The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Crusoe in England” is a poem of 183 lines spoken by Robinson Crusoe (after his return from his island exile) that actually expresses Elizabeth Bishop’s own summation of her difficult creative life as a poet.

The poem opens with Robinson Crusoe, back in England, reflecting on his past life of more than fifty years on an island alone but in fact giving utterance to Bishop’s apologia for her poetic career. News that a volcano has created a new island somewhere causes Crusoe to recall his own island, to explore it in memory in order to discover the real significance of the island experience that no one else has ever correctly evaluated (lines 1-10).

The raw creative energy for writing poems rests on the cumulative and fully realized (“heads blown off”) experiences of fifty-two volcanic years that have generated a poetic inspiration and an overwhelming poetic vision verging on glorious intuitions, despite the difficult and sometimes depressing lot of being a writer. It is the wonderful conjunction of “left-over clouds” in the writer’s lived and literary past and the parched “craters” of the writer’s artistic genius that releases the energy for poetic creation in the form of multicolored lava shaping the exotic island of fanciful flora and fauna (lines 11-54). This is the poem’s “waterspout” conception (lines 46, 52-53) of the writer’s creative process: “And I had waterspouts. Oh,/ half a dozen at a time.”

Unfortunately, poetic creation could be...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Crusoe in England” is a dramatic monologue uttered by the protagonist of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719).

A dramatic monologue is a literary form in which a single speaker reveals the totality of the self and the society conditioning that self, often at a moment of crisis for the speaker. Elizabeth Bishop, however, employs the dramatic monologue in an unconventional manner. In “Crusoe in England,” the self revealed is not Crusoe but Bishop herself, and there is little attempt at going beyond that poet’s self and exploring the outer social world that gave her being and shape. Instead, the focus is auto-biographical and intimately psychological. The poem is about her poetry, her difficult poetic life, and her stagnant later life when her fame has replaced her fire.

The poem is written in the confessional mode of simple free verse to capture the ruminating process of summing up a life’s significance. The diction is simple (“Do I deserve this?”), casual (“a sort of cloud-dump”), and sometimes shocking (“with their heads blown off”). Blunt informality is the norm.

There is an overriding allusion to Defoe’s Crusoe and Friday. Lines 96 and 97 contain a major allusion to William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” to provide a contrast underscoring the speaker’s failure of vision. There is also a veiled allusion to a pastoral Dionysian ecstasy of poetry in lines 76 through 84.

Finally, symbolism lies at the heart of the poem’s effectiveness. For example, the goats and turtles, gulls and snails, signify elements or emanations of the speaker’s creative process, as they transform into beach-creating lava and back again into creatures of Bishop’s poetic imagination. Waterspouts embody in miniature the creative process of poetry. In fact, Crusoe’s entire island experience, as remembered in old age, constitutes one grand symbol of the difficulties and complexities of Bishop’s inner poetic life and the loss of artistic energy in old age.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Boland, Eavan. “An Unromantic American.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 14 (Summer, 1988): 73-92.

Fountain, Gary. Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

MacMahon, Candace, ed. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography, 1927-1979. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Motion, Andrew. Elizabeth Bishop. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Longwood, 1986.

Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Schwartz, Lloyd. That Sense of Constant Readjustment: Elizabeth Bishop “North & South.” New York: Garland, 1987.

Schwartz, Lloyd, and Sybil P. Estess, eds. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

Wylie, Diana E. Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.