Elizabeth Bishop

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Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the daughter of Thomas and Gertrude Bulmer Bishop. Both of her parents were of Canadian heritage, but her paternal grandfather had left Prince Edward Island to establish a well-known building firm in Worcester that was responsible for such landmark buildings as the Boston Public Library and Museum of Fine Arts.

Bishop’s father died a few months after her birth, and as a result of this her mother suffered a breakdown and was treated in a sanatorium in Boston. In 1916, her mother returned to Canada for further treatment in proximity to her family, but the result was another breakdown that required her confinement in a mental hospital in Nova Scotia, where she remained until her death in 1934. Effectively an orphan, therefore, Elizabeth passed her early childhood with her mother’s family in Great Village, Nova Scotia; some of her poems reflect memories of this time.

At the age of six, Bishop was taken to live with her paternal grandparents in Worcester. Some critics have suggested that she sensed the move as something like an expulsion from paradise and that images of simplicity and family affection such as she had known in Great Village continued all of her life to represent life’s highest good. In Worcester she began to be frequently ill, suffering again from the bronchitis she had contracted in Great Village, to which were added asthma and a number of other diseases. In order to give her happier surroundings, her grandfather arranged for her to live with her mother’s sister in Boston. From the age of eight, she began to read poetry and fairy tales; she has mentioned Walt Whitman and Gerard Manley Hopkins as early poetic favorites.

Bishop entered boarding school at the age of sixteen, at the Walnut Hill School in Nantick. There she read the works of William Shakespeare and the English Romantic poets. She entered Vassar College with the intention of studying music, but later she told an interviewer that she was so terrified by the thought of recitals that she gave up the idea. In college she founded a literary review, called Con Spirito, with other literary-minded students, among them Mary McCarthy and Eleanor Clark, both of them subsequently well-known novelists. Bishop’s first poems appeared there and later in the Vassar Review; many of these appear in the standard volume of her life work, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (1983). During her time at Vassar, Bishop began bouts of heavy drinking that affected her writing output and her health for the rest of her life.

The greatest poetic mentor of Bishop’s early years was Marianne Moore, who helped to get some of Bishop’s poems published in an anthology called Trial Balances (1935). Bishop’s first volume was North and South (1946), which was chosen for the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award and which includes her most anthologized single poem, “The Fish.” That same year she met poet Robert Lowell, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship based on their mutual admiration for each other’s works. In 1949, Bishop moved to Washington, D.C., in order to accept the post of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. It was then that she visited the poet Ezra Pound, incarcerated in St. Elizabeths Hospital; the result of this was the poem “Visits to St. Elizabeths.” Further awards came soon after, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1950 and the Lucy Martin Donnelly Fellowship from Bryn Mawr College in 1951.

With the money from her prizes, Bishop set out for a trip to Brazil, where allergic attacks forced...

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her to stay for a number of months. Once cured, she decided to stay on and, in fact, lived in Brazil for most of the rest of her life, returning to the United States only a few years before her death. During her time there, she met and fell in love with a Brazilian woman, Lota de Macedo Soares. The two lived together until Soares’s suicide in 1967. In 1955, she published her next book, which includedNorth and South, by then out of print, as well as her newer poems; the volume was titled Poems: North and South—A Cold Spring. Among the new poems was the widely acclaimed “At the Fishhouses.” Much of her subsequent work, until the mid-1970’s, touched upon her life in Brazil, including the volume Questions of Travel (1965). This was followed, in 1976, by Geography III. The prematurely titled The Complete Poems of 1969 won the National Book Award, and Geography III won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Bishop was the recipient of honorary degrees from Rutgers University and Brown University. She died of a cerebral aneurism in Boston in 1979.


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Bishop carved a secure niche for herself in twentieth century poetry through the careful crafting of her few meticulously polished works. If some of her poems seem to evade involvement with the world in favor of a highly polished surface that will be most attractive to those who find refuge from action in words, others pose more centrally the very questions and problems that the more distant ones seem to avoid. Critics are united in their praise for her technique, and admiration for her understatement in an age of loudness continues to grow.


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Much of Elizabeth Bishop’s work is informed by a childhood of dislocation and loneliness. Fatherless at eight months of age, Bishop and her widowed mother moved from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia. When Bishop was four, her mother was permanently institutionalized after several nervous breakdowns, and Bishop never saw her again. After a brief, unhappy stay with her father’s family, she was placed in her aunt’s care in Boston. Thus travel and identity as a guest are two of Bishop’s most persistent metaphors.

After graduation from Vassar College, Bishop traveled extensively in Europe, finally settling in Key West, Florida, for nine years. In 1946, she received an award for her first book of poetry, North and South. Using simple, everyday occurrences of tropical life as subject matter, she established her reputation as a master of poetic craft, exploring themes of isolation, loneliness, and self-discovery through allegory, myth, and exquisite observation of detail.

On a visit to South America, Bishop fell in love with a wealthy acquaintance, Lota Soares. Bishop remained in Brazil with Lota for fifteen years, where she completed the Pulitzer Prize-winning Poems: North and South—A Cold Spring. These poems revisit Nova Scotia, her travel themes. Images of Brazil with its lush tropics, and political unrest and race and class distinctions would figure prominently in her later books.

When her relationship with Lota fell apart, Bishop returned to the United States in 1965, first teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle and, in 1970, at Harvard. Until the 1980’s, literary critics tended to focus on her stylistic precision in form and imagery. Her work was viewed as sensitive to social problems but not overtly political; rather, her poems were seen as objective and impersonal inquiries into unanswered metaphysical questions. Intimacy is established through conversational tone and language, pulling the reader into a shared quest to discover the nature of reality. Recent scholarship, however, suggests a feminist rereading of her work. Although Bishop resisted the classification of “woman writer,” many critics believe that Bishop’s poems are informed by issues of race, class, and gender and allude to her homosexuality, alcoholism, and depression. They point to poems such as the four “Songs for a Colored Singer,” in which Bishop explores the limitations placed by men on women. From this perspective, Bishop can be viewed not only as a major literary force but also as an important feminist voice.


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Elizabeth Bishop is a poet of geography, as the titles of her books testify, and her life itself was mapped out by travels and visits as surely as is her poetry. Eight months after Bishop’s birth in Massachusetts, her father died. Four years later, her mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized, first outside Boston, and later in her native Canada.

Elizabeth was taken to Nova Scotia, where she spent much of her youth with her grandmother; later, she lived for a time with an aunt in Massachusetts. Although her mother did not die until 1934, Bishop did not see her again after a brief visit home from the hospital in 1916—the subject of “In the Village.”

For the rest of her life, Bishop traveled: in Canada, in Europe, and in North and South America. She formed friendships with many writers: Robert Lowell, Octavio Paz, and especially Marianne Moore, who read drafts of many of her poems and offered suggestions. In 1951, Bishop began a trip around South America, but during a stop in Brazil she suffered an allergic reaction to some food she had eaten and became ill. She remained in Brazil for almost twenty years. During the last decade of her life, she continued to travel and to spend time in Latin America, but she settled in the United States, teaching frequently at Harvard, until her death in 1979.