The reputation of poets is often fragile, dependent on changes in taste for certain themes, tonalities, and technical enthusiasms. This is particularly true of John Peale Bishop (who was ruefully aware of it), for he was rarely chosen for poetry anthologies and of little interest to the critics.
His major limitations were his lack of a singular voice or an individual style. His early poetry was influenced by several nineteenth century poets, including John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, and his later work revealed an enthusiasm for the twentieth century poets William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. His poems are often clever but lack originality (a touchstone for artistic praise) and that indefinable artistic sense of power that marks the great poet. His later poetry, however, often manages interesting ideas and possesses a laconic tone that is attractive.
“Speaking of Poetry”
The first poem in his 1933 collection Now with His Love uses a central problem of William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622; revised 1623) as a metaphor for the relation of poetry to ordinary life. How can Desdemona, so civilized and cultivated, so delicate and fastidious, be attracted to the rough animality of Othello? Unlike most twentieth century lyric poets, Bishop does not quite answer the question, although the poem is reminiscent of the problem poems of Yeats and W. H. Auden in which some final solution is reached.
Desdemona represents, for Bishop, the intellect, the world of European culture, restraint, and the feminine, while Othello represents the emotions, the dark uncivilized African, the masculine. “For though Othello had his blood from kings/ his ancestry was barbarous, his ways African,/ his speech uncouth.” Bishop explores the nature of their coming together in a way that suggests that such is how art is made, in a coming together of the traditions and disciplines of the form wedded to the unconscious, the wayward, dark aspects of the poetic imagination.
It is a tonally tough poem, cool in its comparison of the act of artistic creation with the sexual attraction of Desdemona “small and fair,/ delicate as a grasshopper” and Othello, “his weight resilient as a Barbary stallion’s.” All the trappings of “poetic” language that mar so many of Bishop’s early poems are left behind here for an informal, angular verse, with intimate conversational simplicity. The question of how culture is related to ordinary life was common with Bishop and shows up most successfully in his later work in Minute Particulars in “The Freize” and “Your Chase Had a Beast in View,” in which the artist is praised for the ability to bring order and meaning out of humanity’s base existence.
Now with His Love
Bishop had a wide range of subject matter, and in Now with His Love, he faces the horror of his service in World War I, juxtaposing the innocence of daily life behind the battle lines with the existential facts of daily slaughter. His gift for the description of the indifferently beautiful world of nature makes the facts of life even more intensely sad. The dead are buried close to their billets in “In the Dordogne”:
the young men rotted under the shadow of the tower in a land of small clear silent streams where the coming on of evening is the...
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