Elizabeth Bishop

Brett C. Millier

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Elizabeth Bishop


By the end of the 20th century, to the surprise of the Anglo-American critical establishment, Elizabeth Bishop (b. 1911–d. 1979) had emerged from the prodigiously talented generation of poets born between 1910 and 1920—a generation including Jean Garrigue, Muriel Ruykeyser, May Swenson, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell, among others—as the most firmly canonized among them. Known mostly by other poets when she died, Bishop’s work was tirelessly promoted by her editor and publisher, Robert Giroux, and taken up by academics who discovered that her multifaceted poems would support multiple readings. The revelation of compelling biographical facts spurred further interpretations. Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on 8 February 1911. Her father died when she was an infant, and her mentally ill mother was permanently institutionalized when Bishop was five. These early losses shaped both the emotional tenor and the geography of Bishop’s childhood, as she was bounced between her mother’s family in Great Village, Nova Scotia, and her father’s family in Worcester. She attended Vassar College, where she was part of a heady literary circle that included Mary McCarthy, Ruykeyser, and Eleanor Clark. After graduation, she tried to live in New York but could not, and so traveled—to Europe, to Mexico, and for increasingly long stays in Key West, Florida. In 1946, she won a poetry prize, which included the publication of her long-delayed first volume, North & South. Thereafter, Bishop would publish a slim volume every decade or so—A Cold Spring (1955), Questions of Travel (1965), Geography III (1976)—a total of ninety or so finished poems. She suffered throughout her adult life from debilitating allergies, asthma, and alcoholism—but her small output is better explained by her perfectionism, her determination, in her words, “never to try to publish anything until I thought I’d done my best with it.” Like those of Robert Frost, Bishop’s poems are the result of painstaking craft in the service of a musical prosody resembling natural speech. They yield meaning and wisdom on first reading, and even more when read more deeply. Formed of meticulous observation and a modest but insistent lyric voice, the poems appeal to a wide variety of readers. Bishop left the United States in 1951 and lived in Brazil with her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares, until Lota’s death in 1967. Bishop taught at the University of Washington in 1965–1966 and at Harvard University from 1970 to 1977. She died in Boston on 6 October 1979, of a cerebral aneurysm.

Article.  9130 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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