlike this poem, “Brazil, January 1, 1502” is much less obviously personal. While in Brazil, Bishop spent time reading about the country’s history; Bishop is inspired by this history in this poem. Originally appearing in the New Yorker on January 2, 1960, “Brazil, January 1, 1502” confronts headlong issues of the colonial conquest.

The title, “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” commemorates the arrival of the Portuguese conquistadors who thought that they “discovered” the country when they landed at Guanabara Bay. The epigram of the poem is from Landscape into Art by Sir Kenneth Clark: “… embroidered nature … tapestried landscape.” In Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Place, Margaret Dickie suggests that, by using these phrases, “Bishop draws on Clark’s view that conceiving landscape as a tapestry is a medieval construction of nature as symbolic.” Bishop was not wholly thrilled with this analogy, yet it seemed to her apt. Millier quotes from a March 23, 1956, letter to friends Ilse and Kit Barker, in which Bishop apologetically remarked that the mountains looked like a tapestry: “Sorry to be so unoriginal but they do,—a brand

What Do I Read Next?

  • Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil, published in 1962, is full of illustrations and includes a history and cultural exploration of Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (1967) by Clarence Glacken, is perhaps the most important volume of history on the perception of nature through time.
  • Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978) is Susan Griffin’s unusual extended prose poem against patriarchal culture, a text that catalogues different associations made between woman and nature.
  • Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) works hard at combating the persistent notion of the inexhaustibility of nature.

new tapestry, maybe.” Later, in an exchange of correspondence with poet Robert Lowell, Bishop laments—in a February 15, 1960, letter—that the image is “a bit artificial but I finally had to do something with the cliché about the landscape looking like a tapestry” (quoted in Dickie’s Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Place). The reference, however, is more than a mere platitude. The very image of embroidery suggests the imposition of European craft onto the indigenous landscape and the inherent tension between the Portuguese who set out to exploit this land.

The opening lines of the first stanza suggest that, like the colonists, Bishop approached Brazil as an outsider: “Januaries, Nature greets our eyes / exactly as she must have greeted theirs.” The month of January has multiple resonances: the literal “January” in the name of Rio de Janeiro (misnamed as a river by the Portuguese); the month in which Bishop mailed the poem to Robert Lowell in 1959; and the Janus of Roman mythology, the guardian of the doors and gates who presided over beginnings

“The very image of embroidery [in ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502’] suggests the imposition of European craft onto the indigenous landscape ….”

with dual faces able to look backward and forward. Here, Bishop looks to the past exploitation, yet also implicitly tries to come to terms with her own relationship with Brazil. This exploration is inseparable from the lush, exotic landscape. The next twelve lines of this stanza describe the natural scene in detailed artistic terms. As if consciously trying to weave a tapestry into her reader’s mind, Bishop details the varied size, hue and texture of the leaves:

   big leaves, little leaves, giant leaves,
   blue, blue-green, and olive,
   with occasional lighter veins and edges,
   or a satin underleaf turned over;
   monster ferns
   in silver-gray relief,
   and flowers, too, like giant water lilies
   up in the air—up, rather, in the leaves—
   purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
   rust red and greenish white;
   solid but airy; ....

Bishop celebrates the fecundity of the landscape. Significantly, however, this dense array of images is depicted as if the artist has “just finished / and taken off the frame.” The fertile natural world is more than a carefully constructed artifice; even though there is an overt absence of human intruders, the tapestry metaphor suggests their presence. Literary critic Roger Gilbert comments that this stanza “reads at first like one of Bishop’s typically wry, elegant landscape poems, full of painterly touches and metaphorically resonant details,” yet “the language of tapestry here figures the forcible imposition of a Christian ideology on the native culture.”

The second stanza further develops the colonial violence and the introduction of the concept of “sin.” The religious law of the Portuguese is imposed on the landscape: “Still in the foreground there is Sin” in the form of “five sooty dragons near some massy rocks.” As Dickie notes, it is “as if the first colonizers’ view of nature had permanently planted sin on the landscape along with or as their flag.” The lusty image is predatory and riddled with tension:

   The lizards scarcely breathe; all eyes
   are on the smaller, female one, back-to,
   her wicked tail straight up and over,
   red as a red-hot wire.

Curiously enough, this sexually charged scene has its roots in one of Bishop’s innocuous observations of nature. While writing the poem, Bishop described the same scene in a letter to her Aunt Grace Bowers (quoted in Miller’s Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It) in rather playfully innocent terms:

Watching the lizards’ love-making is one of our quiet sports here!—the male chases the female, bobbing his head up and down and puffing his throat in and out like a balloon—he is usually much larger and much uglier. The female runs ahead and if she is feeling friendly raises her tail up over her back like a wire—it is bright red, almost neon-red, underneath. He hardly ever seems to catch up with her though—

Bishop further reflects on how the Christian dogma of the Portuguese—ostensibly a mere reflection of the natural world—created a skewed perception of a natural event. Moreover, as Millier suggests, the much darker version in the poem equates the female lizard with “the female Indians and the female land as objects both exploited and somehow inviting that exploitation.” This troubling image—Brazil and its people encouraging the Portuguese to take advantage of them—is presumably meant to be viewed from the conquistador’s perspective.

Lest there be any doubt about Bishop’s animosity toward the European visitors 450 years earlier, the final stanza is much more direct and hard hitting. The opening line plays on an old cliché: “Just so the Christians, hard as nails.” While they may have set out to dominate, Bishop remakes them as small and almost ridiculous. In her verse, they are “tiny as nails, and glinting, / in creaking armor.” What these conquers found was not a romanticized vision. On the contrary, there were “no lovers’ walks, no bowers, / no cherries to be picked, no lute music.” All of this corresponded “to an old dream of wealth and luxury” that was “already out of style when they left home.” Nevertheless, they were able to accrue “wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.”

That pleasure was, apparently, the Indian women they colonized. Depicted as humming a little tune as they leave Mass, these men went about the business of “ripping away at the hanging fabric, / each out to catch an Indian for himself—” ravaging the landscape and its the female inhabitants. The closing lines are riddled with ambiguity. The women are described as “maddening” and “little”—seemingly both confounding and easily overtaken. They “call to each other” and retreat, “always retreating behind it.” What is it? The tapestry of the landscape? Or of the overlay of European values? Even though Bishop, in Adrienne Rich’s words (in Boston Review), grasp’s “the presence of colonization and enslavement,” Bishop’s concluding image is not clear.

This vagueness was probably deliberate. Bishop’s own relationship with Brazil and its people was fraught with conflict. Bishop may have just planned to stop in Brazil as part of a trip around the world on her way to Europe, but she stayed for more than fifteen years. In her memoir of Bishop that appeared in Partisan Review, Pearl Bell describes how the poet was persuaded by her friend Lota de Macedo Soares to abandon her voyage and remain in Brazil. Bell also notes an important point of reflection for Bishop: “Lota came from a wealthy family that traced its Brazilian roots back to the Portuguese settlers of the sixteenth century.”

“Brazil, January 1, 1502” is, as Dickie asserts, “read often for its political insights into colonization,” yet it “may also indicate how thoroughly Bishop herself had colonized Brazil, ransacked the landscape for her poetry, found pleasure in her sexual encounters there.” In fact, in a letter to Lowell contained in the collection of letters titled One Art, Bishop expressed her anxiety: “I worry a great deal about what to do with all this accumulation of exotic or picturesque or charming detail, and I don’t want to become a poet who can only write about South America. It is one of my greatest worries now—how to use everything and keep on living here, most of the time, probably—and yet be a New Englander herring-choker bluenoser at the same time.” Bishop may have set sail for South America in search is greater self definition, but many questions of place and belonging were left unresolved. Indeed, they may even have been further complicated.

Source: Marisa Anne Pagnattaro, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.

Jhan Hochman

Jhan Hochman, who holds a Ph.D in English and an M.A. in cinema studies, is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998). In the following essay, Hochman seeks to lend precision to Bishop’s poem and implicates the reader in the acts of the Christian Portuguese conquerors.

Elizabeth Bishop’s “Brazil, January 1, 1502” is about the disappearance of nature in the world and the concurrent appearance of nature in art and idea. Kenneth Clark, in Landscape Into Art, had already charted the increasing presence of nature in art from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was Bishop who ran with Clark’s theory: she noticed that as landscape proliferated, nature was decimated.

In the opening lines of “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” Bishop tells readers the we must have seen nature much like the Portuguese of 1502 did. The first stanza shows us one way both we and they saw nature: in terms close to pure description filled with wonder, Brazilian nature at the height of variety and fecundity near the time of the summer solstice. Here, the purpose in describing nature is accuracy (“up in the air—up, rather, in the leaves—”). But at the end of the stanza, there is a turn: “fresh as if just finished / and taken off the frame.” Bishop has shown us that though we seek accuracy in description we still do not get at the crux of nature. Instead we get color, size, depth (“in silver-gray relief”), and texture (“satin underleaf”). These are all issues important to the artist who must render mere appearance, but not to the observer of nature attempting to understand appearance, function, and behavior—or, in other words, that which makes each plant and animal particularly what it is as an individual, and a member of a group or species. Though the first stanza seems to portray nature as raw and fresh, the last two lines tell us that this is nature still heavily mediated by art.

By the second stanza, things change. Now landscape is described in both descriptive and symbolic terms: the sky is blue-white and a web; the detail feathery; the branches of palm are broken pale-green wheels; the birds (probably macaws) indicate Brazil, a kind of paradise on earth; the lizards are dragonlike and sinful; the lichens are moon-bursts; moss is hell-green; the vines are described as attacking, as “scaling-ladder vines,” and as “‘one leaf yes and one leaf no’ in Portuguese”; and the female lizard’s tail is a “red-hot wire.” In summary, the landscape of the second stanza is both descriptive and symbolic, more fully belonging to the realm of an earlier art when nature was depicted with painterly description and, further, injected with metaphors. This is not nature speaking for itself (the “birds keep quiet”), but nature spoken for—nature as still life, as nature morte (dead nature) filled up with “live” symbols and essences created from human imagination (though Christianity would call these essences products of revelation, not imagination).

The third stanza is less clear than the first two. I interpret the first four lines of stanza three as: This is just the way Christians (the Portuguese conquerors) saw nature—through eyes accustomed to nature in artwork; that is, nature in terms of color, shape, and symbol. Other critics have translated these lines as: These Christians (that pursue females in the last lines of the poem) are just like the lizards pursuing a female in the last lines of stanza two—in this way, the Portuguese are, like the lizards, implicated as sinful. While this latter reading functions to parallel features of the poem (soldiers with lizards), I believe it to be a strategy more of form than content—a kind of rhyme of imagery. My interpretation has Bishop saying that both we and the Portuguese see Brazil’s nature as new because we have never seen it before; however, we are also familiar with it, since the idea of nature has already been “understood” or processed through artifice, or painting and tapestry yielding an “embroidered nature” suffused with symbol. One source for Portuguese knowledge of landscape is the garden depicted in tapestry and painting, several examples of which are shown in Kenneth Clark’s Landscape Into Art. The garden represented “good” nature that is conducive to human existence and was the model for Eden and Paradise. Bishop describes this nature in the third stanza: “lovers’ walks, … bowers … cherries to be picked … lute music.” Clark’s description of a garden refers to the painting called Paradise Garden, an anonymous work credited to the Cologne School: “It contains the elements of late mediaeval landscape in their most perfect form, and distills a world of delicate, sensuous perception, where flowers are there to please the senses of sight and smell, fruit to satisfy the taste and the sound of a zither, mingled with that of falling water, to delight the hearing.” Paradisical nature is in marked contrast to “bad” nature, another nature with which both we and the Portuguese are somewhat familiar. Bad nature is that nature thought to have fallen with Adam and Eve and become resistant to humanity. This might even evolve into the forms of nature depicted in the hellish landscape of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Delights or the indifferent landscape of Pieter Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus. Armed with both of these conceptions of good and bad nature, and nature seen in artistic terms of color and shape, we come to nature with preconceptions; we do not see it fresh, but, instead, “fresh, as if just finished / and taken off the frame.”

Not only are plants, animals, land, and water seen in terms of previous conceptions of nature inherited or gained through texts and pictures, but so too anything lucky or unlucky enough to be associated with nature. This is what happens in the climax of the poem. Right after hearing songs (artworks)—not about landscape but about sin shouldered by Jesus Christ—the men go into the jungle, ready to understand it as a potential garden, to pluck from it what they desire and prune from it the sin they imagine hidden there. In the rain forest they saw not only plants and animals, but people thought to be ripe for the picking. Native Brazilians were not only naked but possessed and carried few material possessions. What they had was made of simply processed materials from the forest. Amerigo Vespucci’s reported that though the Brazilian Indians were without clothes, they were decorated with bird feathers. Bishop even mentions in “Brazil, January 1, 1502” that the Portuguese confused the women’s cries with those of the birds (in the second stanza). Such statements suggest that the Indians appeared to Westerners as belonging to nature even more than humanity—that they were closer to the world of animals than to the world of humans. The Indians then, like nature, become ripe for improving, plunder, salvation, or whatever rationalization suits the perpetrator.

While the jungle is large and the interlopers are referred to as “tiny,” they are nonetheless hard as nails, because they are made of iron, a substance to which the jungle could offer little resistance. Like small nails invading a huge wall, the conquerors plunged their way into the rain forest. Bishop says they “ripped away into the hanging fabric,” tearing the tapestry of nature. But Bishop employs two prepositions: “away” and “into.” The Christians also “ripped into” the jungle and penetrated it like nails would.

As the Portuguese chased the “maddening little women” into a wild nature “domesticated” or “tamed” through tapestry (nature understood through art), the women—presumably decorated with bird feathers and calling to each other like birds—retreated behind it. If the Portuguese were so separated from nature that they could be thought outside and in front of it, contemplating it like an artwork, then the women—understood to be within nature—were so far into it as to seem able to hide behind it. With this kind of spatialization, the artwork stands in a space between conquerors and conquered, between Europeans and Indians as a kind of barricade. In addition, the idea of women as nature is reciprocally related to nature conceived of as feminine, mother nature, a nature Bishop refers to with the pronoun “she” in the poem’s opening lines. Not only are natives and nature confounded, but so too are women and nature. What the Christians did was rape women and nature, both thought soft and penetrable.

Culture replaces nature not only in the mind but in practice. Nature becomes culture and keeps on becoming culture to such an extent that Brazilian natives have never ceased retreating behind an ever-disappearing nature (and being buried by an increase in representation); they have all but died out with the disappearance, not of a fabric, but of nature “herself.” We may not be or act like these Portuguese invaders, but we are their offspring and manifest their deeds in a different fashion: “Nature greets our eyes exactly as she must have greeted theirs,” says Bishop. The only difference between us and them is that most of us cause the suffering and disappearance of plants, animals, and elements not by direct, but by indirect action, not by outright invasion, but by a greed that fuels the machines of invasion.

Soure: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.

Bruce Meyer

Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer analyzes how “Brazil, January 1, 1502” supports the claim that “the surprise of seeing something for the first time … is at the core of the artistic experience.”

Elizabeth Bishop believed in the value of seeing things afresh. In one of her lesser-known poems, “The Prodigal,” Bishop remarks that even a pigsty, when away from home, takes on a semblance of surprise because it is seen new for the first time. The surprise of seeing something for the first time, Bishop suggests in “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” is at the core of the artistic experience. The poem, like much of her 1965 collection, Questions of Travel, constantly reminds us not only of what we see but of how we see by taking us through a labyrinth of vegetation—a tapestry where web and weft are woven from threads of perception to form a much larger picture, “fresh as if just finished / and taken off the frame.”

Bishop’s “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” examines the nature of beginnings—how they are perceived and the way that familiarity with something gradually changes our perceptions. For Bishop, the “tapestry” of the first impression can be deceiving; and like a tapestry, there is a reality behind the artifice (whether man’s or nature’s artifice) that is considerably different once the surface, its beauty, and its textures have been penetrated. To penetrate the surface, the mind’s eye and the beholder must work their ways through a labyrinthine weave of images. And like a tapestry, where layers of stitching are overlaid, the life that underlies the immediate impressions is often different from the life that appears on the surface. For Bishop, “Brazil, January 1, 1502” is a poem that not only pays tribute to the conquest and discovery of a place but also to the process of finding life within the context of a place. She questions what that life beneath the surface is and how that vitality is perpetually fleeting, elusive, and unreadable. Like the very meaning at the heart of a poem, Bishop calls out to that which is “retreating, always retreating.”

History, she claims, is full of surprises, and one need only imagine the beginnings of things—the moment of their discovery or their revelation—to see the value, the beauty, and the wonder in things. The historical moment Bishop records in the poem is the moment when the new country was first seen by Europeans. Pedro Alvares Cabral, the first European of record to visit Brazil, landed there in 1500 on his way to India. He claimed the portion of the South American continent under the Papal Bull of 1493 and the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. The line that Spain and Portugal drew down the center of the world to divide the rights to the eastern and the western hemispheres accidentally gave Brazil to Portugal. At the time, it seemed a workable “Christian” solution, and Pope Alexander IV was proud of the fact that he had avoided an armed conflict between the two Iberian powers. The discovery of Brazil, jutting out in the Atlantic, however, came as a surprise to both the Spanish and the Portuguese.

It is this element of surprise that underscores Bishop’s use of the date in the title—and what a surprise it is. Like the “tapestried landscape” in the

“If this New World is not quite the paradise it seems, Bishop warns us that part of the tapestry of seeing and perceptions is the spiritual and intellectual baggage that our civilized minds cannot leave at home.”

epigram from the aesthetic study of landscapes by art historian and critic Sir Kenneth Clark, the reader and the persona of the poem are meant to view the new world as a series of stories and textures that constantly give way to new beginnings and new interpretations. The fact that the poem opens on New Year’s Day reminds us of fresh starts and that the distance between the moment of discovery and rediscovery of a landscape is not all that great. As Bishop sees it, each time we open our eyes to something new, we are in a state of “Januaries,” where “Nature greets our eyes / exactly as she must have greeted” the first Europeans to set foot in Brazil.

What we are meant to experience is wonder, not only through the lushness of what is perceived in a new place, but of the overlaid layers that are supported by the tapestry’s “simple web, / backing for feathery detail.” What Bishop suggests is that underlying any natural or artificial structure or perception there is a broader design. Nothing in the world is mere happenstance and everything has meaning. The birds are “big symbolic birds” whose “beaks agape” suggest a startled nature that is inhabited by a spiritual presence. After all, the word “agape” not only means “wide open”; it also means “love of God.” And it is this underlying web of mysticism and spirituality that Bishop recognizes in the second stanza of the poem. “Still,” she notes, “in the foreground there is Sin: / five sooty dragons near some massy rocks.” Like the paradise of The Bible, the potential for the New World to fall seems to be inherent in it very early on.

If this New World is not quite the paradise it seems, Bishop warns us that part of the tapestry of seeing and perceptions is the spiritual and intellectual baggage that our civilized minds cannot leave at home. Brazil, she suggests, was not discovered simply by explorers but by “Christians, hard as nails, / tiny as nails, and glinting, / in creaking armor.” What they “came and found” was not “unfamiliar” to them. They carried with them a strong concept of paradise, albeit a paradise that was more a spiritual concept concerning possession and dispossession than a vegetative construct. The Biblical Eden in the “old dream of wealth and luxury” had become a positivist parable—that Man should be given dominion over all things and therefore claim and possess what is undiscovered. But strangely enough, the vision of the New World that was perceived by these “Christians” was not a morally rigorous one (like that of the Grail Chapel in Medieval romance) but rather a “Land of Cockaigne,” a variation on the archetypal paradise of the Judeo-Christian mythos that presents a world where everything is provided without labor or law. This vision of the New World as a Land of Cockaigne is also found in Gonzalo’s speech in Act II, Scene i of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (lines 143-152). Gonzalo envisions a world without laws, government, possessions, labor, or hardship—a land that produces everything everyone needs and where everything is shared in a “commonwealth.” The key lines from Gonzalo’s musings that seem to be in the back of Bishop’s mind in “Brazil, January 1, 1502” state that in such a perfect, lush, and wonderful, newfound land, “All things in common nature should produce / Without sweat or endeavor … but nature should bring forth, / Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance, / To feed my innocent people.” The New World, whether imagined by Shakespeare or reinvented by Bishop to include a “brand-new pleasure,” is a world that explodes with a bountifulness of growth and life as is suggested in the opening stanza of “Brazil, January 1, 1502.”

But seeing something anew, says Bishop, is not enough. What seems to lie at the heart of perception is not simply artistic pleasure or even surprise, but curiosity and a drive to constantly see things new and to discover what lies beneath the surfaces and the textures. In the case of the early explorers who first encountered Brazil, that drive was a combination of religious zeal and simple greed that drove them to rip “away into the hanging fabric, / each out to catch an Indian for himself— / those maddening little women who kept calling, / calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?) / and retreating, always retreating, behind it.” Paradise, it seems, is not a state of satisfaction but the process of pursuit, and that which is paradisal is always fleeting, always on the run from discovery.

The song that the Christians sing, L’Homme armé, suggests that the world of paradisal innocence inhabited by the bird-songed women of the penultimate line is the victim of this curiosity and this drive toward possession and “discovery.” Man is literally “armed,” and his spiritual values are constantly at odds with a nature that is unarmed. Yet, the women are “maddening,” as if they are the solution to a puzzle or the satisfaction to a desire that is always one step beyond attainment. Here, Bishop is setting up a Blakean-type dichotomy between “innocence” and the world of “experience” or civilization, the religious-minded and “civilized” force of what Freud calls the “Superego.” The suggestion on Bishop’s part is that there is something innocent even in the Conquistadors, something primal in the self that identifies with the lush vegetation of the newfound Brazil of 1502—a world untouched and untainted by the experience of living and possessing.

The Bible’s Book of Genesis tells us that man falls from paradise, and the Book of Revelations promises not a return to Eden but a reward at the end of time that replaces that lost, yet simple, place of innocence. The tension and the substance of history (as suggested by the historical intent of the poem’s title) is not so much a question of how to get to the New Jerusalem but how to cope with the unquenchable desire for lost Eden and the proximity to God that Milton treats so comprehensively in Paradise Lost. And like Eden or the memory of it that is such a universal motif in what Carl Jung calls “the collective unconscious,” the lost state of natural innocence that was Brazil can never quite be regained, even through the imagination.

In this context, Bishop is offering us a tropical elegy, a place where, as the Clark epigraph suggests, nature (innocence) and artifice (civilization) were once integrated in the kind of balance, where “loveliness” and “hell” are compatible and coexistent. Nature itself was a tapestry, a work of art that was complete. It is only civilization and all of its complex virtues that begs us to look behind it for whatever might be found. But the paradox is that the idea of the new paradise of “wealth and luxury” is somehow incongruous with the old. The New Jerusalem, which St. John of Patmos portrays as being a kind of holy Eldorado of gemology, is a far cry from the wild tapestry of “flowers,” “monster ferns,” and “giant water lilies” that are both the substance and the motifs of man’s original venue. Bishop cannot reconcile the two visions, yet it is that irreconcilability that is the substance and marvel of history. It is only through art, through the ability to imagine the relationship between the past of a January day in 1502 and the countless Januaries of the contemporary world, that we can reduce history to flash and find the connection between a paradise lost and a paradise regained.

Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.


Bell, Pearl K., “Dona Elizabetchy: A Memoir of Elizabeth Bishop,” Partisan Review, Vol. 58, No. 1, 1991, pp. 29-52.

Bishop, Elizabeth, One Art: Letters Selected and Edited by Robert Giroux, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994.

Colwell, Anne, Inscrutable Houses: Metaphors of the Body in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Dickie, Margaret, Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Place, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Diehl, Joanne Feit, “Bishop’s Sexual Politics,” Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender, edited by Marilyn May Lombardi, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 17-45.

Gilbert, Roger, “Framing Water: Historical Knowledge in Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich,” Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 43, No. 2, summer 1997, pp. 144-61.

Lombardi, Marilyn May, The Body and the Song, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

McCabe, Susan, Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

Millier, Brett C., Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, Berkeley: University of California, 1993.

Parker, Robert Dale, The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Rich, Adrienne, “The Eye of the Outsider: Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, 1927-1979,” Boston Review, April 1983, pp. 15-17, reprinted in Blood, Bread, and Poetry, New York: Norton, 1986.

Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

For Further Study

Bishop, Elizabeth, The Complete Poems, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

This collection covers all but Bishop’s last book of poems, Geography III, and includes several translations of poems from Portuguese.

Clark, Kenneth, Landscape Into Art, New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Clark’s volume traces the history of landscape art— both chronologically and thematically—and is a key text in thinking about the representation of nature.

Hemming, John, Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

One of the most fascinating themes of Hemming’s history is that the discovery of Brazil and what would become the “noble savage” led to some of the ideas of Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau that would become important for the French Revolution.

Vespucci, Amerigo, Letters From a New World: Amerigo Vespucci’s Discovery of America, New York: Marsilio, 1992.

Along with Vespucci’s six letters back to Portugal from the New World are related materials. Especially relevant is Vespucci’s fifth letter from the third voyage to South America, the one in which explorers landed in Rio de Janeiro for the first time.

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Brazil, January 1, 1502

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