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 College with the intention of studying music, but later she told an interviewer that she was so terrified by the thought of recitals that she gave up the idea. In college she founded a literary review, called Con Spirito, with other literary-minded students, among them Mary McCarthy and Eleanor Clark, both of them subsequently well-known novelists. Bishop’s first poems appeared there and later in the Vassar Review; many of these appear in the standard volume of her life work, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (1983). During her time at Vassar, Bishop began bouts of heavy drinking that affected her writing output and her health for the rest of her life.
The greatest poetic mentor of Bishop’s early years was Marianne Moore, who helped to get some of Bishop’s poems published in an anthology called Trial Balances (1935). Bishop’s first volume was North and South (1946), which was chosen for the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award and which includes her most anthologized single poem, “The Fish.” That same year she met poet Robert Lowell, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship based on their mutual admiration for each other’s works. In 1949, Bishop moved to Washington, D.C., in order to accept the post of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. It was then that she visited the poet Ezra Pound, incarcerated in St. Elizabeths Hospital; the result of this was the poem “Visits to St. Elizabeths.” Further awards came soon after, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1950 and the Lucy Martin Donnelly Fellowship from Bryn Mawr College in 1951.
With the money from her prizes, Bishop set out for a trip to Brazil, where allergic attacks forced her to stay for a number of months. Once cured, she decided to stay on and, in fact, lived in Brazil for most of the rest of her life, returning to the United States only a few years before her death. During her time there, she met and fell in love with a Brazilian woman, Lota de Macedo Soares. The two...
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