Elizabeth Bishop Bishop, Elizabeth (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Elizabeth Bishop 1911-1979

American poet, short-story writer, editor, and translator.

The following entry presents criticism on Bishop from 1977 to 1996. For further information on Bishop's writings, see Poetry Criticism, Vol. 3.

Bishop's reputation as an accomplished poet rests on a small but significant body of highly crafted verse. Describing nature and experience with meticulous detail, Bishop often employed unusual metaphors and surreal images to portray an unsettling world. Bishop received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring (1955), the National Book Award for The Complete Poems (1969), and the National Book Critics' Award for Geography III (1976). In addition, in 1976 she became the first American to receive the Neustadt International Prize for literature. Since her death in 1979, Bishop's poetry, highly praised by her peers in her lifetime, has gained respect and popularity with a general audience as well.

Biographical Information

Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911, the only child of Gertrude Boomer and William Bishop. Her father died during her infancy, and her mother, who suffered from mental illness, was permanently committed to an asylum when Bishop was five years old. Consequently, Bishop spent her early childhood with her mother's relatives in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Eventually her paternal grandparents expressed concern about the limited resources available for Bishop's education in Nova Scotia. Bishop went to live with them in Massachusetts and was sent to Walnut Hills School for Girls and later to Vassar College in 1930. Her relationship with her father's family was not warm, however, and during her college years she usually spent vacations and summers with friends. Her years at Vassar were both intellectually and socially important for Bishop. There she became familiar with the work of poets who would influence her own writing, and she began to send her poems to small magazines and writing competitions. She also befriended the poet Marianne Moore, who became Bishop's mentor and lifelong friend. After graduating from Vassar, Bishop lived in New York City, traveled extensively through France, and eventually settled in Key West, Florida, where she lived from 1938 to 1944. The years 1947 to 1951 were miserable for Bishop as she suffered from asthma, depression, and alcoholism, and was involved in several unhappy relationships. But in 1947 Bishop met the poet Robert Lowell, who introduced her into his literary circle. Thereafter, she received grants and awards and began to experience real success with her writing. However, she continued to battle her illnesses and addiction. In the fall of 1951 she embarked on what was supposed to be a trip around the world, beginning in Brazil. Bishop was to stay with Lota de Macedo Soares and Mary Morse, two women she had met in New York in 1942. But a severe allergic reaction kept her in Brazil for weeks. In the ensuing months Bishop, claiming she was happier than she had been in years, decided to move permanently to Brazil to live with Soares. The two women lived together happily at Soares's home in rural Samambaia until 1961, when Soares took a job in Rio de Janeiro, leaving Bishop alone in their city apartment most of the time. In 1966 Bishop took a job teaching poetry and creative writing at the University of Washington in Seattle. Early in her stay in Seattle, she fell in love with a young woman, an event that signaled the beginning of the end of her life in Brazil. She returned to Brazil in June 1966 and found Soares in a state of mental collapse. Both women were sent to separate hospitals for mental exhaustion until March 1967, when they moved back to Samambaia to try to remake their peaceful life. Their attempt failed, and Bishop went to stay with friends in New York. Soares joined her when she felt stronger, but shortly after her arrival she committed suicide. Devastated, Bishop moved briefly to San Francisco and lived with the young woman she had been involved with in Seattle. Bishop then convinced the woman and her child to move with her to her house in Ouro Prêto, Brazil. The move was a disaster as Bishop's drinking was out of control again and her lover was hospitalized for a mild breakdown; the woman was subsequently flown back to the United States with her child. Robert Lowell again interceded on Bishop's behalf, arranging for her to fill his teaching post at Harvard University while he took a sabbatical. Bishop's years at Harvard were relatively happy. Although she continued to struggle with physical and emotional illnesses, as well as alcoholism, she became well-known in the Harvard literary circle and developed a relationship with Alice Methfessel, with whom she lived and traveled until her sudden death of a cerebral aneurysm in 1979.

Major Works

Bishop's travels provided her with much inspiration for her poetry, and traveling appears as a major metaphor, often symbolizing the search for self. In her poetry, dislocation, loneliness, and constant self-doubt are associated with such a search, but an acceptance of hardship prevails. In the title poem of her collection Questions of Travel (1965), she wonders whether or not it was wise to leave the stability and familiarity of home to travel abroad. The poem concludes that without continual risk and uncertainty there can be no spiritual growth. The importance of self-discovery also is emphasized in many of the poems in Geography III. The most famous of these, “In the Waiting Room,” concerns young Bishop's sudden awareness of both the division and the connection between herself and the world. The nature of reality is a prominent theme in the Pulitzer Prize-winning volume Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring. In “The Map” a land map symbolizes the difference between objective reality and reproductions of it. The poem suggests that because works of art are slanted by the creator's subjective perceptions, they are as much guides to that individual's imagination as to the objects or ideas being imitated. Similarly, in “At the Fishhouses” and “Cape Breton,” both based on Bishop's experiences living and traveling in Nova Scotia, Bishop explores the elusiveness of ultimate reality. Many of Bishop's poems about Brazil, which she found exceedingly difficult to write, reflect her ambivalent feelings about the country's extremes of great beauty and massive poverty, as well as the periods of elation and misery she experienced while living there.

Critical Reception

Bishop is considered a master of descriptive verse. Her calm, understated tone and the ease with which she gradually shifted from observations of ordinary objects to philosophical insights are also highly regarded. In his poem “For Elizabeth Bishop 4” Robert Lowell refers to Bishop as an “unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect.” Although her poetry often is deeply personal and expressive of her lifelong struggles with illness and alcoholism, critics note that Bishop avoids self-pity and egoism and extends her themes from the specific to the universal. Published posthumously, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (1983) has elicited retrospective analyses of her works and has reinforced the widespread critical opinion that Bishop's opus is an important contribution to twentieth-century poetry.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

North & South 1946

Poems: North and South—A Cold Spring 1955

Questions of Travel 1965

Selected Poems 1967

The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon 1968

The Complete Poems 1969

Geography III 1976

The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 1983

Brazil [with the editors of Life magazine] (travel) 1962

The Collected Prose (fiction and essays) 1984

One Art: Letters [selected and edited by Robert Giroux] (letters) 1994

Michael Wood (review date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

“RSVP,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXIV, No. 10, June 9, 1977, pp. 29-30.

[In the following essay, Wood reviews Geography III, calling Bishop “a nearly impeccable poet.”]

Elizabeth Bishop's poetry is full of invitations. Look, it says; watch; think; listen. Yet it is never bullying. These are invitations, not instructions, and when they begin to sound bossy, a note of parody usually creeps in. The poet impersonates a schoolmistress embarrassed by her hectoring authority:

Now can you see the monument? It is of wood
built somewhat like a box. No. Built
like several boxes in descending sizes
one above the other …
It is...

(The entire section is 2677 words.)

Brian C. Avery (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

“Bishop's ‘The Colder the Air,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 46, No. 4, Summer, 1988, pp. 35-37.

[In the following essay, Avery examines the significance of the image of the thermometer in “The Colder the Air.”]

In Elizabeth Bishop's “The Colder the Air,” the protagonist's femininity is mentioned twelve times: nine times as “her,” twice as “she,” but only once does she receive a specific title. In the second line, she is referred to as “this huntress” Before concluding she is an Annie Oakley protégée in boots and a fringed hunting coat, we should consider the significance of the abundant ambiguous references. Bishop seems to be devising a...

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Eavan Boland (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

“An Un-Romantic American,” in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1988, pp. 73-92.

[In the following essay, Boland argues that Bishop is “the one un-Romantic American poet of her generation.”]


American poetry was a rare commodity in the Dublin bookshops of the sixties and seventies. It could turn up, unpredictably and at random, slanted in with books of British verse and Yugoslavian translation, so that the mode of its appearance had an adverse effect on the nature of its readership. Not surprisingly perhaps, my first encounter with Elizabeth Bishop's work was not in a bookshop at all. I came across her poem “The Moose”...

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Jacqueline Vaught Brogan (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

“Elizabeth Bishop: Perversity as Voice,” in American Poetry, Vol. 7, No. 2, Winter, 1990, pp. 31-49.

[In the following essay, Brogan discusses Bishop's innovative use of poetic voice.]

There may be no more traditional way of defining the “Poet”—and, by extension, the lyric itself—than that found in the “Preface to The Lyrical Ballads: “What is a Poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is expected from him?—He is a man speaking to men …” (italics mine). In recent years, the philosophical assumptions underlying these three questions (specifically the nature of author, audience, and the...

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Dianna Henning (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

“Shards of Childhood Memory,” in Pembroke Magazine, No. 22, 1990, pp. 68-76.

[In the following essay, Henning discusses Bishop's techniques of exploring aspects of her childhood in her poetry.]

“… we cover the universe with drawings we have lived.” (12)

—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics Of Space

Bishop's practice offered Lowell a model of how to take intensely imaged shards of childhood memory and assemble them in both prose and poetry. (421)

—Helen McNeil, Voices and Visions, Edited by Helen Vendler


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George S. Lensing (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

“The Subtraction of Emotion in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop,” in The Gettysburg Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 48-61.

[In the following essay, Lensing discusses Bishop's refusal in her poetry to see herself as a victim or to express too much emotion.]

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?

With these lines from “In the Waiting Room,” Elizabeth Bishop describes an event that occurred at the dentist's office in...

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Marilyn May Lombardi (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

“The Closet of Breath: Elizabeth Bishop, Her Body and Her Art,” in Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal, Vol. 38, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 152-75.

[In the following essay, Lombardi examines the effect of Bishop's numerous illnesses on her poetry.]

In 1937, when Elizabeth Bishop was twenty-six, she discovered the wilds of Florida on a fishing expedition and fell in love with the swamps and palm forests of a state that was still a North American wilderness. When she and her friend Louise Crane came to live in Key West the following year, however, their response to the tropical Cayo Hueso, known as the Bone Key, was severely colored by...

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Elizabeth Spires (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

“Elizabeth Bishop: The Things I'd Like to Write,” in The Gettysburg Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 62-70.

[In the following essay, Spires recollects her experience in studying Bishop's poetry and discusses Bishop's own feelings about her work.]

Elizabeth Bishop once wrote: “My three ‘favorite’ poets—not the best poets, whom we all admire, but favorite in the sense of one's ‘best friends,’ etc., are Herbert, Hopkins, and Baudelaire.” If I were to name the poets who have been my “best friends” in this same sense, certainly Elizabeth Bishop would have to come first. I did actually meet her once, in Boston in 1978, when I was writing a...

(The entire section is 3690 words.)

Patricia Wallace (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

“Erasing the Maternal: Rereading Elizabeth Bishop,” in The Iowa Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring/Summer, 1992, pp. 82-103.

[In the following essay, Wallace examines the maternal presence in Bishop's poetry.]

… a perfect erasure disappears along with what is erased. For an erasure to be present for us, we must know that something was there; we must see the traces of the erasure: blottings, blurrings, indentations on the page or in the landscape. Erasure is the forceful writing of loss, absence and rejection. Because we crave to ‘be’—in body, in works, in writing—we can never view such erasures dispassionately, as mere blank space....

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Mutlu Konuk Blasing (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

“From Gender to Genre and Back: Elizabeth Bishop and ‘The Moose,’” in American Literary History, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1994.

[In the following essay, Blasing explores Bishop's complicated position on feminism and her place among women poets.]

Costume and custom are complex.
The headgear of the other sex
inspires us to experiment.

—Elizabeth Bishop, “Exchanging Hats”

Elizabeth Bishop's refusal to be anthologized and classified as a woman poet is well known; less well known, perhaps, is her statement “I've always considered myself a strong feminist” (“Art” 80). Taken together, these positions suggest that her being...

(The entire section is 8249 words.)

Zhou Xiaojing (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

“Bishop's Casabianca,” in The Explicator, Vol. 52, No. 2, Winter, 1994, pp. 109-111.

[In the following essay, Xiaojing examines “Casabianca” as a revision of other texts.]

Love's the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite ‘The boy stood on
the burning deck.’ Love's the son
                    stood stammering elocution
                    while the poor ship in flames went down.
Love's the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
                    or an excuse to stay
                    on deck. And love's the burning boy.

—Elizabeth Bishop


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Celeste Goodridge (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

“Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens: Sustaining the Eye/I,” in The Wallace Stevens Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 133-54.

[In the following essay, Goodridge examines the influence of Wallace Stevens's poetry on the development of Bishop's sociopolitical poetic stance.]

Although Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens crossed paths in Key West, they never met each other, though each knew the other's work. Bishop had a lifelong fascination with Stevens—with his poetry, his ideas about art and the role of the artist, his way of living, and the delicate balance he strived to maintain between his art and the demands of his “public” life. It would not be...

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Vicki Graham (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

“Bishop's ‘At the Fishhouses,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 53, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 114-17.

[In the following essay, Graham examines the significance of Bishop's line of iambic pentameter in “At the Fishhouses.”]

A single line of perfectly regular iambic pentameter divides Elizabeth Bishop's “At the Fishhouses” neatly in half, separating a detailed and restrained description of an old fisherman, the Nova Scotia shoreline, and the tools of the fishing trade from an equally detailed but more passionate description of the ocean itself. In the opening lines, the speaker's voice is calm, her tone impersonal. An acute observer, she carefully maintains her...

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James Longenbach (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

“Elizabeth Bishop's Social Conscience,” in English Literary History, Vol. 62, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 467-86.

[In the following essay, Longenbach explores Bishop's interest in social issues, particularly women's rights and feminism.]

In “Contradictions: Tracking Poems,” the long sequence that makes up the second half of Your Native Land, Your Life, Adrienne Rich meditates on Elizabeth Bishop's late villanelle, “One Art”:

acts of parting trying to let go
without giving up yes Elizabeth a city here
a village there a sister, comrade, cat
and more no art to this but anger.(1)

“The art of losing isn't hard to master,”...

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Alicia Ostriker (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

“I Am (Not) This: Erotic Discourse in Bishop, Olds, and Stevens,” in The Wallace Stevens Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 234-54.

[In the following essay, Ostriker discusses similarities and differences in the erotic imagery of Bishop, Sharon Olds, and Wallace Stevens.]

Alas, Love, I would thou couldst as well defend thyself as thou canst offend others. I would those on whom thou dost attend could either put thee away, or yield good reason why they keep thee.

—Sir Philip Sidney, Apology for Poetry

Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

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Barbara Page (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

“Elizabeth Bishop and Postmodernism,” in The Wallace Stevens Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 166-79.

[In the following essay, Page examines Bishop's place in the era of literature spanning from modernism to postmodernism.]

Though Elizabeth Bishop is a near-contemporary whose life and career have by now been well documented, she has proved curiously elusive to scholars attempting to place her among her poetic forebears and successors. This is partly owing to the delayed recognition of her work and her extraordinary posthumous fluorescence, but I shall argue that it is also partly owing to continuities among successive generations of poets that have been...

(The entire section is 6080 words.)

Jeffrey Powers-Beck (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

“‘Time to Plant Tears’: Elizabeth Bishop's Seminary of Tears,” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 60, No. 4, November, 1995, pp. 69-87.

[In the following essay, Powers-Beck discusses the influence of the poetry of George Herbert on Bishop's work.]

The Stuart poet-divine George Herbert was one of Elizabeth Bishop's favorite poets and greatest influences: she read Herbert from age fourteen to the end of her life; she kept his poetry by her writing desk,1 and usually travelled with it; she maintained a long friendship with the Herbert scholar Joseph Summers; she mentioned the poet frequently in her letters and interviews; early in her poetic career, she...

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Charles Edward Mann (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

“Elizabeth Bishop and Revision: A Spiritual Act,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 25, No. 2, March-April, 1996, pp. 43-50.

[In the following essay, Mann examines early drafts of Bishop's poetry to understand her thoughts on revision.]

I have always been rather fond of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry. Bishop's work, like Robert Frost's best, has an apparent simplicity that belies a greater depth beneath. It was my need to understand this greater depth and how she managed it that led me to Bishop's papers and drafts in Vassar College Library's special collection.

To understand Bishop's approach to revision, one must first understand her poetics and what...

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Anne Stevenson (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

“The Iceberg and the Ship,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Fall, 1996, pp. 704-19.

[In the following essay, Stevenson discusses the development of Bishop's poetry, her major influences, and personal experiences that affected her work.]

Elizabeth Bishop's poetry is an acquired taste, but one that easily turns other poets into addicts. John Ashbery said of her once that she was a “writer's writer's writer”—a description that hardly explains the breadth of her appeal. In the early 1960s, when I first discovered “The Fish” in a college anthology, she was chiefly praised for the finely observed details she “painted” into her poems. Who...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


MacMahon, Candace W. Elizabeth Bishop: A Bibliography. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980, 227 pp.

Extensive bibliography of works by and about Bishop; also includes illustrations and excerpts of letters from Bishop to her publishers.


Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Elizabeth Bishop. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, 202 pp.

Collection of essays on Bishop's poetry.

Erkkila, Betsy. “Elizabeth Bishop, Modernism, and the Left.” American Literary History 8, No. 2 (Summer 1996): 284-310.


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