The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618

“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.

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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 as lonely as Crusoe’s long island exile, and it did provoke some self-pity in response to the heavy responsibility of being a creator. This self-pity is tempered by an acceptance of the artist’s role and poetic gifts. The memory of the island is described simply but symbolically. A snail grubbing “over everything” could signify the observing self of the artist creating beauty (“beds of irises”) out of the raw material of existence (lines 69-75). As in pastoral poetry, so also in these verses, the speaker tends sheep and sings ecstatically like a dancing Dionysius—the Greek god of wine, song, and frenzy—after ingesting “home-brew” of red berries.

One small area of the poetic self proved a handicap of destructive insecurity, stemming from feelings of ignorance, of an inability to answer the great questions about life, and a failure of vision to drive away the primal fears and doubts lurking in the unconscious. Such insecurity and loneliness provoked escapist thoughts of a sturdy oak tree, fancies transforming the boring landscape of the artistic self, and dreams “of food/ and love,” but to no avail. Escapist dreams quickly turned into frightening nightmares of infinite islands of infinite creative possibilities and, therefore, of infinite artistic responsibilities requiring endless self-exploration and repeated literary discovery (lines 90-142). Crusoe’s Friday did alleviate the loneliness of the speaker’s artistic self-absorption, but the companionship was a limited blessing because of a limited compatibility.

The poem ends with the speaker returned to the everyday world of boring and unproductive old age in England, far from the former island life of dynamic artistic creativity, when the simplest detail exploded with literary meaning and literary possibility (“The knife there on the shelf—it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix”). Instead of the dynamic vitality of poetic creation, there is now a moribund preservation of the aged speaker’s past creations in the archives of museums for scholars to study and dissect. The culminating disappointment is that even the inadequate companionship of Friday has been taken away by death. If it was lonely on the island of bygone creativity, then it is a worse deprivation to be a stagnant has-been without any companion at all in the England of tired old age.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325

“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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176

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.

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