The Collected Prose

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

“I like the purity of language, which manages to express a very deep emotion without straining,” Elizabeth Bishop said of George Herbert’s poem “Love Unknown.” This remark, five years before her death, typifies a lifelong habit of praising others for virtues Bishop herself possessed in high degree. In these prose pieces, she openly admires both learned and unlettered friends for qualities such as poise, generosity, and “unselfconsciousness”—qualities which Bishop spent a lifetime cultivating and perfecting.

The perfectionism that marks Bishop’s poetry and prose alike is adduced by her editor, Robert Giroux, to explain in part why so few of these prose pieces ever appeared in print during her lifetime, while others were published only under pseudonyms. “Elizabeth worked fastidiously. Sometimes she’d spend years thinking about a phrase or a word,” Giroux recalls a friend saying at Bishop’s memorial service in 1979. Many contemporaries envied her consummately poised, buoyant, and casual tone, which they themselves were far from achieving, even while they realized that her stylistic balance and restraint did not come without struggle.

That struggle—chronicled in several of these stories and memoirs—was probably inevitable, given her childhood. After her father’s untimely death from Bright’s disease when Elizabeth was only eight months old, her mother went into an irrationally long period of mourning, punctuated by nervous breakdowns. These culminated in the mother’s hospitalization in 1916, when Elizabeth was five. She was never again to see her mother, who died in a sanatorium in 1934.

Few other writers approach Bishop’s skill in treating such themes without bathos. “In the Village,” which recounts her mother’s final breakdown, sets up a counterpoint between the terror of the mother’s scream and the reassuring, “pure and angelic” clang from the village blacksmith’s shop. In this story Bishop also uses other even more subtle devices. Instead of openly describing the child’s bewilderment, Bishop shows her examining “a big bundle of postcards. What are the messages? I cannot tell.” Rather than write explicitly about what must have been a terrifying sense of powerlessness, Bishop suggests the feeling of control that the little girl derives from guiding the family cow: “Every morning I take the cow to the pasture. She, Nelly, could probably go by herself just as well, but I like marching through the village with a big stick, directing her.”

Much of Bishop’s power lies in the fresh, genuinely childlike perception she conveys. In another potentially melancholy story—“Gwendolyn,” about the death of a playmate—Bishop writes:She had diabetes. I had been told this much and had some vague idea that it was because of “too much sugar,” and that in itself made Gwendolyn even more attractive, as if she would prove to be solid candy if you bit her, and her pure-tinted complexion would taste exactly like the icing-sugar Easter eggs or birthday-candle holders, held to be inedible, except that I knew better.

After her mother’s hospitalization, Elizabeth went on living in a Canadian village with the beloved family of her mother until age six, when her father’s parents summarily removed her to Worcester, Massachusetts. She found life there stultifying, as she reveals in “The Country Mouse,” yet never does she betray self-pity. She writes of her first day with those Massachusetts grand-parents: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. With this surprising extra set of grandparents, until a few weeks ago no more than names, a new life was about to begin. It was a day that seemed to include months in it, or even years, a whole unknown past I was made to feel I should have known about, and a strange, unpredictable future.

The future was to bring several painful varieties of self-consciousness, and this soon occasioned perhaps an even more intense inner struggle than had her mother’s breakdown or Gwendolyn’s death. Again, however, the story is told with subtle humor and restraint.

In another section of “The Country Mouse,” for example, Bishop writes about bringing a schoolmate to the home of her well-to-do Boston grandparents. The schoolmate asks, “Who lives in that part of the house [the servants’ quarters]?” Elizabeth, only six, realizes immediately that “social consciousness had struck its first blow. Fairly quickly, I think, I said tactfully, ’Oh, a family’ and since the servants were all speaking Swedish,...

(The entire section is 1961 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Collected Prose, by Elizabeth Bishop, is a varied compilation of memoirs, travel writing, short stories, and artistic fables that spans the career of one of America’s greatest poets and (although Bishop herself abjured the title) women writers. These pieces not only provide biographical and aesthetic compasses for many of the poems but also treat Bishop’s major themes, especially the writer’s fascination with travel and her struggles with the comforts and terrors of domesticity.

The seventeen prose pieces in this volume represent only part of Bishop’s complete prose oeuvre, since her letters, notebooks, literary reviews, critical essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins, prize acceptance speeches, and adolescent stories are not included. Late in her life, Bishop contemplated a collection of her prose, possibly to be entitled In the Village: Stories and Essays. Upon her death in 1979, however, she left only a prospectus for the project. When Bishop’s longtime editor Robert Giroux began in the early 1980’s to compile The Collected Prose, he discovered this plan and followed it loosely. Giroux divided Bishop’s works into one section of essayistic memoirs entitled “Memory: Persons and Places” and another section of short fiction entitled “Stories.” Departing somewhat from the plan, Giroux was unable to include Bishop’s prose poem “The Hanging of the Mouse” (which had already been published in The Complete Poems), an unfinished story entitled “Lulu and His Wife,” and a travel essay, “Mexico, 1943” (which had been lost). More significantly, however, Giroux determined to add to the collection four unpublished essays, as well as Bishop’s introduction to The Diary of “Helena Morley” and her story “The Farmer’s Children.” The result of Giroux’s work is a collection...

(The entire section is 758 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Elizabeth Bishop refused publication in collections of “women’s literature” and disdained the title of “woman writer,” but she still considered herself a thoroughgoing feminist. She was an avid reader of Virginia Woolf, and she extolled her mentor, Marianne Moore, for her feminism. She excoriated those critics who saw Moore’s work as irrelevant to the feminism of the 1970’s. “Do they know that Marianne Moore was a feminist in her day? Or that she paraded with the suffragettes down Fifth Avenue?” Inasmuch as Bishop defended Moore’s feminist credentials, she also asserted her own. In contrast to her fellow poet and friend Adrienne Rich, who believed that women’s studies programs and women’s anthologies were vital instruments for feminist politics, Bishop contended that these methods would segregate the works of women and render them specialized and marginal. Whereas Rich confessed her lesbianism openly and made the oppression of women an overt subject of her poetry, Bishop barely hinted at her own homosexuality and treated women’s issues more obliquely. This mixture of dedicated feminism and personal conservatism marks Bishop as a product of an affluent New England home and a Vassar education. Indeed, she describes her college class in “The U.S.A. School of Writing” as “puritanically pink.” Although one must delve through the poems (such as “Roosters” or “Exchanging Hats”), prose (such as “Efforts of Affection”), and...

(The entire section is 504 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Boston Review. IX, March, 1984, p. 29.

Choice. XXI, April, 1984, p. 1130.

The Georgia Review. XXXVIII, Fall, 1984, p. 651.

Goldensohn, Lorrie. Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. While not a true biography, this reading of Bishop’s poetry in biographical contexts sheds light on her entire oeuvre. Includes discussion of “In Prison,” “In the Village,” and of Bishop’s relationship with Marianne Moore.

Kalstone, David. “The Undiscovered Elizabeth Bishop.” The New York Times Book Review 89 (January 15, 1984): 1. An appreciative review of Bishop’s prose by a major critic of her poetry. Kalstone maintains that prose offered Bishop “a considerable laboratory for her invention” and an opportunity for self-disclosure that she seldom exercised in her poetry.

Library Journal. CIX, February 15, 1984, p. 369.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 19, 1984, p. 2.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Authoritative biography of Bishop’s life. Discusses the biographical contexts of her prose works, including Bishop’s troubled childhood in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts; her apprenticeship to Moore; her illnesses; her alcoholism; her homosexuality; her periods in New York, Key West, and Samambaia and Ouro Prêto, Brazil; and her teaching posts at American universities.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, February 16, 1984, p. 3.

Newsweek. CIII, February 13, 1984, p. 78.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, November 25, 1983, p. 57.

Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, ed. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. An extremely useful collection of literary essays, reminiscences of Bishop’s life by fellow poets, and Bishop’s own comments upon her work. Includes Helen Vendler’s important essay on domesticity in Bishop’s poetry and David Lehman’s essay about the centrality of “In Prison” to Bishop’s concept of the artist. Features Ashley Brown’s and George Starbuck’s interviews with Bishop.

Stevenson, Anne. Elizabeth Bishop. New York: Twayne, 1966. Although Stevenson’s work was enriched by correspondence with Bishop, it is now outdated and incomplete. It does, however, include sympathetic criticism of “In Prison,” “In the Village,” “Gwendolyn,” and The Diary of “Helena Morley.”

Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. While Travisano focuses primarily on Bishop’s poetry, he comments significantly on her childhood story “In the Village,” as well as on the artistic fables “In Prison” and “The Sea and Its Shore.”

The Wall Street Journal. CCIII, January 12, 1984, p. 22.