Happiness is not a word readily associated with Elizabeth Bishop. Despite the voluminous accolades and honours showered upon her during her lifetime, she was haunted by a deep sense of unworthiness and guilt, a profound loneliness and was plagued by psychosomatic illnesses. To most of the literary world she was one of the chosen. To herself she seemed one of the damned.

While it is true that none of her female partners in life were blameless in the problems that afflicted their relationships, Elizabeth Bishop nevertheless seemed unable to avoid alienating each of them in turn even though she was entirely dependent on their support. While her chronic alcoholism no doubt had something to do with this, she may also have been involuntarily inflicting upon them her deep resentment of her own frailties. It was as if she looked to them to provide the unconditional love she had craved for in vain as a child and when each partner eventually tired of playing this one-sided role, problems set in.

As a poet, Elizabeth Bishop was justifiably proud of her powers of acute observation. Her poetry, for the most part, gives an affirmative answer to the question Robert Lowell asks in his poem ‘Epilogue’: ‘Yet why not say what happened?’ Her poetry tends to tell it like it was. Critics have drawn attention to the undoubted lucidity of her writing. The trouble is that some of her verse is so lucid, so shorn of everything but what she observes, that, to quote again from Lowell, everything seems ‘paralyzed by fact’ and comes perilously near the lucidity of prose.

Elizabeth Bishop’s formative years, though financially secure, were rendered emotionally unstable due to family loss. She was an only child, born on 8th February 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father, William T. Bishop, who had part-Canadian ancestry, belonged to a wealthy Massachusetts family of builders. Her mother, Gertrude Bishop née Boomer, was a Canadian from Nova Scotia whose family were considerably less prosperous than her husband’s. William Bishop, who suffered from Bright’s Disease, died in October 1911, aged thirty-nine, after a marriage which had lasted a mere three-and-a-half years, his daughter being then only eight months old.

Gertrude found widowhood extremely difficult to bear. Her husband’s death meant the loss of her U.S. citizenship and the bereavement weakened her already frail sensibility. She spent the next five years in and out of mental institutions in both U.S.A. and Canada until eventually she was diagnosed as permanently insane. She was admitted to Dartmouth Sanatorium, Nova Scotia, in 1916 when Elizabeth was five years old and mother and daughter never saw each other again. Gertrude died there in May 1934. This early experience of loss profoundly influenced the way Elizabeth Bishop related to life and the world. It was not until she was in her early forties that she felt able to assess her childhood objectively and transpose it into art.

She spent her early years contentedly with her maternal grandparents in the small town of Great Village in Nova Scotia. However, in 1917, when she was six, her father’s parents took her to live with them in Worcester, Massachusetts. One assumes that both sets of grandparents did this with what they saw as the child’s best interests at heart. She was the Bishops’ only grandchild and only they had the financial means to provide her with the best of everything – everything, that is, except emotional security of which they probably had an imperfect understanding. No-one seemed to think what the effect of yet another family loss would have on the child who had already borne so much.

The effect was devastating. Elizabeth began to suffer chronic bronchitis, severe asthma and eczema and even symptoms of St. Vitus’ Dance – all physical manifestations of profound emotional insecurity. She even had to be sent home from school as being in no fit physical condition for education. After nine months the Bishop grandparents realized that their good intentions weren’t working and in May 1918 arranged for Elizabeth to live with her mother’s older sister Maud who lived with her husband in another part of Massachusetts.

In later life Elizabeth Bishop said that between them Aunt Maud and her Aunt Grace in Great Village had saved her life. Unfortunately, these early experiences of loss, of having no roots in a true home, of not really belonging anywhere, had such an adverse effect on her that lack of self-confidence and sense of unworthiness, together with the recurring physical ailments, persisted intermittently throughout the rest of her life.

Without the Bishop family’s wealth Elizabeth’s upbringing would have been far less privileged than it was. After attending day schools from age fourteen to sixteen the Bishops arranged, at their expense, for her to become a boarder at the highly reputed Walnut Hill School in Massachusetts. She had first become interested in poetry at eight years old, when she had made full use of her Aunt Maud’s well-stocked library, and at Walnut Hill she had ample opportunity and encouragement to expand on this. She proved herself to be a very intelligent pupil, especially in English and Latin studies, and wrote by far the best prose and most competent verse in her class. When she left Walnut Hill she had become well-grounded in the work of most classical English and American authors. The poets whose work she most favoured, and most influenced her own, were George Herbert, Richard Crashaw and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

With the continuation of the Bishop family’s financial support, in 1930 Elizabeth entered Vassar College, the prestigious women’s university. Although she majored in English Literature, she also took four years of Greek and three years of music, specializing in the piano which she had to abandon due to a paralyzing fear of performing. She produced an English verse translation of Aristophanes’ play ‘The Birds’, no mean feat for an undergraduate. She was mostly awarded ‘A’s in her English studies.

In March 1934 a friend introduced her to the poet Marianne Moore, a meeting which Elizabeth remarked later had changed her life forever. From around August 1936 to October 1940 Moore exercised considerable influence on Elizabeth Bishop’s literary career. The older woman introduced the younger and more diffident poet and her work to editors and publishers and generally made the path of advancement more easy.

Another poet whose work had some influence on her own was Robert Lowell. She first met him at a dinner given by the influential literary critic Randall Jarrell and she and Lowell took to each other from the start. Though six years younger than Elizabeth he was even then much better known. He managed to dispel her shyness and she was fascinated by him and his aura of the charismatic but unstable poet. Lowell was already well established in the inner circle of American literary life and proved a potent advocate of her work where it counted most. They met on several occasions and became frequent correspondents, sending each other drafts of poems and offering criticism of each other’s work, influencing each other in the process. Elizabeth’s approach was more diffident than Lowell’s but when she disapproved of anything he was doing she didn’t hold back from saying so. When he sent her a draft of his late collection The Dolphin, containing extracts from confidential letters from his divorced wife Elizabeth Hardwick without the latter’s permission, Elizabeth was horrified and begged him not to commit such a betrayal of trust. Lowell published the book anyway. Their friendship survived though it was never again so close. After Lowell’s death in 1977 she dedicated one of her last poems, ‘North Haven’, to his memory.

After graduating from Vassar in 1934, Elizabeth set her mind on becoming a writer. A financial legacy from her father meant that she had enough to live on without having to take a paid job. She resolved to work hard and read widely but this commitment was somewhat dissipated by recurring bouts of ill-health, self-doubt and, even more, by an irresistible urge to travel. It took little to cause her to drop everything and go off somewhere else. Over the years, she periodically visited her mother’s relatives in Nova Scotia and travelled widely within the U.S.A., holding teaching posts at several notable universities, including Harvard, and giving highly remunerative readings of her poems. She made several trips to Europe, especially France, and even undertook a voyage round the Galapagos Islands in homage to one of her heroes Charles Darwin, whom she admired for what she called ‘his endless heroic observations,’. Rather like the sandpiper in her poem of that name, she was ‘always looking for something, something, something.’ This identity as a homeless, rootless pilgrim persisted throughout most of her life. She once wrote in a letter: ‘I guess I have liked to travel as much as I have because I have always felt isolated …’

After having spent two months in Florida indulging in her love of fishing, in December 1936 she discovered, and became very fond of, Key West. She and her wealthy Vassar friend Louise Crane set up house together there at 624 White Street in May 1938. This became the first of ‘three loved houses’ mentioned as ‘lost’ in her late poem ‘One Art.’

In July 1939 she left Key West for an apartment in New York. Little is known of what transpired during that summer and autumn; we have only her cryptic reference to her ‘troubles in New York’. It is possible that difficulties had developed in her relationship with Louise Crane. The depression to which she was subject seems to have taken over and, with it, an increase in her abuse of alcohol. Why she intermittently drank so heavily is open to conjecture but the most likely explanation is in order to lose her awareness of the void at the centre of her life, a problem with which she was poorly equipped to deal. Attempts were made to get her psychiatric help but she always withdrew from it. She often consulted a New York physician and friend, Dr. Anny Baumann, either in person or by letter, who did whatever she could to help.

After returning to Key West in October 1939, Elizabeth put the finishing touches to her poem ‘The Fish’ which was published in the magazine Partisan Review in March 1940. It is her most anthologized poem, so much so that she became tired of its popularity. Its subject is a large Caribbean jewfish which she had caught earlier at Key West but the reader’s attention is drawn as much to the catcher as to the caught. We get a literary introduction to the person who caught the fish, to her morality, to her reading of the natural world, to an Elizabeth Bishop who, due to her profound diffidence, we would otherwise probably never have met. We learn that the fish is a survivor and she knows instinctively that she mustn’t interfere with that, and we are relieved when she lets the fish go.

Out of the many lesbian partnerships which Elizabeth undertook throughout her adult life, two were the most important. The first was with Maria Carlota de Macedo Soares, known as Lota, whom she had first met in New York in 1942. Lota was at that time in a partnership with Mary Morse and the two women invited Elizabeth to visit them in Brazil should she ever fulfil her desire to explore South America. Lota, a year older than Elizabeth, was the gifted daughter of a Brazilian newspaper magnate. In addition to her native Brazilian she was also fluent in English and French. She served as a landscape architect on a project to refashion part of the Brazilian coast near Guanabara Bay into a leisure area later named Parque do Flamengo.

Elizabeth left the U.S.A. in November 1951, ostensibly on the first leg of a voyage around the world, but she disembarked at Santos, Brazil and, apart from habitual trips abroad, remained in that country until 1967. Her finding a new home in Brazil, based as it was on her relationship with Lota, worked an almost magical transformation for the better in her life. She felt valued and loved in a way she had been longing for in vain since the age of five and always remembered her first ten years with Lota as the happiest period of her life.

Despite Lota Soares’s enormous funds of energy and enthusiasm, her devotion to the Flamengo project, buffeted as it was by schisms and rivalries in Brazilian politics, took its emotional toll. Elizabeth, who didn’t handle loneliness at all well, was left to fend for herself for days or even weeks at a time while Lota expended herself in chronic overwork and nervous exhaustion. This caused Elizabeth to lapse further into destructive bouts of heavy drinking which only exacerbated the situation. The inevitable result was a growing friction between the two women as Lota became increasingly quarrelsome and critical of her vulnerable partner. As a result, both women became periodically hospitalized but any respite in the tension between them was short-lived.

On 3rd July 1967 Elizabeth flew to New York, claiming that she had done so on the advice of Lota’s doctors though against her own wishes. The intention was for Lota to join her when her doctors sanctioned it. However, Lota notified Elizabeth that she wanted to come right away and she arrived, though at low ebb, on the afternoon of 19th September. Sometime during that night Lota took an overdose of tranquilizers which, combined with the arteriosclerosis and heart disorder from which she already suffered, proved fatal. Elizabeth, who was advised not to attend the funeral in Brazil, was left with the inevitable grief and sense of guilt. She felt the acute loss of Lota intermittently for the rest of her life.

Elizabeth’s second important partnership was with Alice Methfessel whom she met when she arrived at Harvard in September 1970, aged fifty-nine, to begin a teaching assignment. Alice was then twenty-six years old and the administrative assistant of Kirkland House, the hall of residence containing Elizabeth’s flat. She had an outgoing and buoyant personality, a reputation for administrative and secretarial efficiency and was popular with everyone. Alice, an only child, born in New York City but raised in Summit, New Jersey, had wealthy and devoted parents from whom she was keen to establish her independence. She was the ideal person to undertake the management of Elizabeth’s somewhat disordered affairs and to serve as her secretary, chauffeur and general factotum. They fitted well together, though Elizabeth’s need for Alice was obviously greater than Alice’s need for her. Both women treated the intimate nature of their relationship with great discretion, but they soon became recognized on campus as an ‘item’. Elizabeth described Alice as ‘kind, generous and very funny – she’s good for me because she cheers me up.’

However, as with all her relationships, things eventually began to fall apart. The autumn of 1975 was one of the very lowest points in Elizabeth’s life, mainly because Alice, no doubt disenchanted with trying to share her life with a demanding and chronic alcoholic, was showing unmistakeable signs of moving on. There is no doubt that Elizabeth Bishop when drunk was a sad travesty of the warm and generous-spirited woman she tended to be when sober. Alice had apparently met a young man who was interested in marrying her and this situation only increased Elizabeth’s fear of being left alone in her advancing years of illness and decrepitude. The drinking and ill-health became worse and her ability to carry on teaching became questionable. Whatever rapprochement was reached between them, Alice ultimately didn’t abandon Elizabeth, didn’t marry and, apart from visits to her family, remained with Elizabeth to the end.

At about 6.00pm on Saturday 6th October 1979 Elizabeth Bishop died, aged sixty-eight, probably instantly and painlessly, of a cerebral aneurysm. When Alice arrived at Elizabeth’s Lewis Wharf apartment later that evening to drive her to Helen Vendler’s for dinner she found Elizabeth’s body where it had fallen, the phone off the hook. Elizabeth was buried in the Bishop family’s plot in Hope Cemetery, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Elizabeth had made Alice Methfessel her next-of-kin, literary executor and heir, which meant that she inherited Elizabeth’s apartment on Lewis Wharf, Boston and other property. She also had jurisdiction over a mass of valuable papers and unpublished work, much of which has since found its way into the archives of several academic institutions. Not long after Elizabeth’s death Alice formed a relationship with another woman and moved to the Californian coast where she died from lung disease in 2009 aged sixty-six.

Whatever else she was as a poet, Elizabeth Bishop was certainly not prolific. She tended to work very slowly, revising a poem continually, sometimes over periods of years, and beginning many poems which she was unable to finish. She worked intermittently on one of her most famous and highly-regarded poems, ‘The Moose’, for over twenty-five years and kept revising it up to and beyond the deadline for its publication. The word ‘painstaking’ hardly does justice to her process of composition. She was herself very conscious of her lack of productivity compared with the lavish rewards it brought her. After she had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956 she wrote in a letter: ‘I’m sure you know how embarrassed I feel about the Pulitzer…. Never has so little work dragged in so many prizes.’

She published only four poetry collections during her lifetime, each containing far fewer poems than was customary. These were: North & South (1946) with thirty poems; North & South – A Cold Spring(1955) with nineteen additional poems;Questions of Travel (1965) with nineteen poems; and Geography lll (1976) with only nine poems. She also published Complete Poems (1969) which she had wanted to entitle Collected Poems but had been overruled on this by her publisher; this contained three additional poems. Not counting translations, these total a mere eighty-four poems and are almost certainly all those she was willing to publish. All the rest in the posthumous Complete Poems (1991) were published after her death and would probably not have received her approval.

North & South, though her earliest collection, contains some of her best-known poems. ‘The Map’, the first in the book, signals the emergence of the new and more enduring Elizabeth Bishop and is instantly recognizable as her work – the fascination with geographical phenomena, the fastidious observation of detail, the seemingly rhetorical questions that turn out to be more than rhetorical. Another well-known poem, ‘Roosters’, is primarily a ‘thing made’, a deliberate construct from a given pattern set by Richard Crashaw’s Wishes To His Supposed Mistress. It begins as a fairly faithful copy of Crashaw’s stanza form, with roosters behaving very much as they do in nature – fighting, winning or losing – which she sees as very much what the human male tends to do in the world. Elizabeth claimed it was her condemnatory war poem. The poem then develops into a treatment of St. Peter’s denial of Christ. It ends with the roosters having become silent and an essentially temporary peace prevailing in the farmyard. This is the poem which Marianne Moore and her mother didn’t like and unwisely chose to rewrite. When she received the altered version Elizabeth politely thanked them but largely ignored it. Though they remained friends, it signalled the virtual end of her tutelage to Marianne Moore.

Of the nineteen poems in A Cold Spring, the most remarkable and famous is ‘At the Fishhouses’. It is set in an area of Nova Scotia where Elizabeth spent her formative years. It begins with a faithful and detailed recording of environmental factors closely observed, written in a matter-of-fact, not to say prosaic, style. As so often in her poems, the language taps into Elizabeth’s childhood as her imagination moves through what she painstakingly describes. The larger part of the poem emerges as mainly a preamble to the real thing, the final nineteen lines, which are superb.

The water seems suspended
above the rounded and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Note how the carefully chosen words are skilfully counterpointed throughout the passage, the aim being to convey the author’s own experience of what she describes. The line ‘It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:’ charges the sea near the fishhouses with the task of making concrete the abstraction of knowledge. In achieving this, all traces of prosaic language have been shed; it is pure poetry at somewhere near its best and must rank very highly in the annals of twentieth century poetry in English.

Lack of space forbids comment on poems, such as ‘Sandpiper’, ‘In the Waiting Room’, ‘Crusoe in England’, ‘The Moose’ and several others which fully deserve it. But at least some attention must be paid to her poem ‘One Art’ written late in her life.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next to last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop created this poem in the autumn of 1975 when her morale was at rock bottom. She was in her sixty-fourth year, in increasingly poor health and only too aware that Alice Methfessel, exasperated by Elizabeth’s drunkenness and craving for attention, had come very near to abandoning her. Elizabeth must have been close to, if not actually in, despair. What could she do to be reconciled with this seemingly unending catalogue of loss? She did what only an artist of distinction could do – solve it in terms of her art. In creating this poem she managed to merge the art of losing with the art of writing about it into ‘one art’ – hence the poem’s title. Her achievement of this precluded the possibility of her lapsing defeated into self-pity. It may, therefore, not be an exaggeration to say that writing it could well have saved her sanity or even her life.

Elizabeth chose to express that crisis in the notoriously demanding form of the villanelle. It is as if the difficulty of her real-life situation had to be matched by the difficulty of her means of solving it. Writing the poem became her way of mastering the experience which engendered it. Irony lies at the very heart of this poem. She chooses to express the truth of her experience by lying about it (see line 17). The poem’s throw-away approach pretends that losing is not important – it’s no more than a trick you can learn to master. Losing things is presented nonchalantly as if it were only a kind of game. The losses she cites become progressively more important until, at the last, the pretence has worn thin. The poem then tacitly acknowledges that the loss of a loved one is the very worst disaster that can happen. When the poet forces herself to (write it!) she also ‘rights’ it, compelling the separate arts of losing and of writing about it to merge into one art. The poem superbly distances the pain of losing and renders it acceptable.

‘One Art’ is a formidable achievement and almost certainly Elizabeth Bishop’s masterpiece. Gone are the close observations of her geographical surroundings which she used all too often to deflect attention from her inner self. This one, with all the considerable skill at her command, was written from the heart and deserves its place in the canon of great poems in English of the twentieth century.

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