The Collected Prose
“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.)