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The Many Arts of Elizabeth Bishop

Exchanging Hats: Paintings

by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by William Benton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 106 pp., $40.00

Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell

by David Kalstone, edited by Robert Hemenway, afterword by James Merrill
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 420 pp., $22.50

One Art: Letters

by Elizabeth Bishop, selected and edited by Robert Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 668 pp., $16.00 (paper)

Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It

by Brett C. Millier
University of California Press, 602 pp., $16.95 (paper)

1.

Feminists!” growled Elizabeth Bishop, and vaguely scandalized her 1977 Harvard class.1 But in the same year, the year of the publication of Geography III, she also wrote a letter in which she claimed to have been a feminist since the age of six, and she was not being contradictory. It was in the late Seventies that, for instance, some creative writing classes introduced segregation of the sexes, so that the women could express their thoughts more freely. But what Bishop meant by feminism in her own case was to be taken on equal terms with any man—not to be (as she would have felt) downgraded into the category of woman poet, not to write about “women’s experience” but to take universal experience as her legitimate range, not to be used, politically, as a member of some kind of sisterhood. When she was young, she refused to be published in a group anthology when she understood that they needed a woman to make up the numbers. Throughout her life she refused to be part of all-women anthologies, and toward the end of it (she died in 1979) she might well have resented a pressure to solidarize. She was a poet’s poet (John Ashbery called her a writer’s writer’s writer) but she was not a lesbian’s lesbian.

She cherished a long-standing aversion to a certain generation of women writers, what she called the “our beautiful old silver” school of female writing: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Bowen, Rebecca West. She thought they were always boasting about how “nice” they were: “They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to mis-place them socially, first—and that nervousness interferes with what they think they’d like to say.”

On the other hand she did read Woolf, and she did admire her. In a conversation with George Starbuck, also in 1977, she warmly recommended Woolf’s Three Guineas, calling it Woolf’s first feminist book and saying that Woolf was rather badly treated when she wrote it.2 Actually Three Guineas is the sequel to A Room of One’s Own, written in 1938, in letter form, supposedly in answer to a man’s question: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” The answer may strike us as strange, since it involves a disquisition on the history of women’s colleges in Cambridge. Quentin Bell calls Three Guineas “the product of a very odd mind and, I think, a very odd state of mind.” He says her friends were silent about it, or if not silent, critical, and that Keynes was angry and contemptuous. 3

But Woolf was right to point out that “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” is a question that has a puzzling implication when put to a woman, in a world in which women are excluded from higher education, and therefore from the kinds of decisions which contribute to either the prevention or promulgation of war. One supposes that Woolf’s friends, in 1938, felt that this was the wrong time to raise the feminist issue, that the history of women at Cambridge was beside the point. But one remembers that Bishop, at the beginning of the Second World War, had a similar feeling to Woolf’s: she felt that the war was a product of male aggression, a male ritual squabble. This is the sentiment behind the early section of the poem “Roosters”:

Cries galore
come from the water-closet door,
from the dropping-plastered henhouse floor,

where in the blue blur
their rustling wives admire,
the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare

With stupid eyes
while from their beaks there rise
the uncontrolled, traditional cries.

Deep from protruding chests
in green-gold medals dressed,
planned to command and terrorize the rest,

the many wives
who lead hens’ lives
of being courted and despised;

deep from raw throats
a senseless order floats
all over town. A rooster gloats…

…and so on. Reading it aloud decades later, at the request of friends, Bishop suddenly realized it sounded like a feminist tract, and she tells George Starbuck it wasn’t originally intended to sound that way at all. He replies, alluding to radical feminists of the day, “I’m afraid it’s their banner now. You’ll never get it away from them.” Later Bishop admits that the first part of “Roosters” is a feminist tract in a way, although she hadn’t thought of it that way. 4

She hadn’t thought of it that way because the quite distinct second part of the poem, beginning with the lines “St Peter’s sin/was worse than that of Magdalen,” draws the whole poem in the direction of a religious meditation: the rooster symbolizes Peter’s denial of Christ, but even that denial—Bishop points out—was eventually forgiven. So the rooster (this is the prayer contained in the poem) may come for us to symbolize forgiveness.

The bird had first suggested itself as a symbol of war because Picasso had used it that way in Guernica. Her mind had been on war—the poem was completed in 1940—rather than on male aggression as such. “St Peter’s sin” was a sin of the spirit, and it must be that the author of the poem identifies with Peter as a sinner. She must see herself as capable of the denial of Christ and she must meditate on Peter’s tears of repentance. This is a poem, like Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain” and Marianne Moore’s “In Distrust of Merits,” in which the poet sees the war that is taking place as a consequence of her own sinful condition.

This religious feeling of responsibility—quite foreign to Virginia Woolf—is expressed by Marianne Moore in the final lines of her meditation on the war in full swing (published in The Nation in May 1943):

Hate-hardened heart, O heart of iron, iron is iron till it is rust.
There never was a war that was not inward; I must
fight till I have conquered in myself what
causes war, but I would not believe it. I inwardly did nothing. O Iscariotlike crime! Beauty is everlasting and dust is for a time.

Sitwell’s poem, inspired by the air raids, is explicitly Christian in meaning, but gives a dramatic place for the struggle with belief. She introduces the two famous lines from the last soliloquy of Marlowe’s Faustus:

ThenO I’le leape up to my God: who pulls me doune?
See, see where Christ’s bloud streames in the firmament:5

Moore’s poem, by contrast, stems from firm belief—it is based on her mother’s views about the war: it was her mother who thought she must “fight till I have conquered in myself what/causes war.”

Bishop’s poem is one of religious sensibility, but not necessarily belief. As far as one can tell, religious belief was by then, for Bishop, a thing of the fairly distant past, but religious sensibility stayed with her in her poetry, partly because among her models were Herbert and Crashaw. The model for the stanza form of “Roosters” is a Crashaw poem, although a secular rather than a sacred one (“Wishes: To his supposed Mistress”). Readers of David Kalstone’s book, Becoming a Poet, will remember that in the notebook which Bishop took along for her first meeting with Moore in 1934, the notebook into which she had copied out “The Jerboa” from a magazine, counting the syllables and marking the rhymes, she wrote out a list of topics of conversation, whose first column reads:

Modern Bestiary

Hopkins

Crane? Stevens

H&H poetry

17th century

connection with prose

Herbert

Crashaw

how would she read its

rhythms6

The presence of Hopkins on the list reminds us that a year before the meeting with Moore, Bishop, then a student at Vassar, had been engaged on a “Hymn to the Virgin,” a wild sacred parody of Hopkins’s sprung rhythm:

Pull back the curtains, quick now that we’ve caught the mood of
Adoration’s shamefaced exposé and brazen knee-bending.
Let’s see, and quick about it, God’s beard, Christ’s crown,
baby-brood ofStrawberry ice-cream colored cherubim, tin-winged, ascending
Chub-toes a’dangle earthwards…

And so on. Preposterous (“Ah! wouldst not, wax-faced, wooden-bodied one, have us to worship us- wise?”), intoxicated with Hopkins’s eccentricities, and yet at the same time—I think—moved to mirth, even in this “Hymn to the Virgin.” One can forget, if one is too used to associating Bishop with great sorrow, borne over the years, that there was also, at Walnut Hill and Vassar, the girl with the fund of jokes and stories, who translated Aristophanes in her senior year, wrote school plays in which she played the villain, who went with her friends to a poetry reading by Edna St. Vincent Millay—a solemn occasion for which Millay wore a long artistic robe and clutched at a curtain, while Bishop and her friends sat doubled up with laughter; the Bishop whose occasional rude rhymes stuck in the memories of her college contemporaries, who set her friends tasks like “Use the word menstruation in a sentence” and supplied her own example: Mariners “feeding their pilot biscuits to the gulls: menstrurations all over the beach.”

There is no great distance between the student admiring Hopkins and the aspiring poet bent double with laughter at his effects, borrowing sprung rhythm to take it for a run around the block, trying it out, putting it through its paces, jamming the gears. And the baroque subject of the parody—a moth-eaten, flyblown, gimcrack idol of the Virgin—is as it happens the kind of thing she would later become very familiar with in South America. The tattiness of it, the “long-hardened candle-grease about Thy feet,” seems to have been observed by the mature poet.

An imperfect object, cheaply made, and the focus of intense feeling. Decades later, in her obituary tribute to a woman writer she really did admire, Flannery O’Connor, Bishop recalled a present she had once sent O’Connor from Brazil:

a cross in a bottle, like a ship in a bottle, crudely carved with all the instruments of the passion, the ladder, pliers, dice, etc., in wood, paper, and tinfoil, with a little rooster at the top of the cross. I thought it was the kind of innocent religious grotesquery she might like…

The response was gratifying. O’Connor wrote back:

If I were mobile and limber and rich I would come to Brazil at once after one look at this bottle. Did you observe that the rooster has an eyebrow? I particularly like him and the altar cloth a little dirty from the fingers of whoever cut it out…. I am altogether taken with it. It’s what I’m born to appreciate.7

And there is something inborn in Bishop’s appreciation of such objects. It was not learned elsewhere, as far as I can see. It came to her naturally, along with a memory which, she believed, went back to the days of her learning to walk. Here is the description of the doll in the short story “Gwendolyn”:

  1. 1

    April Bernard, “Exile’s Return,” The New York Review, January 13, 1994.

  2. 2

    George Monteiro, editor, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop (University Press of Mississippi, 1996), pp. 92-93.

  3. 3

    Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Volume 2 (Harcourt Brace, 1974), pp. 204-205.

  4. 4

    Monteiro, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, p. 89.

  5. 5

    Doctor Faustus, XVIII, 1938-1939.

  6. 6

    H&H poetry” must refer to Lincoln Kirstein’s magazine, Hound and Horn, in which “The Jerboa” had appeared.

  7. 7

    Elizabeth Bishop, “Flannery O’Connor, 1925-1964,” The New York Review, October 8, 1964, p. 21.

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