The Power of Reticence

“When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived,” she told Robert Lowell in 1948.1 Elizabeth Bishop’s life started with a double tragedy. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 8, 1911, she lost her father when she was eight months old. He had been an executive in a construction company founded by his own father. Her mother, who came from Canada, never recovered from the shock and was committed to a sanitarium when Elizabeth was four. She never saw her again. From the ages three to six, she lived in Great Village, Nova Scotia, with her maternal grandparents, and then from 1918 to 1927 in various suburbs of Boston with her mother’s older sister, who was married but childless. Kept from school often by asthma, eczema, St. Vitus’s dance, and various nervous ailments, she was primarily educated at home until at the age of sixteen she was enrolled at the prestigious Walnut Hill School for Girls in Natick where she published her first poems in a student magazine. There are not many sixteen-year-olds with the literary sophistication and poetic skill to write this well:

I introduce Penelope Gwin,
A friend of mine through thick and thin,
Who’s travelled much in foreign parts
Pursuing culture and the arts.
“And also,” says Penelope
“This family life is not for me.
I find it leads to deep depression
And
I was born for self-expression.”
And so you see, it must be owned
Miss Gwin belongs to
le beau monde.
She always travels very light
And keeps her jewelry out of sight.
“I will not let myself be pampered
And
this free soul must not be hampered
And so besides my diamond rings
I carry with me but two things:
A blue balloon to lift my eyes
Above all pettiness and lies,
A neat and compact potted plant
To hide from a pursuing Aunt.
(Just as they took my photograph
I saw one coming up the path.
That’s why my eyes are turned away,
I mostly look the other way.)
My aunts I loathe with all my heart
Especially when they take up Art.
And anything in the shape of one
Can make me tremble, turn, and run.”

There is another stanza of roughly the same length, equally clever and funny. Bishop did not remember writing it. It comes from 3,500 pages of folders, notebooks, and journals she left to the library at Vassar, where she was a student between 1930 and 1934 and which Alice Quinn mined to compile this collection. While still in college Bishop met the poet Marianne Moore, who was twenty-four years her senior. Moore’s greatest lesson, she said later, was her insistence on getting every detail in a poem right. Bishop herself would go to astonishing pains to make sure that…


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