Elizabeth Bishop Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Look at any of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems for evidence that she pays careful attention to detail. What sort of detail can you find?

Some of Bishop’s poems, such as “The Moose” and “First Death in Nova Scotia,” draw on Canadian settings. What specifically Canadian details do you find in her work?

How does Bishop portray time in her work?

Bishop is sometimes seen as a writer who keeps a distance between herself and her reader. What evidence can you see of that in her poems?

What stanza forms can you find in Bishop’s poems?

What do Bishop’s poems reveal about her feelings about travel?

What kinds of landscapes seem to have interested Bishop in her many descriptions of them?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

In addition to her poetry, Elizabeth Bishop wrote short stories and other prose pieces. She is also known for her translations of Portuguese and Latin American writers. The Collected Prose, edited and introduced by Robert Giroux, was published in 1984. It includes “In the Village,” an autobiographical revelation of Bishop’s youthful vision of, and later adult perspective on, her mother’s brief return home from a mental hospital. Like her poetry, Bishop’s prose is marked by precise observation and a somewhat withdrawn narrator, although the prose works reveal much more about Bishop’s life than the poetry does. Editor Giroux has suggested that this was one reason many of the pieces were unpublished during her lifetime. The Collected Prose also includes Bishop’s observations of other cultures and provides clues as to why she chose to live in Brazil for so many years.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Elizabeth Bishop was often honored for her poetry. She served as consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress in 1949-1950. Among many awards and prizes, she received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1951), the Shelley Memorial Award (1953), the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (1956), the Academy of American Poets Fellowship (1969), the National Book Award in Poetry (1970), and the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry (1976) for Geography III. She became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1954 and served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 1966 to 1979. However, as John Ashbery said, in seconding her presentation as the winner of the Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976, she is a “writer’s writer.” Despite her continuing presence for more than thirty years as a major American poet, Bishop never achieved great popular success. Perhaps the delicacy of much of her writing, her restrained style, and her ambiguous questioning and testing of experience made her more difficult and less approachable than poets with showier technique or more explicit philosophies.

Bishop’s place in American poetry, in the company of such poets as Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and Richard Wilbur, is among the celebrators and commemorators of the things of this world, in her steady conviction that by bringing the light of poetic intelligence, the mind’s eye, on those things, she would enrich her readers’ understanding of them and of themselves.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bishop, Elizabeth. Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop. Edited by George Monteiro. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. These interviews with Bishop reveal the unusual artistic spheres in which she moved. Monteiro’s lucid introduction respects the complexities of both Bishop and her repressive historical moment.

Bishop, Elizabeth and Robert Lowell. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Contained here are the letters that Bishop and Lowell wrote to each other from 1947 until Lowell’s death in 1977. Their discussions involve poetry, politics, and their feelings for one another. Essential for anyone interested in these poets.

Bloom, Harold. Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Bloom has gathered fifteen previously published articles on separate poems and on Bishop’s poetry as a whole, as well as a new article, “At Home with Loss” by Joanne Feit Diehl, on Bishop’s relationship to the American Transcendentalists. “The Armadillo,” “Roosters,” and “In the Waiting Room” are some of the poems treated separately. A chronology and a bibliography complete this useful collection of criticism from the 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Provides a comprehensive view of Bishop’s visual strategies and poetics, grouping poems along thematic lines in each chapter. She examines the poet’s relationship to spirituality, memory, and the natural world by exploring her metrical...

(The entire section is 747 words.)