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.
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.
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.
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.