Elizabeth Bishop Bishop, Elizabeth (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Elizabeth Bishop 1911-1979

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

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), a reprint of her first poetry book North & South (1946), with additions. She won 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, which was 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 to 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. 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 important for Bishop both intellectually and socially. There she became familiar with the work of poets who would influence her own writing, and she began to send her own 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. 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. 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. 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 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 battle physical and emotional illnesses, as well as alcoholism, she became well-known in the Harvard literary circle and developed a relationship with a woman named 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 wondered 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 is also emphasized in many of the poems in Geography III. The most famous of these, “In the Waiting Room,” concerns young Elizabeth'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 explored 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's short stories often contain autobiographical elements, particularly those regarding the death of her father, the absence of her mother, and growing up with relatives in a small town in Nova Scotia.

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,” Robert Lowell referred to Bishop as an “unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect.” Although her poetry is often deeply personal and expressive of her lifelong struggles with illness and alcoholism, critics note that Bishop avoided self-pity and egoism and extended her themes from the specific to the universal. Published posthumously, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (1983) and The Collected Prose (1984) have elicited retrospective analyses of her works and have reinforced the widespread critical opinion that Bishop's opus is an important contribution to twentieth-century literature.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

North & South (poetry) 1946

*Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring (poetry) 1955

Poems (poetry) 1956

Brazil (travel essays) 1962

Questions of Travel (poetry) 1965

Selected Poems (poetry) 1967

The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon (juvenilia) 1968

The Complete Poems (poetry) 1969

Poem (poetry) 1973

Geography III (poetry) 1976

The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (poetry) 1983

The Collected Prose (fiction and essays) 1984

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

*Reprint of 1946 edition with additional poems added.

Nathan A. Scott, Jr. (essay date spring 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scott, Nathan A., Jr. “Elizabeth Bishop: Poet without Myth.” Virginia Quarterly Review 60, no. 2 (spring 1984): 255-75.

[In the following essay, Scott discusses Bishop as a poet who deals exclusively with the material world without a systematic metaphysical or philosophical worldview.]

The English critic John Bayley is, I believe, quite wrong when in his book, The Characters of Love, he says of Conrad: “He has no myth with a view to insight: he has scenes and he has people.” But no more apt a formula could be devised for such a poet as Elizabeth Bishop: she is, indeed, a poet without myth, without metaphysic, without commitment to any systematic...

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Lee Edelman (essay date summer 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Edelman, Lee. “The Geography of Gender: Elizabeth Bishop's ‘In the Waiting Room.’” Contemporary Literature 26, no. 2 (summer 1985): 179-96.

[In the following essay, Edelman discusses the possibility of presenting a literal reading of “In the Waiting Room.”]

I always tell the truth in my poems. With “The Fish,” that's exactly how it happened. It was in Key West, and I did catch it just as the poem says. That was in 1938. Oh, but I did change one thing. …

—Elizabeth Bishop1

Time and again in discussing her poetry Elizabeth Bishop...

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Martha Carlson-Bradley (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carlson-Bradley, Martha. “Lowell's ‘My Last Afternoon… ’as Bishop Model.” Concerning Poetry 19, (1986): 122-31.

[In the following essay, Carlson-Bradley asserts that Robert Lowell's poem “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” served as an inspiration for Bishop's “First Death in Nova Scotia.”]

In her “Statement for the English Memorial Service for Robert Lowell,” Elizabeth Bishop commented on her long-standing friendship with Lowell. Mentioning how they “took to each other immediately and were good friends for over thirty years,” Bishop also reveals that this relationship was “often kept alive through years of separation...

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Helen Vendler (essay date summer 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop.” Critical Inquiry 13, no. 4 (summer 1987): 825-38.

[In the following essay, Vendler discusses Bishop's major metaphors, as well as influences on her poetry.]

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) wrote in her fifties a revealing set of monologues attributed to three ugly tropical animals—a giant toad, a strayed crab, and a giant snail. These prose poems contain reflections on Bishop's self and her art. The giant toad says,

          My eyes bulge and hurt. … They see too much, above, below,
and yet there is not much to see. … I feel my colors changing
now, my pigments gradually shudder and shift...

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Carole Kiler Doreski (essay date September 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Doreski, Carole Kiler. “‘Back to Boston’: Elizabeth Bishop's Journeys from the Maritimes.” Colby Library Quarterly 24, no. 3 (September 1988): 151-61.

[In the following essay, Doreski discusses the influence of Bishop's Canadian ancestry and upraising on her poetry.]

To situate her biographer correctly in her life, Elizabeth Bishop wrote Anne Stevenson a long and detailed account of her lineage and residencies throughout her life of perpetual guesthood:

I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander—I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary War.

(EB to AS, 18 March...

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Kathleen Brogan (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brogan, Kathleen. “Lyric Voice and Sexual Difference in Elizabeth Bishop.” In Writing the Woman Artist: Essays on Poetics, Politics, and Portraiture, edited by Suzanne W. Jones, pp. 60-78. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Brogan explores Adrienne Rich's contention that Bishop's lyric voice “explores issues of outsiderhood and difference.”]

In her 1983 review of Elizabeth Bishop's posthumously published Complete Poems, Adrienne Rich calls for new readings of Bishop, sensitive to her understanding of “outsiderhood” and “difference.”1 Rich acknowledges that her view of Bishop as an...

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Peter Sanger (essay date fall 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sanger, Peter. “‘… and even spoke some Myself’: Elizabeth Bishop, Great Village and the Community of Imaginable Words.” Antigonish Review no. 91, (fall 1992): 53-62.

[In the following essay, Sanger discusses the impact of linguistic patterns in Great Village, Nova Scotia on Bishop's poetry.]

Part of this essay's title comes from an apparently causal, graceful passage in Bishop's memoir of Marianne Moore:

Happily ignorant of the poor Vassar girls before me who hadn't passed muster, I began to feel less nervous and even spoke some myself. I had what may have been an inspiration, I don't know—at any rate, I...

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John Palattella (essay date spring 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Palattella, John. “‘That Sense of Constant Re-Adjustment’: The Great Depression and the Provisional Politics of Elizabeth Bishop's North & South.Contemporary Literature 34, no. 1 (spring 1993): 18-43.

[In the following essay, Palattella analyzes the political elements of North & South.]

In January 1946, concerned about the political nontopicality of her forthcoming North & South, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her publisher Houghton Mifflin, “The fact that none of these poems deal directly with the war, at a time when so much war poetry is being published, will, I am afraid, leave me open to reproach.”1 Bishop's...

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Elizabeth Spires (essay date May 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Spires, Elizabeth. “One Life, One Art: Elizabeth Bishop in Her Letters.” New Criterion 12, no. 9 (May 1994): 18-23.

[In the following essay, Spires reviews One Art: Letters, finding the volume a “magnificent” addition to Bishop's canon.]

If an unknown poet were to be offered a sort of cosmic bargain where he or she would live the life Elizabeth Bishop lived in return for the poems she wrote, I doubt there would be many takers. From infancy on, Bishop suffered some of the worst losses imaginable. Her father, a prosperous builder from a wealthy New England family, died in 1911 when she was eight months old. Her Canadian mother then suffered a...

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Adrian Oktenberg (essay date July 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Oktenberg, Adrian. “The Letter and the Spirit.” Women's Review of Books 11, nos. 10-11 (July 1994): 27–29.

[In the following essay, Oktenberg argues that the publication of Bishop's letters will lead to her poetry being taken more seriously.]

Elizabeth Bishop is now recognized as one of the major American poets of this century, and the publication of this first selection of her letters will remain a lasting gift to literature. It will also accelerate a change, which has been building for some time, in the way Bishop is read. During her lifetime, Bishop was seen as a writer of marginalia, as an acolyte of Marianne Moore's school of meticulous observation...

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Zhou Xiaojing (essay date fall 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Xiaojing, Zhou. “‘The Oblique, the Indirect Approach’: Elizabeth Bishop's ‘Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics.’” Chicago Review 40, no. 4 (fall 1994): 75-93.

[In the following essay, Xiaojing argues that “Rainy Season; SubTropics” contains essential clues to Bishop's poetics.]

Elizabeth Bishop's prose poem, “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics,” though one of her least commented-on works, contains important articulations by Bishop about herself as a poet, and about her poetic principles and practice.1 At the same time, its three monologues are relentless and revealing investigations of multifaceted subjectivity as captured in diverse voices through...

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Margaret Dickie (essay date November 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dickie, Margaret. “Elizabeth Bishop: Text and Subtext.” South Atlantic Review 59, no. 4 (November 1994): 1-19.

[In the following essay, Dickie examines Bishop's choice of poetic form in relation to her subject matter.]

“Elizabeth Bishop is spectacular in being unspectacular,” Marianne Moore claims in her review of North & South (Complete Prose 406) where she notes Bishop's “mechanics of presentation,” not just the rhymes, but the accuracy and modesty of the poetry. Yet Bishop could also be spectacular in being spectacular, relinquishing her art's modesty to elaborate, even archaic form, in poems, strangely enough, of current social...

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Mihaela Irimia (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Irimia, Mihaela. “The Art of Losing: W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Bishop.” Critical Survey 6, no. 3 (1994): 361-65.

[In the following essay, Irimia examines the connection between the works of Bishop and W. H. Auden.]

In the Houghton Collection of the Harvard College Library can be found material from the library of Elizabeth Bishop, signed, and with reading marks and marginalia. Two volumes by Wystan Auden, The Dyer's Hand, and Other Essays (1962), and Epistle to a Godson, and Other Poems (1972), bear the traces of Bishop's reading. The typescript comments have been removed and shelved as *87M-21. They share a space with newspaper clippings now...

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Doris Earnshaw (essay date winter 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Earnshaw, Doris. “One Art: Letters.World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 151-52.

[In the following essay, Earnshaw praises One Art: Letters.]

In 1978 Elizabeth Bishop answered a request from a new neighbor at Lewis Wharf in Boston for information about local shops. Her now famous reply, vivid and exhaustive, thrills us with its energy. She has arranged for a housekeeper, lists pharmacies, fish markets, cafes with descriptions of their owners' foibles, sources for olive oil with a direction for ordering cannoli (filling separate), where to find soft macaroons, and the importance of avoiding tourists on weekends. One of six hundred letters...

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Vernon Shetley (essay date winter 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shetley, Vernon. “On Elizabeth Bishop.” Raritan 14, no. 3 (winter 1995): 151-63.

[In the following essay, Shetley examines One Art: Letters against the surge of interest in Bishop's life and work.]

Elizabeth Bishop apparently urged most of her correspondents to hold on to her letters, though more out of a desire that they get a good price when they sold them, than out of a sense of writerly pride. Part of the charm of her letters is their unselfconsciousness; vividly and memorably written as they are, they seem throughout offhand, spontaneous, the writing of a woman who had no sense of posterity looking over her shoulder. Poetry, for Bishop, was...

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Mena Mitrano (essay date fall 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mitrano, Mena. Bishop's “Pink Dog.” Explicator 54, no. 1 (fall 1995): 33-36.

[In the following essay, Mitrano explores Bishop's reticence using animal allegory in “Pink Dog.”]

Scholarship on Elizabeth Bishop has traditionally praised her reticence, especially in matters of identity, the female body, and female sexuality.1 Indeed, readers who aspire to more than just a superficial knowledge of Bishop's poetry must come to terms with her famed reticence. In one of her last poems, “Pink Dog” (1979), the rhetorical containment and modesty associated with her style border on self-censorship. In this poem, reticence becomes the speaker's...

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Thomas Travisano (essay date autumn 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Travisano, Thomas. “The Elizabeth Bishop Phenomenon.” New Literary History 26, no. 4 (autumn 1995): 903-30.

[In the following essay, Travisano examines the sudden rise in the critical opinion of Bishop as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century.]

In a 1955 review of “The Year in Poetry” for Harper's, Randall Jarrell composed a notice of Elizabeth Bishop's latest book that would prove prophetic in more ways than one. He began:

Sometimes when I can't go to sleep at night I see the family of the future. Dressed in three-toned shorts-and-shirt sets of disposable Papersilk, they sit before the...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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

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 p.

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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