Elizabeth Bishop

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Analyze the poem “Late Air” by Elizabeth Bishop.

In “Late Air,” Bishop uses parallelism and imagery to reflect on the nature of love. She repeats phrases with similar structures like “radio-singers” and “fortune-tellers” to create a sense of rhythm. It's almost like her reflection on love is a love song itself. The image of “dew wet lawns” also sharply contrasts with the image of phoenixes burning "where dew cannot climb." This contrast suggests that love which does not appear as magical as summer love is actually most powerful.

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In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Late Air,” the speaker reflects on the complex nature of love. In the first stanza, she observes the hazy, magical feeling of love on summer nights. She writes about the sound of love songs spreading across “dew wet lawns” and notes that the sound may pierce the listeners' marrow with its thoughts about love. Like a fortune-teller's guesses, she writes, the guesses about love in these songs are "whatever you believe." This observation suggests that the speaker feels like people interpret love songs based on their own personal experiences of love. It is almost as if the radio-singers are witnesses to each listeners’ own experiences.

Then in the second stanza, the speaker notes that she has found “better witnesses / for love on summer nights” above the Navy Yard. She sees Phoenixes there “burning quietly / where dew cannot climb.” Phoenixes are mythological creatures who are said to burn as a part of a process of rebirth. The contrast between the image of the “dew wet lawns” where the radio-singers can be heard and the phoenixes burning up where “dew cannot climb” suggests that the process of individual rebirth and development is separate from the haze of magical summer love. It suggests that beyond the type of love that initially seems magical and intensely personal, there is the potential for a more powerful and permanent type of love that provides clarity and self-assuredness.

In addition to the contrasting imagery, one of the most prominent rhetorical devices in this poem is parallelism. Consider how Bishop repeats phrases with similar structures like “radio-singers” and “fortune-tellers” and “marrow-piercing.” This creates a sense of rhythm and flow that makes the poem itself come across as a love song of sorts. This recalls what she mentioned in the first stanza, that love songs reflect whatever the listener believes. In a way, it is as if the poem itself is a witness to the reader's personal experiences.

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