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...
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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.
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.