North and South, Elizabeth Bishop’s first book of poems, is full of waking up and the sea. There are poems set in Paris, others in rural Florida. Some characters are human, some animals, still others are surreal. Poems like “The Man-Moth,” “Roosters,” and “The Fish” stand powerfully on their own, displaying the mastery that elevated Bishop to the status of a major American poet of the twentieth century. North and South as a whole expresses the young Bishop’s effort to attune her craft to the world she was encountering.
Although Bishop, unlike other poets of her time, did not use her poems to confess her personal life, the longing and sorrow in them is formidable. Loss characterized her earliest years. Eight months after her birth, her father died suddenly. Five years later, after several breakdowns, Bishop’s mother became permanently insane, and Bishop never saw her again. The child lived alternately with family in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia. Illness, especially asthma, kept her from attending school regularly, but she entered Vassar in 1930 and graduated in 1934, the year that the well-known poet Marianne Moore befriended her and the year Bishop’s mother died. During the decade that Bishop worked on the poems that constitute North and South, she lived in New York City and traveled in France and other European countries, and after 1937 (in the hope of relieving her asthma) wintered in Florida.
The first third of North and South conveys a sense of starting out and tentativeness. The speaker in the initial poem, “The Map,” contemplates much of the Northern Hemisphere and at first playfully considers whether the land “lean[s] down to lift the sea from under.” A cautious note sounds when place names run across nearby features, reminding the poet that sometimes “emotion too far exceeds its cause.” “The Imaginary Iceberg” emphasizes longing for the fantastical—a condition in which one can feel “artlessly rhetorical” and “rise on finest ropes/ that airy twists of snow provide.” “The Gentleman of Shalott” portrays a character content to be incomplete, even indefinite.
One element of Bishop’s uncertainty is artistic. She organizes several of her poems around conceits—witty, extended metaphors. She demonstrates in “Wading at Wellfleet” that a single image—in this case, the flashing chariot wheels that depict the awesome movement of the sea—can be inadequate. In the final lines, the immensity of the water makes “the wheels/ give way; they will not bear the weight.” Another element is emotional. Anxiety pervades “Chemin de Fer” from the “pounding heart” of the second line to the hermit’s shotgun blast and the challenge he screams, “Love should be put into action!” A similar intimidation underlies “From the Country to the City,” as the speaker is drawn irresistibly toward a city consisting of mocking images.
Of the three poems that follow, all making city life fearful, “The Man-Moth” has been most appreciated. Inspired by a newspaper misprint of “mammoth,” Bishop created a surreal character—half human, half insect—who, ironically, surpasses his human counterpart. “Man” stands passive in the moonlight like an “inverted pin” and seems unable—or unwilling—to comprehend. The Man-Moth, on the other hand, while fearful, “must investigate as high as he can climb.” The explanation “what the Man-Moth fears most he must do” characterizes the plight of a number of Bishop’s characters. The poem contrasts characters (the first time Bishop does so in North and South), but there is no hero to admire. Instead, after the first stanza introduces Man, the next four stanzas emphasize the Man-Moth’s uneasiness. Mistaking the moon for a “small hole at the top of the sky,” the Man-Moth scales buildings “fearfully,” “his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him.” When he returns underground and boards a subway train, he sits “facing the wrong way” and “travels backward.” The ride seems endless. In fact, his life is a nightmare; death rides constantly beside him, and he must resist the temptation of suicide. The oppressiveness of the city, nevertheless, allows for hope. In the final stanza, the reader (“you”) has the chance to break the Man-Moth’s isolation and share his sorrow. Although the tear that slips from Man-Moth’s eye is associated...
(The entire section is 1822 words.)