American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

BISHOP, ELIZABETH (1911-1979). Elizabeth Bishop, American poet for whom the coastlines of North and South America served as powerful sources of inspiration, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father died when she was eight months old, and her mother, after suffering mental breakdowns, was permanently institutionalized by the time Bishop was five. An only child, Bishop was raised alternately by her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia and by relatives of her father in Worcester and Boston. She remembered these households fondly, but her childhood of ill health, transience, and emotional loss instilled in Bishop a lasting reminder of how provisional is one’s sense of “home.”

In her senior year at Vassar College, Bishop was befriended by Marianne Moore,* who encouraged her in the writing of poetry. After graduating in 1934 with a degree in English, Bishop led a genteel, but nomadic, existence throughout her adult life, living for substantial periods in New York, Key West,* Brazil, and Boston; her poems record the perceptual flux experienced by the lifelong traveler. The sea and its margins provided almost a laboratory environment to investigate these “questions of travel” (this phrase became the title of one of Bishop’s volumes), and her poetry is rich with the vocabulary of bay, cape, port, wharf, quay, bight, sand, and swamp. Adept in the use of traditional metrical forms, Bishop more often gave her poems flexible and elastic dimensions, gaining resonant effects through alliteration, repetition, and the use of colloquial language. Steeped in the scenic and visual, well over a third of her 100 or so poems make significant reference to the sea.

Bishop displays an initial debt to Herman Melville* in her sea poems, but her distinctiveness emerges as nameless oceans become domestic sites that resist the speculations of the romantic. The speaker of “The Unbeliever” (1946) sits Ishmael*-like atop the mast, dreading a fall into the ocean; “The Imaginary Iceberg” (1946), similar to Melville’s “The Berg” (1888), posits the iceberg as an image of impenetrable sublimity. Poised against this early attraction to the sea as a Melvillean arena of philosophical assertion, however, is a clear-eyed modernist skepticism about the very nature of that attraction. In this way, Bishop’s poems often engage in a psychic sifting and refinement; her speakers test and question in essential ways. In this process, land and sea serve as the poles of a subliminal argument, with the back-and-forth dynamic leading Bishop’s speakers from a comfortable surface of received wisdom or romantic declaration into indeterminate depths of qualified insight and elusive psychological control.

Defining the precise relation of earth to water was, in one sense, a career-long endeavor for Bishop. In “The Map” (1946), the first poem in her first published volume of verse, Bishop begins with a simple statement—“Land lies in water; it is shadowed green”—but she insistently undermines it in the course of the poem. Her final published work, Geography III (1976), begins by quoting a nineteenth-century school primer (“Of what is the earth’s surface composed? Land and water”) and raising questions that once again erode objective, maplike representations.

For the most part, Bishop’s sea, unlike Melville’s, is never very far from shore; earth and water give scale and temporary sense to one another. In the long, lush opening of “The Moose” (1976), Nova Scotia tides serve as an avenue into a deepening meditation. The poem “Questions of Travel” (1965) begins with a scenic contrast of Brazilian waterfalls and mountains; with these sites established, the poem expands into a consideration of what “home” means. In “The Fish” (1946), Bishop’s speaker holds a creature from the sea “half out of water” and attains a qualified epiphany by letting it go. Similarly, the seashore serves as an environment conducive to psychic revision in “Seascape” (1946), “Florida” (1946), “The Bight” (1955), “Cape Breton” (1955), “Sandpiper” (1965), “The End of March” (1976), “Santarem” (1979), and “Pleasure Seas” (1979).

Bishop’s most complete sea poem is “At the Fishhouses” (1955), which revisits Marianne Moore’s poem “A Grave” (1924). A figure for knowledge itself, “a transmutation of fire,” the icy sea in Bishop’s poem takes one beyond the normal registers of sensation, memory, and sequential thinking. The speaker’s awareness of the sea’s informing, indifferent power is poignantly combined with a sense of her own inability to know the knowledge the sea has to offer.

Bishop’s volumes of poetry include North and South (1946), A Cold Spring (1955), Questions of Travel (1965), and Geography III (1976). Her Complete Poems was published in 1979. Her Collected Prose (1984) also contains some seaborne sketches. [See also KEY WEST LITERATURE; MELVILLE’S POETRY OF THE SEA; SEA IMAGERY IN MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN POETRY]

FURTHER READING: Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991; Fast, Robin Riley. “Moore, Bishop, and Oliver: Thinking Back, Re-Seeing the Sea.” Twentieth Century Literature 39 (1993): 36479; Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Hugh Egan