The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop Analysis

Robert Dale Parker

The Unbeliever

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Robert Dale Parker, assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is fascinated by that which lies below the surface in life and in art. His first book, Faulkner and the Novelistic Imagination (1985), explores William Faulkner’s use of revelation of a secret to create the suspense that gives the novels their dynamic.

Parker’s examination of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop in this second critical book also explores the hidden. This time, his scholarship shows how the inner secret of self-doubt becomes the tension behind the poetic metaphor. Offering a corrective to those who read Bishop as impersonal, reserved, and tentative, Parker insists that she takes personal risks in her role as poet despite the doubt she feels and that she, in fact, integrates both the risk taking and her unbelief into the fabric of the poetry in a very self-conscious and dynamic way.

A detailed explication of “The Weed” supports the thesis that Bishop not only shares the twentieth century anxiety that all poetic possibilities have been exhausted, but also that she turns this contemporary worry to the purpose of her own art. Central to this thesis is a reading that identifies motherhood as the ambiguous image of creativity and betrayal. Drawing from the poem “Filling Station,” the translation of “The Smallest Woman in the World,” and the short story “In the Village,” Parker grounds the image in Bishop’s own experience, linking it with the mother who brought her into the world only to betray that birth by receding into a psychosis that would prevent nurture. He links the feminine fear of pregnancy with loss of control and sees Bishop’s weed to be the dream-fear that results when creative power is doubted.

Treating Bishop’s work chronologically, Parker sees three major divisions which he defines each with a single word. “Wish” defines the early poems of expectation, the poems of North and South (1946). “Where” defines her reconciliation with the present, the poems of A Cold Spring (1955) and Questions of Travel (1965). “Retrospect” defines her nostalgia for the past, the poems of Geography III (1976).

“The Map,” the first poem in North and South, states the paradox of Bishop’s art. The purpose of the map is cartographic certainty, but Bishop sees only the arbitrariness of color choice. Noted for skill as an observer of the external world, she finds it fundamentally impossible to trust the lines of her imagination. Question is infinitely more important than declaration, and it is the question, the medium of unbelief, that predominates in her art.

Parker’s reading of The Unbeliever explores this paradox at some length. The poem incorporates four distinct voices—poet, cloud, gull, and unbeliever. The cloud is not a reliable voice because “he” is limited by what he can see. A believer, he is bound by his own introspection. When he looks below he sees only his reflection, and he believes it to be marble. The gull, another believer, is less limited than the cloud, but he is restricted by an imagination grounded only in his own experience. He believes that he will fly always. These two are secure in their worlds without doubt, and risk is not an option.

Because the unbeliever in the poem keeps his eyes tightly closed, he does not share the delusions of cloud and gull. As Parker has noted, “By not believing, he implicitly chooses his precarious masthead of imaginative risk.” Because the gull and cloud believe, they forfeit both the right and the privilege of imagination. Thus, the unbeliever is like the reader of the map. Uncertainty and unbelief are necessary if one is to see with freshness and clear, accurate vision. Because the unbeliever dares to sleep on top of the mast, he embodies what Parker sees to be the central message in Bishop: “We must yearn after the extreme in experience and perspective to vault our imaginations forward.” Through his tightly closed eyes the unbeliever sees more than most, and thus he fears more than most. He pays the price of imagination.

Parker’s reading of “The Man-Moth” clarifies the notion that is central to the early poems. He believes Bishop to have been freed by the imaginative concept of the “Man-Moth” (springing from a newspaper misprint of mammoth). In the poem, Man and the Man-Moth are contrasted. Man, who lives only with the effects of the moon, rarely sees it as a cause. Knowing that it is only a reflector of the authentic source of light or energy, Man disregards it. His disregard belies a fear that quenches imaginative possibility.

The Man-Moth, on the other hand, looks through his fear. Believing the moon to be a hole in the sky, he attempts escape through the awesome opening. His is a cosmic...

(The entire section is 1987 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Choice. XXVI, December, 1988, p. 648.