Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

In an essay entitled “The Waterspout,” published in 1925, Robert Frost wrote of a poet’s creative process in a way that provides a fitting commentary on Bishop’s unflinching review of her own artistry. Frost used the image of a waterspout to indicate creativity. A poet, Frost wrote, begins as a “cloud” of the other writers the poet has read:And first the cloud reaches down toward the water from above and then the water reaches up toward the cloud from below and finally the cloud and water join together to roll as one pillar between heaven and earth. The base of water he picks up from below is of course all the life he ever lived outside of books.

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When Bishop wrote about her life, as she did in several poems and stories in the 1950’s and last did in her extraordinary final volume entitled Geography III (1976), she resisted self-pity and sentimentality and favored understatement and lucid honesty about herself. As M. L. Rosenthal noted about her earliest work in The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (1960), “Her perfectionism is not such as to keep her from expressing emotions spontaneously.”

Exile and travel were at the heart of her poems from the start, and her landscapes often stressed the sweep and violence of encircling and eroding geological powers as observed by a poet with a botanist-geologist-anthropologist’s curiosity.

These lifelong poetic traits can be found in her meditation about lonely artistic creation and old age’s lost poetic energy in “Crusoe in England.” This poem’s inspiration is Bishop’s own life, as deflected through the distancing literary lens of two English classics, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Robinson Crusoe’s island experience and memories of that exile provide the symbolic landscape for Bishop’s autobiographical exploration of the poet’s inner creative life—its rigors, ecstasies, loneliness, and insecurities—and the poet’s sapped artistic vitality in old age when she became a museum piece for literary analysis.

Midway in the poem (lines 96-97), a quotation from Wordsworth’s haunting lyric underscores the discrepancy between a transcendentally optimistic Romantic poet and an insecure modern poet unsure of herself, her power to apprehend great truths, and her ability to stifle the doubts and ugly intimations of her unconscious. Bishop’s brutally candid examination of her literary career (“My island seemed to be/ a sort of cloud-dump”) sometimes happily echoes but sometimes sadly undercuts Wordsworth’s confident lines about the poetic process that generated for him such joy, vitality, and companionship with nature overcoming the artist’s loneliness and insecurity.

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