“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


Crane? Stevens

H&H poetry

17th century

connection with prose



how would she read its


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”:

She had a large wardrobe, which my Aunt Mary had made, packed in a toy steamer trunk of green tin embossed with all the proper boards, locks, and nailheads. The clothes were wonderful garments, beautifully sewn, looking old-fashioned even to me. There were long drawers trimmed with tiny lace, and a corset cover, and a corset with little bones. These were exciting, but best of all was the skating costume. There was a red velvet coat and a turban and muff of some sort of moth-eaten brown fur, and, to make it almost unbearably thrilling, there was a pair of laced white glacé-kid boots, which had scalloped tops and a pair of too small, dull-edged, but very shiny skates loosely attached to their soles by my Aunt Mary with stitches of coarse white thread.

The looseness of the skates did not bother me. It went very well with the doll’s personality, which in turn was well suited to the role of companion to an invalid. She had lain in her drawer so long that the elastic in her joints had weakened; when you held her up, her head fell gently to one side, and her outstretched hand would rest on yours for a moment and then slip wearily off.8

Just as the sick child loves the doll for its imperfections, so the writer gets worked up into a crescendo of excitement over the expressiveness of the weakened elastic.

People sometimes wrote that Bishop’s poetry would be unthinkable without the example of Marianne Moore. I don’t quite understand what they mean. It’s not the influence I would deny, only the unthinkability. There are aspects of the later Auden that are unthinkable without the influence of Moore. But considering that Bishop’s career was nurtured by Moore, and that the early poetry was submitted to her for vetting, that Moore had a powerful, definite personality and that Moore’s mother was even more powerful and definite, what is remarkable about Bishop’s first volume of poems is, rather, its independence of spirit.

That vetting process lasted from 1934 to the well-documented incident in 1940 when Moore and her mother sat up late into the night rewriting “Roosters,” ruining the Crashaw stanzas, purging the language of what they considered obscenities while inadvertently introducing double entendres by substituting the word cock for rooster. This was when Bishop put her foot down, and insisted that she could and would use the word water-closet in her poem. And so the vetting ceased. Bishop never submitted poems to them again.9

But it would be wrong to take the “Roosters” episode as emblematic of the relationship between Moore and Bishop. Moore knew something about her own limitations, as well as something about Bishop’s. In 1938 Bishop submitted her story “In Prison” for a competition by the Partisan Review, and failed to tell Moore first. Moore wrote: “It was very independent of you to submit your prize story without letting me see it. If it is returned with a printed slip, that will be why.” But when the story won the contest, Moore was first impressed and then moved to offer the following interesting advice:

I can’t help wishing you would sometime in some way, risk some unprotected profundity of experience; or since no one admits profundity of experience, some characteristic private defiance of the significantly detestable. Continuously fascinated as I am by the creativeness and uniqueness of these assemblings of yours—which are really poems—I feel responsibility against anything that might threaten you; yet fear to admit such anxiety, lest I influence you away from an essential necessity or particular strength. The golden eggs can’t be dealt with theoretically, by presumptuous mass salvation formulae. But I do feel that tentativeness and interiorizing are your danger as well as your strength.

One could hardly call this tone of voice dirigiste. Moore obviously understood the difference between directing and influencing.

And Bishop had approached Moore, as we have seen, not as a blank slate begging to be scrawled on but as a rather well-read young woman whose teacher found her, generally speaking, quite capable of attending to her own education. She is said to have known Wallace Stevens’s harmonium by heart. That would be a large amount of Stevens. Crashaw, as we have seen, was already a hero, and Herbert—from whom Moore herself had borrowed—had a special significance for Bishop. Later, writing to Moore from Key West, she causes her friend some amusement by saying: “The Negroes have such soft voices and such beautifully tactful manners—I suppose it is farfetched, but their attitude keeps reminding me of the tone of George Herbert: ‘Take the gentle path,’ etc.” When she is tempted by psycho-analysis, prompted by the publication of a book by Karen Horney on self-analysis, she says: “I had infinitely rather approach such things from the Christian viewpoint myself—but the trouble is I’ve never been able to find the books, except Herbert.”

This notion that Herbert might be used as a guide to self-analysis reflects Bishop’s taste for the baroque and the emblematic in literature. She claimed to have modeled her poem “The Weed” on Herbert’s “Love Unknown,” which tells a long story in which the poet offers his lord and master his heart, placed in the middle of a bowl of fruit, only to have his heart rejected as being foul and hard and dull. The story proceeds like a dream and ends on an interpretation. Bishop’s “The Weed” imitates the somber, dreamy procedures of its model, and describes how an emblematic weed (never interpreted) grows through the heart (of the poet). In the last lines, which sound just like Herbert, the weed speaks:

“I grow,” it said,
“but to divide your heart again.”

Division being for Bishop what affliction was for Herbert.

“17th century/connection with prose/ Herbert/Crashaw”—the topics she had jotted down to discuss with Moore. It is illuminating, I think, to read in Brett Millier’s biography that she took extensive notes from a book called The Baroque Style in Prose by M.W. Croll, and that she associated this style with Hopkins. She thought that Hopkins and the Baroque sermonists attempted to portray “not a thought, but a mind thinking,” to “dramatize the mind in action rather than in repose.” Meaning the word mind in its broadest sense—the feeling mind, feeling its way to thought.

The lines from “The Weed”—

A few drops fell upon my face
and in my eyes, so I could see

that each drop contained a light,
a small, illuminated scene;…

—are all that remains of a beautiful passage from Bishop’s notebooks of 1934-1935 (quoted by Kalstone):

The window this evening was covered with hundreds of long, shining drops of rain, laid on the glass which was covered with steam on the inside. I tried to look out, but could not. Instead I realized that I could look into the drops, like so many crystal balls. Each bore traces of a relative or friend: several weeping faces slid away from mine; water plants and fish floated within other drops; watery jewels, leaves and insects magnified, and strangest of all, horrible enough to make me step quickly away, was one large drop containing a lonely, magnificent human eye, wrapped in its own tear.

This kind of prose poem is a form for which Bishop had an affinity—a form favored by the Surrealists (it is a pity Bishop did not translate more of Max Jacob’s essays in the genre). “The Weed” is a grafting of Surrealism onto the baroque. “The Monument” is another of these mysterious emblem-poems, but, while a prose poem such as “The Hanging of the Mouse” has an exact analogy in the protosurrealism of Grandville, Bishop was never the fanatical or doctrinaire Surrealist. Her poetic temperament was too eclectic for that, and she was not, like the typical Surrealist, an attention-seeker.

Praising Lowell’s poems much later, Bishop wrote of “that strange kind of modesty that I think one feels in almost [everything] contemporary one really likes—Kafka, say, or Marianne, or even Eliot, and Klee and Kokoschka and Schwitters…. Modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time.” To this admittedly somewhat various list one might add a couple of more artists. Joseph Cornell, who enjoyed a long correspondence with Marianne Moore, inspired at least two collages by Bishop herself, and she translated a poem about Cornell by Octavio Paz. And then there is Alexander Calder, who was a friend of Bishop’s Brazilian lover, Lota de Macedo Soares; one of Calder’s mobiles is depicted in a painting Bishop did of the house she shared with Lota in Petrópolis.


It is clear from William Benton’s introduction to Exchanging Hats: Paintings, which reproduces forty of Bishop’s watercolors and other artworks, that many of her paintings are missing or may be expected to turn up out of the blue. Bishop’s paintings and collages were undertaken in a strictly non-professional spirit, but they are the works of an intelligent amateur of painting, and it is not wishful to compare the spirit in which they are done with the sensibility that produced the poems. Interior with Extension Cord shows the awkward and inadvisable way in which an electrical cable has been stapled up one bedroom wall, diagonally across the ceiling and down the other side in order to provide light at a narrow table, an improvised workplace. One could easily imagine a poem featuring the same objects we view from (one guesses) the bed: the cheval mirror, the Van Gogh print in the rather overpowering frame, the view through the door straight out onto a meadow or mountain, the ink bottle, and is it a glue pot? Somehow the extension cord would work all these together into some significance: “modesty, care, space, a sort of helplessness but determination at the same time.”

The watercolor of a chandelier and its shadow across the ceiling (see illustration on page 12), surely another view from the bed, in one of those New York hotels in which Bishop spent many miserable months—the catalog says the picture “seems untypically arty”—has surely something to do with the impulse that wrote “Sleeping on the Ceiling”:

It is so peaceful on the ceiling!
It is the Place de la Concorde.
The little crystal chandelier
is off, the fountain is in the dark.
Not a soul is in the park.

In the poem, Bishop imagines an inverted world, in which the chandelier becomes a fountain in the middle of a quiet square. In order to leave this area, one has to “go under the wallpaper/to meet the insect-gladiator”: the square with its fountain is safe and quiet, while the world outside is full of fearful challenges. In the picture, the chandelier is on, and casts a multiple shadow, which is no doubt what caught the poet’s fancy.

The stoves in many of the paintings are much as we imagine the stove in “Sestina” to have been. It was called Little Marvel. In a pen and ink sketch, two stoves are called “Ideal” and “Fancy.” E. Bishop’s Patented Slot-Machine is a depiction in watercolor of another Cornell-like device, an amusement arcade machine with a handle for the visitor to turn. Labels in the picture show how the handle activates an electric coil which sends a spark to a crystal ball, which hangs in the air between what appears to be a ship and its inverted reflection. Perhaps Alice Methfessel, Bishop’s friend and the owner of many of her surviving artworks, knows what the joke or private significance of this was. Anjinhos (“Angels”) is one of the Cornell-type boxes, provoked by a young girl’s drowning in Rio de Janeiro and featuring assorted beach flotsam, two butterflies, and a background of printed paper angel heads—more of the “innocent religious grotesquery.”

Bishop never made any attempt to sell her paintings, and only two were exhibited during her lifetime (in 1971, at the Arts Club of Chicago, in an exhibition of paintings by writers). To judge by the inscriptions on those that have survived, it would seem that generally speaking these objects were made as gifts for friends: that was as far as the ambition went, and that seems fine. The graphic style pays homage to primitive painting, and among the anthology of quotations from Bishop touching on art included at the end of Exchanging Hats there is this from “The USA School of Writing” (a memoir written in 1966). Bishop is talking about the hopeless authors with whom she had to deal when working for a shady writing school.

There seemed to be one thing common to all their “primitive” writing, as I suppose it might be called, in contrast to primitive painting: its slipshodiness and haste. Where primitive painters will spend months or years, if necessary, putting in every blade of grass and building up brick walls in low relief, the primitive writer seems in a hurry to get it over with. Another thing was the almost complete lack of detail. The primitive painter loves detail and lingers over it and emphasizes it at the expense of the picture as a whole. But if the writers put them in, the details are often impossibly or wildly inappropriate, sometimes revealing a great deal about the writer without furthering the matter in hand at all. Perhaps it all demonstrates the professional writer’s frequent complaint that painting is more fun than writing.

There seems to be a great deal of the essential Bishop in these observations: her writing has a knack for detail which the paintings sometimes share. Tombstones for Sale, the cover illustration on the Collected Prose, in which the tombstones leaning against a shed are indeed inscribed “For Sale,” is a good example. Some people have reacted against this sort of thing in Bishop’s art as a whole. Thom Gunn, writing about the earlier poems, found they were

like playthings, fresh-painted, decorative, charming, original, and yet tiny. She specialized, Alice-like, in altering the scale of things. “Cirque d’Hiver” was about a toy—a mechanical horse with a dancer on its back. “The Man-Moth” and “Sleeping on the Ceiling” were only two of her childlike fantasies…. No wonder she admired Paul Klee, whose work I once remember seeing unkindly characterized by John Richardson as, after all, rather twee.10

Gunn afterward revised his judgment upward: it certainly seems wrong to dismiss her poem “The Man-Moth” as childlike, although it is true that it has its origins in whimsy. The Man-Moth is a newspaper misprint for the word mammoth. In order to accommodate this imaginary being, the poet invents a lunar cityscape. In this world, inhabited only, it seems, by Man and the Man-Moth (who spends most of his time underground), the Man-Moth is fearful because “He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,/proving the sky quite useless for protection,” and he must investigate this hole (even though he dreads the climb, and believes that if he reaches the hole he will be forced through it against the light) because “what the Man-Moth fears most he must do.” So far from being “tiny,” “The Man-Moth” has a scale that reaches from the individual to the planet, to the terrifying source of fatal light: it is a touchstone of pure poetic invention. Like the prose poem from the notebook mentioned earlier, it ends in a tear: and indeed it must have its origin in that same 1930s notebook, which contains a line about the third rail:

The third rail is almost worth some sort of prose poem. Running along silently, as insincere as poison—

This in “The Man-Moth” becomes:

Each night he must
be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams.
Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie
his rushing brain. He does not dare look out of the window,
for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison,
runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease
he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep
his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.

The third rail, the electric rail, is therefore the temptation to commit suicide.

Bishop herself knew very well the fear of having inherited some self-destructive susceptibility. She began drinking at about twenty-one, and she suffered from a crippling shame at her alcoholism. Looking back at her childhood, she engaged in a recurrent speculation about what went wrong for her, at what moment. This speculation led to one great story, “In the Village” (about the moment her mother was taken away to be hospitalized forever), which Robert Lowell condensed into a poem, “The Scream.” In England we got to know the poem well (it is in For the Union Dead) long before we saw Bishop’s story, which had not been collected, and certain lines strike us as pure Lowell, although they are actually pure Bishop:

At the fitting
the dressmaker crawled on the floor,
eating pins, like Nebuchadnezzar
on his knees eating grass.

In the States, Bishop decided to revive this story by placing it between the two sections of Questions of Travel (1965) in the same way as Lowell had printed “91 Revere Street” in the American edition of Life Studies (1959). That mixture of prose and poetry in a volume has been successfully imitated since, but because of the complex publishing history not everyone knows that Lowell’s prose memoirs (as well as the poem “The Scream”) owe a literary debt to Bishop.

Lowell was a good borrower—“Skunk Hour” could hardly be a handsomer tribute to “The Armadillo”—whereas Bishop was less successful when she tried to borrow from Lowell’s Life Studies for her never-finished poem “A Drunkard.” A part of this is published by David Kalstone, and another part in Brett Millier’s biography. It describes the Salem fire of 1914, when Bishop was three, staying with her mother at Marblehead across the water. The child watches the fire from her crib, suffers an intense thirst, and cannot get her mother’s attention. The next day, she walks along the beach and finds a woman’s black stocking. Her mother tells her to put it down. Bishop felt that since that day, that reprimand, she had “suffered from abnormal thirst.” It is another attempt to point to a fatal moment, just like “In the Village,” but she never managed to make the moment—the fire, the thirst, the reprimand—convincingly fatal. But that fatalism can be found elsewhere in the poetry, lurking for instance in one of the “Songs for a Colored Singer”:

Let nations rage,
Let nations fall.
The shadow of the crib makes an enormous cage
upon the wall.

She seems really to have believed in that cage, that shadow of the crib, that fate, and to have counted her periods of happiness as a kind of remission.

This is the second of three essays on women poets. The third, on Sylvia Plath, will appear in a coming issue.

This Issue

May 15, 1997