Study Guide

The Complete Poems, 1927-1979

by Elizabeth Bishop

The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Elizabeth Bishop, who called herself a feminist long before the term became fashionable, understood women’s oppression and its concomitant masculine pretensions. “Roosters” rails against male “cockiness” generally and military power specifically. The roosters’ combative sallies and their treatment of the hens who are “courted and despised” are portrayed as senseless. “Roosters” begins by saying that violence is intrinsic to males, but the second half shows the roosters as products of violence as well as independently violent. Male brutality, the poem suggests, is also culturally conditioned.

Bishop’s feminism is strong in other poems as well. The intimidating animal in “The Moose” is a female. In “Exchanging Hats,” an “Aunt . . . with avernal eyes” stares with unnerving insight into a capering group. Bishop’s comments upon women’s subordinate position are often implied. “The Filling Station” indicates a woman’s influence by its plant, doily, and taboret, which pathetically try to make the greasy station attractive. The fact that the woman is anonymous and that one knows her only through stereotypical evidence comments indirectly on women’s derivative role. Bishop rebels against feminine stereotypes in “The Waiting Room,” in which the little girl anxiously focuses, like little boys, on her sexual identity instead of the traditional feminine concerns of men, money, or religion.

Although Bishop considered herself a feminist, she did not want to be grouped with women writers, as she thought art transcended gender. Despite this disclaimer, Bishop created a poetry that both conformed to and subverted patriarchal literary standards. For example, she rebelled against the Romantics’ feminization of nature. While she conformed to the male Romantics’ elevation of nature, she depicted nature as either masculine or asexual, never as “Mother Nature.”

Bishop resisted patriarchal literary traditions that could muffle her work, but she often borrowed from these same traditions. In her poems, however, she constantly implied that women are as important as men (“In the Waiting Room,” “The Filling Station,” “The Moose”), but she did not support a woman-centered ideology. Her poetry refutes all domination and supports minority viewpoints by presenting juxtaposing perspectives and a variety of voices. Bishop’s recognition of nature as “other” is an extension of feminism, with its emphasis on cooperative coexistence instead of male domination or absorption.