Bishop, Elizabeth (1911–1979)

views updated

Bishop, Elizabeth (1911–1979)

American poet, generally regarded as one of the finest and most influential in the 20th century. Born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts; died in Boston on October 6, 1979; daughter of William Thomas (an executive with J.W. Bishop Company) and Gertrude Bulmer Bishop; attended public schools in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts; entered Walnut Hill boarding school in Natick (near Boston) at 16; granted A.B. in English Literature from Vassar College, 1934; lived with Lota de Macedo Soares for 15 years; never married; no children.

Spent a short time in early childhood with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, after her father's untimely death and her mother's subsequent breakdown; lived with her paternal grandparents (Worcester) and then an aunt (Boston) from the age of six until she went away to school; began writing, mostly short fiction, while at Vassar; met Marianne Moore (1934); first trip abroad, to Paris (1935); moved to Florida (late 1930s); lived in Key West until after the end of WW II; lived in Mexico for nine months (1943); began a friendship with Pablo Neruda; met Randall Jarrell (1946) who introduced her to Robert Lowell, one of her lifelong friends (1947); set off on a trip around South America and the Straits of Magellan (1951); while visiting Rio de Janeiro, suffered a violent allergic reaction to cashew fruit and was forced to curtail her journey; remained in Brazil for the next 15 years, sharing a house near Petropolis with a Brazilian friend, Lota de Macedo Soares; returned to the U.S. (1966); taught for two terms at the University of Washington in Seattle; lived intermittently in Brazil and the U.S. for a number of years; taught at Harvard University as poet in residence until mandatory retirement (1977); taught one term at New York University (Fall 1977); continued to write poetry until her death.

Books and awards:

Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award (1945); North & South (1946); Guggenheim Fellowship (1947); Consultant in Poetry, Library of Congress (1949–50); American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1951); First Lucy Martin Donnelly Fellowship, Bryn Mawr College (1951); Shelley Memorial Award (1952); Life Membership, National Institute of Arts and Letters (1954); Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring (1955); Partisan Review Fellowship (1956); Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1956); The Diary of "Helena Morley" (1957); Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship (1957); Chapelbrook Fellowship (1962); Brazil (1962); Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets Award (1964); Questions of Travel (1965); Rockefeller Foundation Grant (1966–67); Selected Poems (London, 1967); The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon (1968); LL.D., Smith College (1968); The Complete Poems (1969); Merrill Foundation Award (1969); The Complete Poems (London, 1970); National Book Award (1970); Order of Rio Branco, Brazil (1970); An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry (1972); LL.D., Rutgers University (1972); LL.D., Brown University (1972); Poem (1973); Harriet Monroe Award (1974); St. Botolph Club Arts Award (1975); Books Abroad/ Neustadt International Prize for Literature (1976); Membership, American Academy of Arts and Letters (1976); Geography III (1976); National Book Critics Circle Poetry Award (1976); LL.D., Adelphi University (1977); LL.D., Brandeis University (1978); Guggenheim Fellowship (1978); LL.D., Dalhousie University (1979); LL.D., Princeton University (1979); The Complete Poems: 1927–1979 (1979, 1983); The Collected Prose (1984).

In his memorial tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, offered at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in December 1979, the poet Richard Wilbur reflected upon the search for ultimate answers recorded in her poetry: "In and out of her poetry, she lamented her want of a comprehensive philosophy, yet I cannot be sorry that so honest a nature as hers refused to force itself into a system, and I question whether system is the only way to go deep into things." Over the course of her professional career, which spanned more than 40 years and included poetry, fiction, memoir and translation, Bishop worked to go deep into things; her poetry is an especially compelling record of her efforts. Many of the poems reflect upon loss and exile or describe the experience of traveling from one location to another in search of a place to feel at home: each motif had its basis in Bishop's lived experience.

The first years of Bishop's life were "marked by losses," as Robert Giroux explains in his introduction to The Collected Prose. Bishop's father died when she was eight months old; her mother Gertrude Bulmer Bishop was permanently traumatized by his death. Gertrude became incurably insane when Bishop was five, in a process of degeneration and collapse that Bishop detailed in her story, "In the Village," written many years later. Bishop and her mother never saw each other again after the events chronicled in this story, although Gertrude lived for another 20 years.

Elizabeth Bishop lived with her mother's parents in Great Village, Nova Scotia, until she was six, when she was suddenly and (as she saw it) inexplicably taken away to live with her father's parents in Worcester, Massachusetts. Even in a life filled with journeys, this brief sojourn in Bishop's childhood stands out. Losing Great Village, the final catastrophe in a series of related events, convinced her that favorite places, like beloved people, could simply vanish from one's life. She recounted some of the events of this period in a memoir called "The Country Mouse," which recalls "a dismal time" made hideous by grief, loneliness, asthma, eczema, boredom, and a claustrophobic sense of self-consciousness: "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, bare feet, suet puddings, unsanitary

school slates, perhaps even from the inverted r's of my mother's family."

Bishop's response to unsettling circumstances in childhood was to follow her imagination into places that did not change. An interview Bishop gave in middle age (Shenandoah, Winter 1966) recalled those years. "I was crazy about fairy tales—Andersen, Grimm, and so on. Like Jean-Paul Sartre (as he explains it in Les Mots) I also read all kinds of things I didn't really understand. I tried almost anything." Bishop stayed only nine months in Worcester before she was moved again, to live with her Aunt Maude in Boston, putting an end to her wandering for awhile. She grew up in Boston and visited her maternal relatives every summer until she was 13. In 1927, Bishop was enrolled at Walnut Hill boarding school, and in 1930 she entered Vassar College.

Her years in college, which she shared with Mary McCarthy, Muriel Rukeyser , and other writers who went on to find their own fame, served as Bishop's professional apprenticeship. While at Vassar, she wrote for The Vassar Review, helped to start The Conspirito, a rival magazine, and contributed to the review formed when the two magazines were combined. And it was while still a student at Vassar that Bishop met Marianne Moore , whose poems she admired. They met in March 1934, in front of the third-floor reading room of the New York Public Library. (They hit it off at once, discovering that they shared a number of interests besides literature. Two weeks after their first meeting, they went to the circus, and an early letter from Bishop offers Moore a chance to examine a new book on tattooing.) Bishop's relative anonymity within the American poetic tradition can be traced in part to her friendship with Moore, an important bond for both women but one sometimes misrepresented as the relationship between a mentor and her young follower. This connection and some superficial similarities in their work—particularly in the precision with which each renders the details of the physical world—led some readers to think of Bishop's work as simply "more of the same." Bishop and Moore were amused but sometimes irritated by this identification; their correspondence reveals that each saw the other as friend and colleague, rather than as teacher or disciple.

Bishop made the first of many important journeys in her adult life when she went abroad in 1935. She spent time in Belgium, France, Brittany, and Paris; then in 1936, she traveled to England, North Africa, and Spain. After a brief sojourn in Florida, she returned to Great Britain and the Continent. She settled in Key West, Florida, in 1939. This period of travel was a productive one for Bishop's writing. By 1941, she had enough poems, some of which had already been published in Poetry, Partisan Review, and other magazines, to fill a small volume. But her first book, North & South, (which received Houghton Mifflin's poetry prize) did not come out until 1946, after another period of travel abroad, to Europe, Africa, and Mexico. North & South introduces favorite points of reference for Bishop—images, settings, and shifts in perspective—that explore the difficulty of various kinds of travel, real and imaginary. The speaker in such a poem hopes to find a message that is "comprehensive, consoling" like the small red sun in the seascape described in "Large Bad Picture."

Praise and recognition followed the publication of her first book. In 1947, Bishop was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and, in 1949, she moved to Washington, D.C., to begin work as consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress. While there, she occasionally visited Ezra Pound, a patient at St. Elizabeth's Hospital. "Visits to St. Elizabeth's," written and published that year, is one response to those visits. Constructed on the lines of "The House That Jack Built," the poem is both sad and comical in its description of Pound, the man who "lies in the house of Bedlam." Bishop did not enjoy her year in Washington; when her duties came to an end, she decided to use her recent literary prizes to fund a sailing trip around South America. She embarked in November 1951, stopping to visit friends in Rio de Janeiro on her way to the Straits of Magellan. An allergic reaction to cashew fruit was so severe that she had to be hospitalized in Rio. Once she recovered, she decided to remain; for the first time in a number of years, Bishop felt herself to be at home. She and her friend Lota de Macedo Soares spent the next 15 years together, living and working and entertaining in an apartment in Rio and a house in the mountains. Macedo Soares was able to help Bishop curtail her drinking habits, which had affected her physical and mental health for some years, but Bishop's recurrent asthma continued to demoralize her. Finding medication with better than temporary palliative effects was an ongoing concern.

Bishop brought out her next collection, Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring, in 1955. It received the Pulitzer Prize the following year. For approximately the next decade, most of Bishop's attention went toward learning Portuguese, reading the literature of Brazil, and translating works by Brazilian writers for publication in the United States. She translated Minha Vida de Menina (My Life as a Little Girl); a classic in Brazil, the book was the diary of "Helena Morley," a girl who grew up in a mining town in the 1890s. During the same period, Bishop wrote a book on Brazil, edited and published by Life World Library. Her work was considerably altered by the editors, who identified themselves as co-authors, and she found the finished product less than satisfactory. She tended to downplay her involvement with the project in later years. Bishop's primary interest during this decade was translating Brazilian poetry. Some of her best and best-known work in translation was of poetry by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, then one of Brazil's most important living poets. She included her translations in The Complete Poems (1969), and in An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry (1972), which she co-edited with Emanuel Brasil.

Bishop's work on Portuguese language and literature did not preempt her own poetry altogether, but her pace in writing was, as ever, careful and slow. She wrote about 20 finished poems about her life in Brazil. Most appeared first in Questions of Travel and were also included in later collections. The title poem in this book speculates on the value and significance of travel, wondering whether it signals "lack of imagination." The restless traveler cannot decide where home lies or what value her travels actually have: "Think of the long trip home. / Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?" The book also includes poems from "Elsewhere," most of which look back to her childhood in Great Village. Bishop's time in Brazil fostered an important development in her poetry; many of the poems written during and after these years show her (or someone like her) revisiting the past, in hopes of transforming old losses.

Such transformations are difficult to achieve and nearly impossible to sustain, according to the perspective in "One Art," a late poem on the speaker's efforts to think of loss as a voluntary exercise within a larger discipline. She explains that if one starts small, with keys, hours, "places and names, and where it was you meant to travel," it is possible to progress to larger, more important losses, like favorite houses, whole continents, even a beloved person—"the joking voice, a gesture / I love…." This poem had its source in her companion Macedo Soares' death by suicide in 1967, probably the most devastating loss of Bishop's adult life.

For the next several years, Bishop traveled between the house she was renovating in Brazil and the United States, where she taught a number of college and university courses in poetry. She received the 1969 National Book Award for The Complete Poems, but Bishop's professional career was clearly far from over. Geography III was published in 1976 and contains some of her finest work, including "In the Waiting Room," "Crusoe in England," and "The Moose." "In the Waiting Room" is an account of yet another collision with old suffering. No other poem brings the poet and the speaker together so explicitly; the "I" in the dentist's waiting room who endured a brief but terrifying moment of panic was "an Elizabeth."

Whatever the landscape had of meaning appears to have been abandoned.

—Elizabeth Bishop, from "Cape Breton"

Bishop settled in Boston in 1974, where she lived, off and on, until her death in 1979. She shared the last years of her life with Alice Methfessel , her friend since 1971, who became her literary executor. These years, which she spent teaching at Harvard or traveling to Maine and other favorite spots, were the most settled since those she had spent in Brazil. The Complete Poems: 1927–1979 includes poems that Bishop wrote between 1976 and her death, as well as her translations from Portuguese, some juvenilia, and a few brief occasional poems. The Collected Prose, published in 1984, includes short fiction and memoirs and spans her whole career.

The whole of Bishop's oeuvre takes up less than a foot of bookshelf space, but every well-crafted piece of her work is original and alive, animated by Bishop's lifelong interest in the external world of landscapes and artifacts and the multiple inner worlds of human experience. In many ways, Bishop represents the individual talent as T.S. Eliot describes it in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." She separates "the [woman] who suffers" from "the mind which creates." Bishop's poetry typically offers a translation of emotion rather than direct access to emotion. She allows the reader only guarded access to her most intimate experiences and feelings. Yet the overall impression she creates is of a person who values and believes in connection, her modesty and reserve notwithstanding, and despite many disappointments.


Bishop, Elizabeth. The Collected Prose. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

Brown, Ashley. "An Interview with Elizabeth Bishop," in Shenandoah. Vol. 17. Winter 1966, pp. 3–19.

Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989.

MacMahon, Candace W. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927–1979. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Stevenson, Anne. Elizabeth Bishop. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1966.

Wilbur, Richard. "Elizabeth Bishop," in Ploughshares. Vol. 6, no. 2, 1980, pp. 10–14.

suggested reading:

Giroux, Robert, ed. One Art: Letters of Elizabeth Bishop. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1994.

Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. NY: Columbia University Press, 1992.

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

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

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


Correspondence and other papers located at Houghton Library, Harvard University; The Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia; Vassar College Library, Poughkeepsie; Olin Libraries Special Collections of the Washington University Libraries, St. Louis.

Mary M. Lacey , Assistant Visiting Professor of English and Humanities, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana

About this article

Bishop, Elizabeth (1911–1979)

Updated About content Print Article