Elizabeth Bishop: Poet of Three Nations?


Elizabeth Bishop on the island of North Haven, off the coast of Maine, c. 1977

by Thomas Travisano

Late in life, Elizabeth Bishop told a Boston interviewer that, “I’ve never felt particularly homeless, but, then, I’ve never felt particularly at home. I guess that’s a pretty good description of a poet’s sense of home. He carries it within him.” A case could be made that Bishop both was and wasn’t – in various and complex ways – a poet of each of the three nations with which she became closely identified: the United States, Canada and Brazil. She was never quite homeless but never completely at home in any of these lands in which she sojourned and over which she cast her “famous eye.” A less remarkable poet might hope, with luck, to represent a single nation, but Elizabeth Bishop – who once appeared almost nationless – seems now to have earned the sobriquet referred to in my title: “Poet of Three Nations?” Or has she? Her national identification with each of these nations was in several ways ambivalent or equivocal, and such equivocality adds a unique piquancy and nuance to her perspective on each of these lands.

View of Ouro Preto from Bishop’s balcony

Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz, the keynote speaker at the landmark 1993 Key West Literary Seminar celebrating Bishop’s work, observed that “she was not provincial, as many American—and Latin American—poets are. She was really cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan, first for the subject of her poems: North America, South America, but also Europe, North Africa and all over the world.… But that is not perhaps the most important thing. To be cosmopolitan really means another thing. It means an attitude.” Bishop was, in terms of attitude, “not a nativist.” Rather, as Paz suggested, she had “universal interests” and “belongs to this cosmopolitan or universal tradition.” Paz observed, importantly, that cosmopolitanism does not entail a surrender of one’s local identity. For him, “A true cosmopolitan…belongs to a place and to a time. Elizabeth was from a place. She was very clearly an American poet…from New England, by attitude, etc.” For Paz: “A true cosmopolitan…can combine these two attitudes, to be interested in the others but also to know that he or she is not the other.” Paz celebrates what he calls Bishop’s “double view.” But perhaps he oversimplifies when he defines Bishop’s sense of origin in terms a single nationality and place: “an American poet…from New England.” For in her feeling of identity a quality of ambivalence – of what Paz terms “the paradoxical” – persists throughout Bishop’s life and art. Robert Lowell, who knew Bishop longer and more intimately than Paz, and who was himself an American poet from New England with his own issues regarding nationhood and identity, saw Bishop more distinctly when he described her, in the unpublished poem “The Two Weeks’ Vacation”, as:

Half New Englander, half fugitive,
Nova Scotian, wholly Atlantic sea-board,
Unable to settle anywhere, or live
Our usual roaring sublime.

Beyond doubt, the problem of national identification was from her earliest years a vexed one for Elizabeth Bishop. Viewed legalistically, from the standpoint of citizenship, Bishop might be deemed wholly American. But emotionally she felt herself to be “half…Nova Scotian.” And perhaps, at times, she felt Nova Scotian by more than half. Her 1930 high school yearbook prophecy from Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts underlines this quasi-rebellious facet of her self-identification when she describes her future self as: “Miss Bishop, the poet laureate of Nova Scotia. Walnut Hill has proudly placed her bust in the alcove, where she remains in Nova Scotian seclusion.” The facts of Bishop’s early life that led to her divided sense of self are well known, but they are worth revisiting from the perspective of her conflicted feelings of national identity.

Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1911 to an American father, William Thomas Bishop, and a Canadian mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, of Great Village, Nova Scotia. These circumstances made her an American citizen. After Bishop’s father died when she was eight months old, her mother Gertrude suffered a series of mental breakdowns, spending time in Massachusetts mental hospitals. She then returned with her four-year-old daughter to Nova Scotia, to live in the house of her parents in Great Village. In 1916, when Bishop was five, her mother Gertrude suffered another severe emotional breakdown and was admitted to the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth, just across the harbour from Halifax. And there Gertrude Bulmer Bishop died in 1934, having been refused re-entry into the United States and having lived most of her life in the Dartmouth hospital confined to a solitary ward.

Meanwhile, Bishop had begun a new life in her Bulmer grandparents home in Great Village and her many later meditations of her early life in Great Village show her strong assimilation of a Canadian identity. In the posthumously published memoir “Primer Class” (c. 1960), Bishop describes how “Every morning school began with the Lord’s Prayer, sitting down, then we stood up and sang “O maple leaf, our emblem dear.” Along with the daily singing of the Canadian anthem, Bishop recalls staring at mounted pull-down maps, side-by-side, of Canada and the world. The maps were of identical sizes and “I got the general impression that Canada was the same size as the world, which somehow or other fitted into it, or the other way around, and that in the world and Canada the sun was always shining and everything was dry and glittering. At the same time, I knew perfectly well that this was not true.”

Bishop’s childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia with the Presbyterian Church featured in “In the Village”

Then, in the following year, at the age of six – in an event that changed her life forever – Bishop was, as she put it, “brought back unconsulted and against my wishes to the house my father had been born in,” the home of her paternal grandparents in Worcester, Massachusetts. Bishop recalled her silent resistance when she was now required to observe American patriotic rituals in a climate made emphatic by the fervour of American participation in the First World War: “Most of all I hated saluting the flag. I would have refused if I had dared. In my Canadian schooling the year before, we had started every day with ‘God Save the King’ and ‘The Maple Leaf Forever.’ Now I felt like a traitor. I wanted to win the War, of course, but I didn’t want to be an American.” When she confessed these feeling to her militantly conventional Bishop grandmother, the latter was horrified and forced her granddaughter to perform a daily recitation of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Bishop recalled of “this endless poem”: “Most of the words made no sense at all. ‘Between his loved home and the war’s desolation’ made me think of my dead father, and conjured up strange pictures in my mind.”

Transplanted unwillingly to Worcester, Bishop failed to thrive. Bereaved, uprooted and deeply unhappy, she suffered from extreme and potentially fatal cases of both asthma and eczema – and her paternal grandparents soon agreed that she should move to Revere, where she lived, starting at the age of seven, with a Canadian aunt and uncle, her mother’s sister Maud and Maud’s husband, George Shepherdson. Only recently have we learned that Bishop was verbally and sexually abused by her uncle George in Revere. Though Bishop continued to reside in the United States thereafter, living alternately with Bulmer and Bishop relatives, she made regular summer visits to Nova Scotia – which seemed to her a haven of safety – and she always remained in close touch with her extended family in Canada, and, in particular, following the death of her Bulmer grandparents in the 1930s, with her favourite aunt, Grace Bulmer Bowers, who lived on a farm just outside Great Village. At Walnut Hill School, Bishop published several writings with Nova Scotia themes in The Blue Pencil, her school’s literary magazine. Small wonder that her classmates playfully prophesied that she would one day be recognised as the “poet laureate of Nova Scotia.”

In 1949, when she was thirty-eight, something of this Nova Scotian aura still clung to Bishop as she served in Washington as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. The post she held then is now most commonly referred to, far more graciously, as the United States Poet Laureate. Ironically, then, while Bishop never became the Poet Laureate of Nova Scotia, she did become, in contemporary parlance, the Poet Laureate of the United States. Indeed many sources do currently list her as such. Still, the scholar and biographer Joseph Frank, who came to know Bishop in Washington, later recalled that:

I didn’t even know if Elizabeth was American or not. I wasn’t quite clear because she spoke so much about Nova Scotia. I had the feeling that she didn’t feel at home in this country somehow, that she was rather alien from that point of view because [these] early years had shaped her sensibility in such a way…. There was not this kind of American casualness about her at all as a person. She was aware of that…. She was much more rigorous in some deep moral and social sense than the ordinary American…. Probably the more formalized Latin culture that she lived in in Brazil suited her much more than ordinary life in the States.

Camille Roman has shown in her provocative Elizabeth Bishop’s World War II-Cold War View that Bishop was deeply uncomfortable during her term at the Library of Congress, in part because of a deep-seated shyness and insecurity that made her uncomfortable with professional and public positions, and in part because of discomfort with emerging American Cold War policies, but also perhaps because of a sense of insecurity with the role of being THE representative American poet. Thus, when, in 1951, Bishop settled in Brazil with a new romantic partner, Lota de Macedo Soares, beginning her long and artistically productive sojourn there, she was leaving behind an America to which, after over thirty years of more or less continuous residence, she felt both genuine allegiance and significant feelings of insecurity and ambivalence. Paz has suggested that this cosmopolitan poet may have experienced double view, but Bishop, with her consciousness shaped by profound experiences of three nations, developed a writer’s eye that saw not with a double but a triple view.

Passport photo of Bishop, 1935

Bishop explored Brazil extensively, living inside and outside Rio, making trips down the Amazon and up its tributaries, closely examining the new capital city of Brazilia and traversing the tropical rainforest with Aldous Huxley – during which she received a marriage proposal from a rainforest widower. Bishop lived in Brazil for more than of two decades, arriving as noted in 1951 and departing from her home – Casa Mariana, in the historical gold-mining town of Ouro Preto – for the last time no sooner than 1974. Two of the “three loved houses” she cites as lost in “One Art” were located in Brazil, as well as two lovely cities, two rivers and the continent of South America.

Bishop and bicycle in Key West, c. 1937

As a long time critical and biographical explorer of Bishop’s art and worlds, I have found it helpful to think of her work in terms of six very different crucial settings:

1) Nova Scotia
2) Key West and Florida
3) Brazil
4) The Continental United States
5) Europe and Beyond
6) Dreamlike or Indeterminate Settings

Some of her best poems and prose pieces set in Nova Scotia include “First Death in Nova Scotia”, “Cape Breton”, “At the Fishhouses”, “The Moose”, “Poem”, “Primer Class”, “Gwendolyn” and “In the Village”. Key West poems include “Florida”, “Roosters”, “The Fish”, “Seascape”, “Little Exercise”, “Jeronimo’s House”, “It is marvellous to wake up together”, “The Bight” and “Faustina”. Her Brazilian poems are myriad, including “Arrival at Santos”, “Brazil, January 1, 1502”, “Questions of Travel”, “The Armadillo”, “Manuelzinho”, “The Riverman”, “The Burglar of Babylon”, “Santarém” and “Pink Dog”. Poems of Europe and beyond are mostly earlier and include “Paris, 7 A.M.”, “Quai d’Orléans”, “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”, as well as, I would argue, the later “Crusoe in England”. Dreamlike or indefinite settings appear in many of Bishop’s earliest published poems, starting in the mid-1930s. These include, among many others, “The Map”, “The Imaginary Iceberg”, “The Weed”, “The Unbeliever”, “The Gentleman of Shalott” and “Insomnia”.

But what immediately jumped out at me as I began constructing these lists some time ago is that while Bishop depicted such locales as Nova Scotia, Key West and Brazil with an incredibly detailed and observant eye for nature, social structure and quirky individuality, her poems set in the continental United States seem strangely distanced from her country of origin. For example, Bishop’s American urban poems from the 1930s through the 1960s – mostly set in New York city, including “The Man-Moth”, “Varick Street”, “Trouvée” and “Night City” – are marked by their fantastic and darkly alienated dreamlike aura. For what Paz termed “an American poet from New England” there are surprisingly few portraits of New England in her work and most of these are set in such liminal realms as the Massachusetts shoreline or the coastal islands of Maine. Her lone American landscape poem – as opposed to her seascapes – is the gorgeously detailed but geographically indeterminate “A Cold Spring”, which external evidence alone places as her friend Jane Dewey’s farm in Maryland. More typical of her American writings is “In the Waiting Room”, which makes a quick exit from the Worcester, Massachusetts dentist’s office mentioned in the opening lines and thereafter roams vicariously among unsettlingly exotic realms in Africa and the Pacific Islands through the vehicle of an issue of The National Geographic.

Bishop swimming in rock pool at Samambaia, Brazil, the home of her lover Lota de Macedo Soares

Bishop’s infrequent and distanced treatment of her Massachusetts birthplace contrasts sharply with the closely observed treatment of local nature and custom found among such fellow New Englanders as Emerson, Longfellow, E. A. Robinson, Frost and her close friend Lowell. And they differ sharply as well from her own closely observed character portraits of Key West, Nova Scotia and Brazil, embodying a level of observation Lowell found comparable to the great Russian novelists. Indeed, part of the delay in recognising Bishop as a great American poet may have arisen from the difficulty American readers had in recognising their own world in Bishop’s writing, a problem they would never have faced when considering a poet such as Robert Frost.

By contrast, Bishop’s admirers in Nova Scotia and Brazil are often struck by the precision and exactitude of her observations. When I mentioned, for example, in an email interview with leading Nova Scotian Bishop scholar Sandra Barry that the beauty and clarity of “Primer Class” reminded me of Vermeer, Sandra replied (on 5/21/02)  that “I hadn’t thought of ‘Primer Class’ as like a Vermeer, or a painting of any kind–it just seems too actual to me (it is very like my own experience in Grade One–and my school, just like the G[reat] V[illage] one still exists too—in Paradise, N.S.)–so I read it not as representation, but as acute lived experience in so many ways.” Similarly, Carmen Oliveira responded to my questions about her encounters with Bishop’s work by mentioning her discovery of Bishop’s Questions of Travel in a Brazilian US Information Services library: “As I knew nothing about Bishop’s years in Brazil, I was astonished at ‘Manuelzinho,’ ‘The Burglar of Babylon,’ and, I remember well, at the ‘disparate wooden clogs’ [in ‘Questions of Travel.’] I immediately grasped that that woman knew a lot about my people.” Olivera adds that, “Although every single day Bishop had to face a consistent rejection of her country here (Down with American imperialism!), she kept a fantastic and sympathetic perception of the poor in Brazil. It’s almost unbelievable that a foreigner could capture so intimately and with such precision the language, attitude and feeling of the people of the favela, as she did in ‘The Burglar of Babylon.’” A native New Englander would only rarely experience the same shock of local recognition in Bishop’s poetry.

I would like to close this brief exploration by looking at a matched pair of images that represent not Bishop’s double, but her triple view. In December 1957, in the Rio apartment Bishop shared with Lota, Bishop received a surprise shipment from Great Village sent by her Aunt Grace. The shipment comprised a matching pair of portraits painted in vernacular style by an unknown itinerant Nova Scotian painter some years before Bishop was born. One is an aloofly-posed depiction of her mother Gertrude as a child and the other was a parallel image of her mother’s elder brother, Bishop’s Uncle Arthur Bulmer, looking no less stiff than his sister, but gazing more directly at the viewer, and with perhaps even a trace of bemusement in the shadow of his smile. Bishop enthused to her aunt that “I love having the pictures”, and their exoticism, in the context of that place and time, excited a certain wonderment among Brazilian visitors to Lota’s apartment in Rio. In her 1977 memoir “Memories of Uncle Neddy” – which she fictionalised no further than to alter her uncle’s given name – Bishop explores the incongruity of having these pictures from a remote world and state of consciousness appearing as if by magic in her Brazilian milieu, with its different clothing and customs, and its climate fraught with the destructive humidity of the worst rainy season in years. In the portrait of her mother, Gertrude remains as elusive and remote as ever, while the portrait of uncle Arthur depicts a child “before he became an uncle, before he became a lover, husband, father, or grandfather, a tin-smith, a drunkard, or a famous fly-fisherman—any of the various things he turned out to be.”

Childhood portraits of Bishop’s mother Gertrude Boomer and uncle Arthur Boomer

After an extensive exploration of her memories of the perplexingly contradictory characteristics, as an adult, of her deeply Nova Scotian “Uncle Neddy”, this vivid memoir concludes, of the two portraits, “I am going to hang them here side by side, above the antique (Brazilian antique) chest of drawers. In spite of the heat and dampness, they look calmly on and on, at the invisible Tropic of Capricorn, at the extravagant rain still blotting out the southern ocean. I must watch out for the mildew that inevitably forms on old canvases in the rainy season, and wipe them off often. It will be the gray or pale-green variety that appears overnight on dark surfaces, like breath on a mirror.” Bishop evokes such a play of verb tenses that these pictures from the past become involved in present vigilance while tilting toward a future that in poet’s gaze seems complex, emotionally charged and indeterminate. Thus, as Bishop phrases it, “Uncle Neddy will continue to exchange his direct, bright-hazel, child’s looks, now, with those of strangers—dark-eyed Latins he never knew, who never would have understood him, whom he would have thought of, if he had ever thought of him at all, as ‘foreigners.’ How late, Uncle Neddy, how late to have started on your travels!”

As Bishop studies these anonymously painted portraits in her “Memories of Uncle Neddy”, they emerge from a past before her own childhood and reach into a present she could never have imagined during her growing-up years in Great Village or Revere. As the story ends, these portraits seemed poised between multiple worlds, each remote, perhaps, to others, but all of them strangely familiar to Bishop herself. Unlike her Uncle Arthur (aka Neddy), Bishop had started early on her travels, and she would persist in them to the end of her days. In such passages as this, which ends her memoir of her uncle, Bishop reveals herself as both cosmopolitan and domestic. As Sandra Barry observed in our discussion of Bishop’s national identity, “Clearly, it is the combination of Bishop’s national experiences which make her the poet that she was–she herself didn’t always know where one or the other began and ended. Yet, also clearly, they were two distinct places inside her. Well, that’s the wonder of Elizabeth Bishop–permeable borders.” The borders between Bishop’s many worlds are wonderfully permeable, but they are also strangely definite, for, as Paz observed, Bishop “is interested in others, but also…knows that…she is not the other.” By concluding her story with this charged image of antique Nova Scotian pictures laden with personal meanings foreign to their Rio observers, Bishop suggests the otherness of the familiar. And she underlines, quietly but firmly, the uniqueness of her own perspective. Thus, in this elegantly direct, ambivalent and subtle closing, Bishop reveals her penchant for definite yet permeable borders and her cosmopolitan capacity for not a double but a triple view.

Bishop’s gravestone in Hope Cemetery, Worcester, Massachusetts

About the Author

Thomas Travisano is the Chair of the Department of English & Theatre Arts at Hartwick College.  He specializes in modern and contemporary American literature and in American poetry. He is particularly well known for his critical and editorial work on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), Robert Lowell (1917-1977), and the poets of their generation. Along with many articles, he has published such books as Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development, Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic and Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop.

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