Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Elizabeth Bishop’s poems are noted for their precise visual details. Her vision has been called aerial, as it often presents a broad overview and then zeros in on details. The poems incorporate “thingness” more than any other quality: Bishop writes of the sea, travel, animals, clothes, sleeping, and waking up. Her poems insinuate that, through close observation of a thing, one will absorb the object or the object’s intrinsic meaning. Bishop’s descriptions of physical reality hint at a truth that cannot be seen. Her descriptions also serve as a filter through which one can see Bishop’s inner landscape; they are a way of dodging yet finally encountering a lost inward world.

Loss is a dominant motif in Bishop’s works, a motif accompanied by the theme of exile. These themes no doubt originated in her early loss of her father (Bishop was eight months old) and the subsequent breakdown and institutionalization of her mother when Elizabeth was only five. Bishop remained with her maternal grandparents after her mother’s hospitalization until her paternal grandparents took her in, a move that she remembered as a kidnapping. Although she undoubtedly began writing to exorcise herself of these early losses, she turned to poetry professionally through the influence of poet and mentor Marianne Moore. Moore’s independent lifestyle influenced Bishop even more than her artistic advice. The older woman’s career suggested that Bishop too could succeed in an art practiced primarily by men.

Emily Dickinson is Bishop’s “foremother,” in that both poets imply through physical description that the truth worth seeing cannot be...

(The entire section is 678 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabeth Bishop. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Bloom collects the best critical views on Bishop’s work. The essays range from considerations of her complete canon to analyses of particular works.

Dodd, Elizabeth. The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. This study contains a discussion of how Bishop controls personal revelations by her poetry’s tone.

Merrin, Jeredith. An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990. This book contains an edifying chapter on Bishop’s subtle revolt against the patriarchal concepts of nineteenth century Romanticism.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. The thesis of this book is that Bishop’s poetry illustrates the contemporary poet’s lack of faith in his or her ability to sustain the vocation. Also touches on her recognition of women’s marginalization. Here Parker shows how Bishop indicates a mother’s importance by the evidence that she leaves, rather than by a separate personality. He also notes how she subverts traditional women’s concerns by having her speakers concerned with themselves rather than with family or other stereotypical issues.

Schweik, Susan. A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991. Contains a thought-provoking chapter on the politics of war and gender in Bishop’s metaphors. Provides a thorough analysis of “The Rooster” which illustrates Bishop’s disdain for both war and masculine pomposity.

Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. A thorough treatment of Bishop’s poetic development. Divides her poetic growth into three phases: an early phase dealing with prisons, a middle phase concerning travel, and a final phase treating loss.