E

lizabeth Bishop was born in
Worchester, Massachusetts on
February 8th, 1911. She was
the daughter of Gertrude Bulmer and
William Thomas Bishop, owners of
the J.W. Bishop Contracting Firm.
Bishop’s childhood was filled with a
sense of loss that pervades her poetry.
Her father died from Bright’s disease
when she was eight months old. Her
mother, psychologically distraught,
spent the next five years in and out of
psychiatric hospitals. With William’s
death, Gertrude lost her U.S.
citizenship and, when she experienced
the decisive breakdown in her family
home in Nova Scotia, was hospitalized
in a public sanatorium in Dartmouth,
Nova Scotia. Elizabeth Bishop was
five when this breakdown occurred;
she later recounted it in her prose
masterpiece “In the Village.” Her
mother, diagnosed as permanently
insane, never saw Elizabeth again.
After her mother’s hospitalization,
Bishop lived in Great Village, Nova
Scotia, with her mother’s family, in
a loving, comforting atmosphere.
However, the equilibrium that she
had gained was upset by her parental
grandparent’s decision to raise the
child with them in Worchester. In her
prose memoir “The Country Mouse,”
Bishop writes, “I have been brought
back unconsulted and against my
wishes to the house my father had

been born in, to be saved from a life
of poverty and provincialism.” There,
in isolated wealth, Bishop keenly felt
her lack of relations. She wrote, “I felt
myself aging, even dying. I was bored
and lonely with grandma, my silent
grandpa, the dinners alone… At night,
I lay blinking my flashlight off and on
and crying.”
When her mother’s sister, Maud
Bulmer Shepardson rescued Bishop
in May 1918, even her paternal
grandparents saw that their
“experiment” had failed. Never a
strong child, Bishop now suffered
from eczema, asthma, St. Vitus’s
dance, and nervous ailments that made
her nearly too weak to walk. Maud
Shepardson lived in an apartment
in a South Boston tenement. An
unpublished manuscript, “Mrs.
Sullivan Downstairs,” recounts
Bishop’s love for this neighborhood.
There, Bishop later recalled, she
began to write poetry, influenced by
Aunt Maud’s love of literature.
As she grew stronger, Bishop spent her
summer in Nova Scotia and attended
Camp Chequesset on Cape Cod. Her
unusual circumstances and poor health
limited her formal schooling before
age fourteen. However, she was an
excellent student, and following her
time at The Walnut Hill School for
Girls, Bishop entered Vassar College
Class of 1934.

1

A

Bishop’s College Portrait:
Great Village, Nova Scotia

photo of Bishop out
of the 1934 Vassar
yearbook, The
Vassarian. During Bishop’s
college years, she began to
shape herself as a poet by
co-founding the publication
Con Spirito, a fiction and
poetry magazine contributed
to solely by women. The
publication was radical for its
time, and only ran for a few
issues before folding. Bishop
explains that “it was during
Prohibition and we used to
go downtown to a speakeasy
and drink wine out of
teacups. Ghastly stuff! Most
of us had submitted things to
the Vassar Review and they’d
been turned down…So we
thought, Well, we’ll start our
own magazine.”

After college, Bishop nearly applied to Cornell Medical School. “I
think I had all the forms,” she told a journalist. Her reason for touring
Europe instead? A requirement in German, apparently, which Bishop
had already decided she was not cut out for. That, and “I think Marianne
[Moore] discouraged me, and I didn’t go. I just went off to Europe instead.

2

Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972), came to the attention of poets as diverse
as Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound
beginning with her first publication in 1915. From 1925 until 1929, Moore
served as editor of the literary journal The Dial. This continued her role,
similar to that of Pound, as a patron of poetry; much later, she encouraged
promising young poets, including Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg, John
Ashbery, and James Merrill.

3

Bishop Wins Poetry Prize Fellowship Award

T

his image of Bishop, age
26, was taken in 1937.
She is photographed here
after receiving a $1,000 prize for
her poetry. This was a sizeable
sum at the time. Marianne
Moore had recommended
Bishop for the Houghton Mifflin
Prize, and Bishop’s manuscript
North and South was chosen
for publication in August 1946
from over 800 entries. This was
a prestigious fellowship for her
first book of poetry. North and
South introduces the themes
central to Bishop’s poetry:
geography and landscape,
human connection with the
natural world, questions of
knowledge and perception, and
the ability or inability of form to
control chaos.
Elizabeth Bishop had published only three collections of poetry by the age
of fifty-five. Together these volumes contained 68 poems. As a result, she
received numerous literary awards. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in
1956 and the Amy Lowell Travelling Fellowship a year later and in 1964,
an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, (she was living in Brazil at that
time). These distinctions highlight the richness and depth of her poetry.

4

It is difficult to decipher
Elizabeth Bishop’s
handwritten notes above. She
may be referring to Caroline
Gordon (1895-1981), who
was a recipient of the 1932
Guggenheim Fellowship grant
and an acquaintance of Bishop
and her friend Robert Lowell.
Robert Lowell’s earliest
mentors were the poet and
literary critic, Allen Tate and
his wife Caroline Gordon.
Lowell notes of his arrival at
their house that, “Like a torn
cat, I was taken in when I
needed help,” famously living
in a tent because the house
shared by Tate and his wife
already bulged with writers.

T

his envelope, dated Dec. 7th, 1948 is from poet, Randall Jarrell to Elizabeth
Bishop. She was living in New York City at the time.
Jarrell had been in the United States Army Air Forces since 1942, eventually
becoming a celestial navigation tower operator, which he believed to be the
most poetic of all job titles within the Air Force. After being discharged from the service,
Jarrell joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., for a year
before going to the Woman’s College of The University of North Carolina in Greensboro
(as it was called then) where, as an associate professor of English, he taught modern
poetry and imaginative writing.

5

This envelope,
dated February
17, 1949 from
poet, Randall
Jarrell to
Elizabeth Bishop,
she is now
residing in Key
West, Florida.
Note Elizabeth
Bishop’s grocery
list: Bread, milk,
butter, c cheese
(cottage cheese?),
and Coca Cola.

S

ome of the awards that Jarrell received during his lifetime included a
Guggenheim Fellowship grant for 1947-48, a grant from the National
Institute of Arts and Letters in 1951, and the National Book Award in
1961 for his work entitled The Woman at the Washington Zoo.
On October 14, 1965, while walking along a road in Chapel Hill near
dusk, Jarrell was struck by a car and killed. The coroner ruled the death
accidental, but Jarrell had recently been treated for mental illness and a
previous suicide attempt, so some of the people closest to Jarrell suspected
that he might have committed suicide.

6

I

n 1951, Elizabeth Bishop travelled to South America to see the
Amazon. Her original travel plans included a sail to the Straits of
Magellan. However, she suffered a severe allergic reaction after
ingesting cashews while her ship was docked in Brazil. She was restored
to health with the help of her nurse, Dona Carlota de Macedo Soares.
During her recovery, Elizabeth Bishop grew to love the Brazilian
landscape and culture, as well as her dear friend whom she called
Lota. For 15 years, Bishop lived with Soares in the mountain town
of Petropolis and in Rio de Janeiro. This new love and home offered
Bishop happiness, she had known only briefly in Great Village. On July
28th, 1953, she wrote to her dear friend Robert Lowell that she was
“extremely happy for the first time in my life.”
Pictured here at the home they planned and commissioned together at
Samambaia, Brazil, Lota points to Sammy, a toucan that Bishop received
as a gift. Sammy’ was short for Uncle Sam, a name that Bishop gave the
pet with a touch of irony.

7

E

lizabeth
Bishop’s
third book,
Questions of Travel
(1965), includes both
reflections on her
childhood experience
and poems about
her new home in
Brazil. The book
is divided into two
sections, Brazil and
Elsewhere, with
the prose piece
“In the Village”
placed between the
divisions. Bishop
returns to themes
of geography, form,
and landscape, but
here she allows
more intimacy, both
between viewer and landscape and between reader and poet. Questions of
Travel garnered positive reviews. Robert Mazzocco in the New York Review of
Books (October 1967) called Bishop “one of the shining, central talents of our
day.” The book is filled with the description for which Bishop received so
much praise. But it is also filled with an unmistakable sense of what Wyatt
Prunty calls “the askew,” moments in which the senses failed to report reality
slide off into the mysterious, terrifying, or ecstatic.

8

B

ishop
eventually
signed a
four-year contract
with Harvard.
Although she never
felt completely
comfortable as
a teacher, her
students report
that they learned
a great deal from
her precision and
from the quiet
conversations
that constituted
her class. In
1976, Bishop
became the first
American and the
first woman to be
awarded the Books
Abroad/Neustadt
International Prize
for Literature. In
that year she also
published her last
collection of poetry,
Geography III. This
won the Book Critic’s Circle Award for 1977. This volume of nine beautifully
crafted poems returns to themes of North and South but with greater intimacy
and immediacy.

9

W

hen Bishop submitted her application for a Guggenheim
Fellowship on October 1st, 1977. She indicated that she would
work on a new volume tentatively titled, “Grandmother’s Glass
Eye,” and a book-length poem, “Elegy.” Four poems of the new volume,
“Santerem,” “North Haven,” “Pink Dog,” and “Sonnet,” were complete
when Bishop died in Boston, Massachusetts on October 6th, 1979.
Elizabeth Bishop’s poems have been collected in the Complete Poems (19271979), published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux (1983).

10

11

The Influence of Marianne Moore’s Writing on Elizabeth Bishop

An excerpt from Elizabeth Bishop’s essay entitled, Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore

I

n the first edition of Marianne Moore’s
Collected Poems of 1951, there is a poem
originally called “Efforts and Affection.”
In my copy of this book, Marianne crossed out
the “and” and wrote “of” above it. I like this
change very much, and so I am giving the title
“Efforts of Affection” to the whole piece.
I first met Marianne Moore in the spring
of 1934 when I was a senior at Vassar
College, through Miss Fanny Borden, the
college librarian. A school friend and the
friend’s mother, both better read and more
sophisticated in their literary tastes than I
was, had told me about Marianne Moore’s
poetry several years earlier. I had already
read every poem of Miss Moore’s I could find,
in back copies of The Dial, “little magazines,”
and anthologies in the college library. I hadn’t
known poetry could be like that; I took to it
immediately, but although I knew there was a
volume of hers called Observations, it was not in
the library and I had never seen it.
Because Miss Borden seems like such an
appropriate person to have introduced me to
Marianne Moore, I want to say a little about
her. She was the niece of the Fall River,
Lizzy Borden, and at college the rumor was
that Lizzy Borden’s lurid career had had a
permanently subduing effect on Miss Fanny
Borden’s personality. She was extremely shy
and reserved and spoke in such a soft voice it
was hard to hear her at all. She was tall and
thin; she always dressed in browns and grays,
old-fashioned, muted, and distinguishedlooking...
One day I was sent into Miss Borden’s office
about a book, I no longer remember what.

We continued talking a little, and I finally
got up my courage to ask her why there was
no copy of Observations by that wonderful
poet Marianne Moore in the Vassar library.
She looked ever so gently taken aback and
inquired, “Do you like Marianne Moore’s
poems?” I said, “I certainly did, the few I’ve
been able to find.” Miss Borden then said
calmly, “I’ve known her since she was a little
girl,” and followed that with the question that
was possibly to influence the whole course of
my life: “Would you like to meet her?” I was
painfully—no, excruciatingly—shy and I had
run away many times rather than face being
introduced to adults of much less distinction
than Marianne Moore, but I immediately said,
“Yes.” Miss Borden said that she would write
to Miss Moore who lived in Brooklyn, and
also that she would be glad to lend me her
copy of Observations.
Miss Borden’s copy of Observations was an
eye-opener in more ways than one. Poems
like “An Octopus,” about a glacier, or “Peter,”
about a cat, or “Marriage,” about marriage,
struck me, as they still do, as miracles of
language and construction. Why had no one
ever written about things in this clear and
dazzling way before? But at the same time, I
was astonished to discover that Miss Borden
(whom I now knew to be an old family friend
of the Moores) obviously didn’t share my
liking for these poems. Tucked in the back of
the book were quite a few reviews that had
appeared when Observations was published,
in 1924, and most of these were highly
unfavorable, some simply obtuse... Even
more revealing, Miss Borden hadn’t seen fit

to place a copy of her friend’s book in the
college library. (Later that year I found a copy
for myself, on a secondhand book table at
Macy’s).
The day came when Miss Borden told me
that she had heard from Miss Moore and that
Miss Moore was willing to meet me in New
York, on a Saturday afternoon. Years later
I discovered that Marianne had agreed to do
this with reluctance; in the past, it seems dear
Miss Borden had sent several Vassar girls to
meet Miss Moore and sometimes her mother
as well, and everyone had somehow failed
to please. This probably accounted for the
conditions laid down for our first rendez-vous:
I was to find Miss Moore seated on the bench
at the right of the door leading to the reading
room of the New York Public Library. They
might have been even more strict. I learned
later that if Miss Moore really expected not to
like would-be acquaintances, she arranged to
meet them at the Information Booth in Grand
Central Station—no place to sit down, and,
if necessary, an instant getaway was possible.
In the mean time, I had been told a little more
about her by Miss Borden, who described
her as a child, a strange and appealing little
creature with bright red hair—playful, and, as
might have been expected, fond of calling her
family and friends by the names of animals.
I was very frightened, but I put on my new
spring suit and took the train to New York. I
had never seen a picture of Miss Moore; all
I knew was that she had red hair and usually
wore a wide-brimmed hat… I was right
on time, even a bit early, but she was there
before me (no matter how early one arrived,

Marianne was always there first) and, I saw
at once, not very tall and not in the least
intimidating. She was forty-seven, an age that
seemed old to be then, and her hair was mixed
with white to a faint rust pink, and her rustpink eyebrows were frosted with white. The
large flat black hat was as I’d expected it to
be. She wore a blue tweed suit that day and,
as she usually did then, a man’s “polo shirt,” as
they were called, with a black bow at the neck.
The effect was quaint, vaguely Bryn Mawr
1909, but stylish at the same time. I sat down
and she began to talk.
It seems to me that Marianne talked to me
steadily for the next thirty-five years, but of
course that is nonsensical. I was living far
from New York many of those years and saw
her at long intervals. She must have been one
of the world’s greatest talkers: entertaining,
enlightening, fascinating, and memorable;
her talk, like her poetry, was quite different
from anyone else’s in the world. I don’t know
what she talked about at that first meeting; I
wish I had kept a diary. Happily ignorant of
the poor Vassar girls before me who hadn’t
passed muster, I began to feel less nervous
and even spoke some myself. I had what may
have been an inspiration, I don’t know—at
any rate, I attribute my great good fortune in
having known Marianne as a friend in part to
it. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
was making its spring visit to New York and I
asked Miss Moore (we called each other “Miss”
for over two years) if she would care to go to
the circus with me the Saturday after next. I
didn’t know that she always went to the circus,
wouldn’t have missed it for anything, and when
she accepted, I went back to Poughkeepsie in
the grimy day coach extremely happy. (First
published in Vanity Fair, May 1983, pp. 44-60.
Written between 1969 and 1979).

Elizabeth Bishop
& Louise Crane

E

lizabeth Bishop,
pictured on the left,
was the daughter of a
wealthy builder. She was born
into an inheritance that would
last her until old age. Her
affluence attracted friends from
similar backgrounds, as this
photo from 1937 features her
with fellow-heiress and future
philanthropist Louise Crane.
Louise Crane (1913-1997), met
Bishop at Vassar in 1930. She
came from a wealthy family
who owned the privately held
Crane Paper Company, sole
suppliers of the paper for the
Federal Reserve Notes. Crane
travelled throughout Europe
with Bishop and they bought
a house together in Key West,
Florida in 1937.
This photograph was taken in New York City when Bishop had just
won The Poetry Prize Fellowship Award and was finally recognized
for her poetic talent. She was making literary friends quickly. After
being rejected by several New York publishers, the first of her four
volumes of poetry, North and South, was finally published in 1946. The
next year she was introduced by Randall Jarrell to Robert Lowell and

they became lifelong friends. A few of Bishop’s poems had previously
been published in Marianne Moore’s 1935 anthology Trial Balances. Of
Moore, Bishop said: “Marianne Moore’s greatest influence on me was
a thirst for accuracy. She would go through incredible pains to get
things right.” Her pains seemed to have paid off for Bishop, who went
on to write a great deal more under her guidance.

T

hough Bishop
travelled to
astonishing places
around the world, a certain
level of wry sarcasm
is ever-present in her
writing. In this postcard
to her mentor, Marianne
Moore, Bishop cynically
relates her experience at
the Grutas de Cacahuamlipa,
one of the most extensive
cavern systems in the
world. Marginalizing
the grandeur of the
caverns, she comments
that the tour guides “were
perfectly solemn about
the whole thing, as if
the little signs had been
on each rock from the
beginning of time”. This
is characteristic of her
outlook on life.
This postcard from
Elizabeth Bishop to
Marianna Moore features
the Grutas de Cacahuamlipa
during her travels to
Mexico.

In this letter, Robert Lowell discusses
publishing a new edition of her book. He
advises she wait on making changes, writing,
“Anyone who builds on rock as you do can take
her time - let the world come to you.” In 1950,
Lowell helped Bishop secure the post of poetry
consultant for the Library of Congress while she
worked on her second book, A Cold Spring.

B

efore Robert Lowell reviewed North and South,
he met Bishop at a dinner party, a meeting that
marked the beginning of a crucial, and complicated,
friendship. Lowell, like Moore, showed Bishop artistic
possibilities and gave her practical suggestions in the form
of grants, fellowships, and awards.

Lowell had a notably close friendship with the poet
Elizabeth Bishop that lasted from 1947 until Lowell’s
death in 1977. Both writers relied upon one another for
feedback on their poetry and thereby influenced one
another’s work (which is in evidence in their voluminous
correspondence, published in the book Words in Air: The

Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert
Lowell). Bishop’s influence over Lowell can be seen at work
in at least two of Lowell’s poems: “The Scream” (inspired
by Bishop’s short story “In the Village”) and “Skunk Hour”
(inspired by Bishop’s poem “The Armadillo”).

A

diary for the year 1950, filled in
by Bishop. Highlighting how
conscious she actually was of her
own misfortunes, she has scribbled “just
about my worst, so far” below the year.

“hail-storm of light on the parking-lots”
is characteristic of how Bishop mixed the
supernatural with the everyday in her
poetry.

–Thursday, January 26
–Thursday, January 12
Bishop described her world in poetry,
In her diary it becomes apparent that
even when she was only writing in her
Bishop thought in a naturally poetic way. diary. Touched by tragedy throughout
She ruminates on the ways that light
her life, she still managed to perceive
mixes with rain, and her description of a many aspects of the world in beautiful

ways. Sentences like this pepper her
notes and reflections: “Every morning (on
the way to work), the streets look wet –
maybe it rains a little every night – sticky,
blue, reflecting the sky. Yesterday’s
old sky pasted to them like strips of old
land-fill.” Bishop won the Lucy Martin
Donnelly Fellowship from Bryn Mawr
College in 1950 and an award from The
American Academy of Arts and Letters
that same year.

P

ictured here in Brazil,
Bishop later reflected on
her time there, explaining,
“I was able to work in Brazil
because I had no distractions.
For the first time in my life I had
a study of my own, one that was
peaceful, holding all my books,
in the middle of a grove…We
didn’t go to parties every night,
but neither were we hermits.”
Looking pensive even here,
Bishop’s Brazilian years gave rise
to some of her best poetry.

B

ased on the writing
Bishop did in Brazil, O
Globo, a newspaper based
out of Rio de Janeiro, asserted
that “Elizabeth Bishop belongs to
no school of poetry, and she has
no preferred theme. She is a poet
without prejudices.” Though
she may not have preferred it,
loss and uncertainty was a theme
which would recur in her poetry.

T

he poem A
Drunkard,
written in 1960,
is an autobiographical
account of Bishop’s
personal struggle with
alcoholism. Addiction
to alcohol was just
one of the struggles
she underwent during
her lifetime, and the
boozy confusion and
contemplation she
felt during her darker
times are evident
in this work. This
typewritten draft
represents the series
of memories and
ruminations Bishop
undergoes after a
bout of drinking. The
disconnected images
and changes of scenery
are from different
stages of her life. The
poem’s chilling last
line, “And all I’m
telling you may be a
lie…” refers to her
own instability and
fear of herself due to
alcoholism.

Side One
“Your translation reads
like an original”, writes
Lowell to Bishop. Though
her lifetime was filled with
sorrow, Robert Lowell was
consistently supportive of
all Bishop’s endeavors. His
praise of her translation
may only come in a single
line, but such moments
of encouragement were
characteristic of their close
relationship as friends and
poets.
Side Two
Lowell appreciated
Bishop’s work, and
often commented on and
critiqued her poetry. Yet
he also enjoyed her letters,
calling them “such a full
sail, such witty stories!”.

It is interesting to note that Robert Lowell was
the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1947-1948, Elizabeth
Bishop followed as laureate from 1949-1950, Randall
Jarell held the same distinguished post from 19561958, followed by Robert Frost from 1958-1959.

I

n this December, 1948 letter, Randall Jarell has enclosed a poem
of his for Bishop’s perusal, and requests one of her own in return.
As Bishop became more accomplished in her field, she gained
introductions to many rising literary stars. Her participation in the

“literary conversation” of her time gives evidence of her prominence.
Many poets were moved by her sense of pain and struggle as well as
the ways in which she coped.

20

The Map

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

I

n “The Map,” a land map symbolizes the difference
between objective reality and reproductions of it. The
poem suggests that because works of art are slanted
by the creator’s subjective perceptions, they are as much
guides to that individual’s imagination as to the objects or
ideas being imitated.

B

ishop was unable to keep her love of travel from
influencing and manifesting itself within her work;
the result are poems such as The Map, one of her
earliest poems, that uses poetic language to help readers
envision the surface of the Earth. In it, Bishop develops
an idea of a map where “The names of seashore towns
run out to sea,/the names of cities cross neighboring
mountains,” her way of depicting her sense of the wealth
of life that inhabits each and every corner of our world.

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
-What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

21

In this letter Randall Jarrell writes, “I was
crazy about your village story in the New
Yorker, too—Peter Taylor said that it was the
best thing that had been in…” He is referring
to his good friend, Peter Matthew Hillsman
Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel, A
Summons to Memphis. Mr. Taylor was a student
of Allen Tate and a friend of Randall Jarrell
and Robert Lowell. His wife of 51 years was
the poet, Eleanor Ross Taylor.
In the same year she received this letter,
Bishop’s second book, A Cold Spring, received
laudatory reviews and won the 1956 Pulitzer
Prize.
After publishing A Cold Spring, Bishop spent the
next three years translating a popular Brazilian
work, The Diary of Helena Morley known by its
1942 Portuguese title, Minha Vida de Menina.
The story of Helena’s life in the small town
of Diamantina in 1893 reminded Bishop of
her 1916 Great Village, and translating this
work while reflecting on and writing about
her own childhood helped Bishop explore her
past as artistic material. The translation was
published under the title The Diary of Helena
Morley by Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy in 1957.
(The publishing house changed its name to
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux upon the hiring
of Robert Giroux from a rival company who
brought such important writers as T.S. Eliot
and Flannery O’Connor.

22

T

Lota, early 1960’s.

hroughout the mid-1960s, life in Brazil grew
difficult for Bishop. Lota de Macedo Soares,
involved in the politics of Rio, had taken charge
of a public parks project that absorbed her time and
attention. As the political situation worsened, Bishop
felt more uncomfortable in her Brazilian home. In 1966,
Bishop spent two semesters as poet in residence at the
University of Washington but returned to Rio in the hope
of reestablishing her life there. Both Bishop and Soares
suffered physical and psychological distress and were
hospitalized in Brazil. When Bishop grew stronger, she
left for New York with the expectation that Soares would
join her. Soares arrived in New York on the afternoon
of September 19th, 1967. Later that evening she took
an overdose of tranquilizers and died at age fifty-seven.
This loss proved terribly difficult for Bishop personally,
although she continued to write and publish. In 1969,
Bishop published Complete Poems, a volume that included
all of her previously published poems and several new
pieces. This book won the national book award for
1970. When the ceremony took place, Bishop was once
again trying to reestablish a Brazilian life. However, the
politics, along with Bishop’s inability to negotiate the
culture without Soares’s help, finally convinced her that
a Brazilian life was impossible. In the fall of 1970, she
returned to the United States to teach at Harvard. It was
at this time that Elizabeth Bishop met the woman who
became a source of strength and love for the rest of her
life. Her name was Alice Methfessel.

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nspection of Bishop’s poetic drafts reveals her keen eye for
revision. Seemingly chaotic – a mixture of typewritten verse,
notes scribbled by hand, full of cross-outs and misspellings – her
poetry had the astounding way of crystallizing into a clean finished
product. Such can be seen in the comparison of the draft and end

results of her poem, Manuelzinho. Bishop often ended up with several
hundred pages of draft material, each version of the poem only
containing a few edits each. This rigorous process involved months
(sometimes years) of revision, and as her experiences, often tragic,
affected her life, so too did they shape her poetry.

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ritten correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop
and Robert Lowell took place almost without
cessation for thirty years (1947 – 1977), right up
until the time of Lowell’s death. Here they stand together in
Brazil (1963), having happily known each other since just
after Bishop had published her first book.
In 1975, Harvard graduate student Dana Gioia was faced
with the interesting dilemma of choosing between taking a
class with Bishop, or one with Lowell. According to Gioia,
“[Miss Bishop] was a politely formal, shy, undramatic
woman. She wanted no worshipful circle of students, and
got none.” Compared to Lowell, whose seminar was “very
popular,” Gioia recalls: “As for Elizabeth Bishop’s course on
modern poetry, I had never heard anyone mention it at all.”
Keep in mind that Bishop was teaching after a life of
writing, over which she received a Guggenheim Fellowship
(1947), was named as a Fellow in American Letters
(1949), and in 1954 was elected to membership in the
American Institute of Arts and Letters. Gioia recalls that
Bishop’s class, only attracting a meager five students, was
held in a “vast, colorless room full of unwanted furniture
and dismembered bicycles.” Perhaps the poor student
turnout was a result of Bishop’s own lack of vigor for
teaching. Having lived comfortably off of her considerable
inheritance, Bishop only began teaching once the money
began to run out in her early 60s.
Reflecting on an post-semester visit to Bishop’s office,
Gioia recalled that “she seemed glad to see me…I had
never seen her so animated. It was only as I rose to leave
that I understood. More than any of her students, she was
overjoyed that classes were over.” Bishop was never happy
in the classroom. Rather it was travel, the company of a
true friend, and time for herself that she most valued. Such
is evident in this picture.

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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.

W

ith a life as infused with loss as Bishop’s, it is
unsurprising that the topic should be featured
in a poem. In this villanelle, Bishop uses
repetition of the word ‘loss’ and its variations in what
looks and sounds like her own attempt to convince herself
that she can overcome the losses she has sustained. With
the deaths of loved ones weighing heavily on her, Bishop
uses One Art to explore the way that loss can vary in scope
- she has lost keys as easily as she has lost continents. She
is outlining the relationship between what one desires
and what the world wills. It is not until the last four lines
that Bishop’s personal voice breaks through - her use of
parenthesis betray her own deeply emotional instability;
she is suffering a great loss and is still trying to master it,
so much so that she must force herself  to ‘(Write it!)’.

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.

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At The Fishhouses
Although it is a cold evening,
Down at the water’s edge, at the place
down by one of the fishhouses
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
an old man sits netting,
descending into the water, thin silver
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
tree trunks are laid horizontally
a dark purple-brown,
across the gray stones, down and down
and his shuttle worn and polished.
at intervals of four or five feet.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
element bearable to no mortal,
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
to storerooms in the gables
I have seen here evening after evening.
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on. He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
like me a believer in total immersion,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
He stood up in the water and regarded me
among the wild jagged rocks,
steadily, moving his head a little.
is of an apparent translucence
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
growing on their shoreward walls.
as if it were against his better judgment.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
with layers of beautiful herring scales
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
the dignified tall firs begin.
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
a million Christmas trees stand
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
is an ancient wooden capstan,
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
icily free above the stones,
where the ironwork has rusted.
above the stones and then the world.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
If you should dip your hand in,
He was a friend of my grandfather.
your wrist would ache immediately,
We talk of the decline in the population
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
and of codfish and herring
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
the blade of which is almost worn away.
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.
n At the Fishhouses, Bishop expounds upon the
connection she feels exists between the ocean and
human knowledge and truth. Beginning in the
correlates with Bishop’s association of the sea with
second line, the idea of descending is introduced; the
knowledge - it is only when one dips his hand into the
speaker is ‘down by one of the fishhouses,’ then later
sea that he is able to reach a greater understanding of
‘down at the water’s edge,’ and finally the speaker
implores the reader to imagine he will ‘dip [his] hand in.’ human truth. Bishop’s lax use of punctuation allows the
poem to flow much more organically, like the sea itself. 
Starting at sea level and eventually entering the water

I

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o Frame Put on old paper and put in vitrine

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o Frame Put on old paper and put in vitrine

The Moose
From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;

the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
“A grand night. Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston.”
She regards us amicably.

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient, while
a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.

One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.

Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.
The bus starts. The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

A pale flickering. Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn’t give way.

The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:
a ship’s port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
illuminated, solemn.
A dog gives one bark.

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
--not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices

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o Frame Put on old paper and put in vitrine

B

The Moose
(Continued)

uninterruptedly
talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

Now, it’s all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
--Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,

“Yes . . .” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes . . .”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know it (also death).”

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless. . . .”

by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.

ishop’s poem The Moose is
possibly her best-known work,
detailing a bus ride from Boston
that is interrupted by the appearance
of a moose on the road. Written and
rewritten over nearly two decades,
the poem reflects Bishop’s dedication
to her art. This draft is littered with
relinquished lines and stanzas – she was
meticulous about choosing the proper
words to reflect her intentions.

T

his poem, considered her best by
many, displays Bishop’s mastery
of rhetorical devices. The poem
flows with an easy, comfortable rhythm
which gives the reader the sense that
Bishop is addressing them personally.
Yet she was not simply concerned with
structure - her imagery evokes feelings
of both despair and peace in her readers.
The poem was written after Bishop
attended the funeral of her beloved
aunt in Nova Scotia, and the image of
the otherworldly moose approaching
the bus represents nature (of which her
aunt was now considered a part) not
merely being a passive landscape, but
an active force which could reach out
and touch civilization. This must have
been a comforting idea for Bishop as she
struggled to find the “sweet sensation of
joy” the moose evokes in the poem.

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The Lancaster Literary Guild would like to thank
Interns – Kevin Brown and Melissa Nalbund
Ronald D. Patkus, Head of Special Collections – Vassar College
Dean Rogers, Special collections Assistant – Vassar College
Houghton Library – Harvard University

he Lancaster Literary Guild has chosen to honor
Elizabeth Bishop and her life dedicated to writing.
Her birth in Worcester, Massachusetts on February
8, 1911 is a centennial celebration we chose to honor. She
would go on to win two Guggenheim fellowships, an
appointment to the American Academy of Arts and Letters
and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Having unlocked her
tremendous creative potential, Bishop in turn allows her
readers to unlock their own potential—to see and experience
the world from the perspective of a woman who found
delicacy and splendor in a life shaped by loss.

T

t is no coincidence that one of Elizabeth Bishop’s most
famous poems deals with the subject of loss – the poet
herself was no stranger to it. A father dead when she
was two, a mother hospitalized for insanity when she was
five, a lover’s suicide, and her own loss of control with
alcoholism, it seemed that deprivation was Bishop’s constant
companion. Her mastery of language and imagery that is
simultaneously simple and intricate seemed to spring from
her overwhelming sense of loss.

Other Sources
Documentaries: “Voices and Visions: Elizabeth Bishop” (2000),
“The Voice of the Poet: Elizabeth Bishop” (2000)
Societies: The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia,
The Elizabeth Bishop Society – Vassar
Books: Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It
Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell
Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters
Elizabeth Bishop, The Collected Prose

(November, 1975) excerpt

From her poem, ‘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.

Elizabeth Bishop:
A Life Shaped by Loss

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