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Elizabeth Bishop

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English Literature

A feminist who refused to publish her poetry in all-female collections, an orphan who had one living parent, a lesbian who kept her relationship secret while living with her partner for a decade and a half—American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), was as complex in life as she was in her literature. Although Bishop only published 101 poems in her lifetime, she made a name for herself in her descriptive poetry. Her themes are timeless and applicable, while her writing style is distinct in its objectivity. Although she was friends with many confessional poets, her work was devoid of any such intimacy. Bishop wanted her work to be judged based on its content, not because of her gender or sexual orientation.

Elizabeth Bishop Biography

On February 8, 1911, Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. The only child of a successful builder, Bishop's father died when she was less than a year old. Her mother's mental health rapidly deteriorated after her husband's death, and she was institutionalized in 1916. Bishop never saw her mother again.

In her early childhood, Bishop moved to a small farming town in Nova Scotia with her maternal grandparents and was raised there. Eventually, her father's wealthy family got custody of Bishop and brought her back to Massachusetts. Bishop was deeply unhappy in Worcester, describing the shift in custody as a "kidnapping" and developing eczema sores and intense asthma that caused her to be confined to bed rest.

Worried about her health, her grandparents sent Bishop to live with her mother's sister in a run-down harbor town outside of Boston. Bishop's health recovered with the help of her aunts. When her asthma returned, and she had to miss school, her aunts read the works of Victorian poets like Tennyson, Longfellow, and the Brownings to her. Bishop fell in love with literature and started writing poetry at the age of 8. Her first poems were published in her high school's magazine.

Elizabeth Bishop, A photograph of Massachusets by the lake,  StudySmarterBishop's chronic asthma plagued her throughout her life; as a child she moved to the harbor town of Revere, Massachusetts hoping that the sea air would improve her health, unsplash

Bishop entered Vassar College in New York in 1929, hoping to study music and become a composer. However, her stage fright forced her to switch to the English program. She co-founded Con Spirito, a rebel literary magazine to the school's well-established Vassar Review, in 1933 and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1934.

Bishop was introduced to poet Marianne Moore in 1934 and was greatly influenced by her. Moore helped Bishop publish some of her early poems in Trial Balances, an anthology dedicated to upcoming poets. Bishop also became good friends with Robert Lowell in the 1940s. Although the two influenced one another's poetry, their writing styles were distinctly separate: Lowell tended toward confessional style poetry while Bishop's poetry was objective and impersonal.

When her father died, he left Bishop an inheritance that she used to travel around the world. She traveled to France, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and North Africa between 1935 and 1937 and then moved to Key West for four years. While she was there, Bishop wrote many of the poems collected in her first collection, North and South (1946). At Lowell's arrangement, she served as the Library of Congress's eighth Consultant in Poetry from 1949 to 1950.

In 1951, Bishop sailed to Brazil and planned to travel through South America. The trip was only supposed to last for a couple of weeks, but Bishop stayed in Brazil for roughly 15 years. She fell in love with Maria Carlota Costellat de Macedo Soares, known as Lota, a wealthy art collector and landowner in her own right. As homosexuality was still not socially acceptable in the 1950s, the two kept their relationship mostly private, and most of the information now known about the couple was taken from letters. Their relationship was passionate but tempestuous, and Bishop turned to alcohol and other women to help her cope. After Soares committed suicide in 1967, Bishop essentially returned to the United States.

Elizabeth Bishop, A photo of Brazil from above, StudySmarterBishop's poetry was deeply influenced by the time she spent traveling the world and living in Brazil, unsplash

In 1955 while still in Brazil, Bishop published her second poetry collection Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring, which received the Pulitzer Prize. Her 1965 Questions of Travel depicts Brazil's influence on her poetry. Bishop won the National Book Award in 1970 for The Complete Poems (1969). The last book of poetry that she saw published in her lifetime was Geography III (1976). This book won her the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, making her not just the first woman but also the first American to receive this award.

In the 1970s, Bishop lectured at the University of Washington, Harvard University, New York University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She died in 1979 from a cerebral aneurysm. She is buried in Hope Cemetery (Worcester, Massachusetts). Her collections The Complete Poems, 1927–1979 (1983), The Collected Prose (1984), and Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (2006) were published posthumously.

Elizabeth Bishop's Writing Style

Although Bishop was friends with Lowell, and the two regularly shared their work, her writing style could not be more different from his. Lowell's style is characterized by confessional poetry. Personal experiences are the backbone of confessional poetry, which is an intimate, often autobiographical account of the poet's life. Other poets known for their work in this style are Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass. Bishop, however, stayed far away from Confessionalism in her poetry. Bishop's poetry was known for its objectivity and distant point of view. Although still heavily detailed, her work was devoid of any intimate reflections on her own life.

Her poem "Sestina" (1965) is a good example of Bishop's strive toward objectivity. The poem features a grandmother and child, both dealing with the aftermath of loss. Although influenced by Bishop's experience living with her grandparents after losing both her father and mother, the poem lacks any emotional reflection on Bishop's time as an orphan. Instead, she relies heavily on imagery and descriptions to force the reader to draw their conclusions. Consider the removed narrator who observes the child and grandmother instead of offering judgement:

It's time for tea now; but the childis watching the teakettle's small hard tearsdance like mad on the hot black stove,the way the rain must dance on the house" (12-16).

In an interview with The Paris Review in 1978, Bishop said she considered herself a "strong feminist." Interestingly, she refused to be included in all-female poetry anthologies, leading many of her contemporaries to assume she was against the women's movement. Bishop didn't want to be known as a "female poet" because she wanted to be recognized simply as a poet. She wanted her work to be judged based on its poetic quality, not her gender or sexual orientation.

Elizabeth Bishop Poems

For years, Bishop was considered a "poet's poet"—meaning her poetry mainly appealed to other poets instead of the general public. However, with the advent of Geography III, she was established as a popular force in 20th-century poetry. Only publishing around 100 poems in her life, Bishop's poetry was highly defined by its quality, not quantity.

Elizabeth Bishop: "One Art" (1976)

"One Art" was originally published in The New Yorker in 1976 before being republished in Geography III. The poem centers around the human experience of loss. The speaker attempts to make light of loss, joking that loss is an art and easy to "master." First, the speaker loses small things like car keys and a singular hour. But as the poem progresses and the speaker tries to convince herself that loss isn't that severe, the gravity of loss snowballs. Soon the speaker is losing things like beloved houses, cities, and an entire continent. The feeling of loss reaches its peak when the speaker loses "you," a loved one that is now forever gone. Although the speaker tries to convince herself that everything is okay, the recurring feeling of loss overpowers her confidence at the end of the poem.

Elizabeth Bishop: "In the Waiting Room" (1976)

Also published in Geography III, "In the Waiting Room" explores themes surrounding the coming of age, perception, and adulthood. While sitting in the waiting room of a dentist's office, the young speaker gets bored while waiting for her aunt. She picks up a National Geographic magazine (marked February 1918) and flips through the pictures, but she is distressed by the graphic images. She is particularly taken aback by naked African American women and their breasts. The child speaker, who will be seven years old in a few days, suddenly morphs into the adults around her, including her aunt. She is greatly distressed that she will become one of them and share the same experiences that they have in adulthood. The speaker describes being pulled under by waves, but when she regains her senses, she finds herself back in the waiting room on a snowy day in 1918.

Elizabeth Bishop: "Five Flights Up" (1974)

"Five Flights Up" was first published in the print edition of The New Yorker in 1974. The title hints at the poem's setting, an apartment on the fifth floor where the speaker has a distant view of everything that happens below. The poem examines human expectations of the future in contrast to animals' simple, fulfilled lives. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker wakes up and remarks that it is still dark outside. She notices a bird sitting on its usual branch outside and the dog next door barking in his sleep. When the dog awakens and starts running, his owner chastises him. The speaker reflects that the dog has no sense of shame or remorse. Neither the bird nor the dog worry about the uncertainty of the future or hold any expectations for the day. Instead, they are free to embrace the day, and the speaker implies that their lack of fear makes their lives more fulfilling and peaceful.

Elizabeth Bishop, Apartments, StudySmarterThe speaker has a distanced vantage point of her subjects from her position five flights up, unsplash

Elizabeth Bishop: "Sestina" (1965)

At the beginning of "Sestina," a grandmother and her granddaughter make tea in the kitchen. While they wait for the water to boil, they decide to read the almanac and make jokes about it. The grandma only laughs to hide her tears, and she reflects that her sadness might be because of the time of year. The grandmother never reveals what she has lost, but her isolation and grief carry throughout the poem. The granddaughter also gets lost in her world, focusing on the condensation on the kettle, which she calls tears. As the grandmother cleans up, the girl draws pictures of a house and a man "with buttons like tears." She shows it to her grandmother, and mystical things happen in the kitchen. Moons fall from the pages of the almanac into the flowerbed in the drawing; the almanac tells them it's "time to plant tears," the grandmother sings, and the child draws another house. The themes in the poem are loneliness and isolation, family and the home, and time.

Elizabeth Bishop Themes

Although Bishop was known for her objective style of poetry, many of the themes in her poems directly come from her personal experiences. From the loss of her father and mother when she was young to her multiple childhood houses that never felt like home, Bishop explores her own experiences through removed narrators who observe the world around them.

Elizabeth Bishop: Human Experience of Death and Loss

Before she was even a year old, Bishop's father died, and her mother checked into a mental institution, essentially making her an orphan. She was passed from one family member to the next, constantly experiencing different forms of loss. Later in life, Bishop lost her long-term partner to suicide, and she felt as though she had to flee the country that they shared to escape the loss. She suffered from alcoholism and was hospitalized several times. In all, Bishop lost people, places, and precious time. The themes of death and loss are prevalent in her most popular poems like "Sestina," "One Art," and "In the Waiting Room."

Elizabeth Bishop: Search for personal identity

Another theme throughout Bishop's work is the search for personal identity. Because she moved around so much as a child, Bishop said that she never really had a home and didn't see herself as an American. She didn't have a steady education until high school, and when she did go to school, she wavered between studying music or English. In short, Bishop, like her characters, constantly searched for personal identity.

"In the Waiting Room" is a coming of age poem about a child's fear that she will become just like the adults around her. She fears growing up because she doesn't want to become her aunt or the other people in the waiting room. She wants, in short, her own identity. In "Sestina," the granddaughter searches for her identity in pictures she draws and fantasies that she creates in her mind. And in "Five Flights Up," the speaker contrasts the simple lives of animals to the expectations that humans hold to find meaning in herself. She reimagines the meaning of the future in her own life, breaking away from human tendencies and pivoting towards an individual understanding that mirrors the dog and bird.

Elizabeth Bishop A woman standing on a white surface looking up StudySmarterOne of the main themes in Bishop's work is a search for personal identity instead of giving in to conformity, unsplash

Elizabeth Bishop Quotes

Bishop's quotes, taken from poetry, letters, and interviews, center around the central themes in her works: personal identity, art as an escape, and loss/death.

The art of losing isn't hard to master;

so many things seemed filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster" (1-3).

These are the opening lines of Bishop's "One Art." Throughout the poem, the speaker attempts to convince herself and readers that loss isn't severe. She makes light of loss, positioning it as a kind of skill or talent that can be honed over time—not something that happens to a person but rather something they can get good at through practice. She transforms any feelings of sadness into blame that she places on the lost thing. This quote speaks to the theme of loss apparent in Bishop's poetry, positioning it as a tangible thing that doesn't get better over time.

If after I read a poem, the world looks like that poem for 24 hours or so I'm sure it's a good one—and the same goes for paintings."¹

Bishop wrote this in a letter to friends in 1961. As a child, she often used literature to escape her poor health and her complex family relationships. Art functioned as a form of escape for Bishop and her characters. For example, the granddaughter in "Sestina" uses art to depict the kind of life she wishes she had and escapes into a fantasy world where moons rain from books and her grandmother sings cheerfully.

All my life, I have lived and behaved very much like the sandpiper just running down the edges of different countries and continents, looking for something.” 2

Bishop said this after she accepted the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976. It speaks to the theme of identity in many of her pieces. In her early adulthood, Bishop traveled all over the world, searching for a sense of purpose and identity. Although she served in the prestigious role of Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress from 1949 to the 1950s, afterward, she continued traveling hoping that she might find that missing piece.

Elizabeth Bishop - Key takeaways

  • Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Massachusetts.
  • Her father died before she turned one and her mother had to be checked into a mental institution. These early losses permeate her work with themes of death, loss, and grief.
  • Bishop's poetry differed drastically from her contemporaries because her style was more objective instead of confessional.
  • Her most famous poems are "Sestina," "One Art," "Five Flights Up" and "In the Waiting Room."
  • Her most common themes are loss and death and the search for personal identity.

  1. Bishop, Elizabeth and Robert Lowell. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton and Thomas Travisano. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; , 2010.
  2. "1976—Elizabeth Bishop." The Neustadt Prizes, https://www.neustadtprize.org/1976-neustadt-laureate-elizabeth-bishop/.

Elizabeth Bishop

Bishop's most famous poem is, arguably, "One Art" or "Sestina." 

Elizabeth Bishop was a feminist, although she refused to be published in all women anthologies because she wanted to be known for her writing, not her sex. She was a very popular poet, although she focused on quality not quantity. She was a lesbian, but she kept that aspect of her identity hidden during her lifetime. 

No, she died in 1979 from a brain aneurysm. 

She was a poet and short story writer. Although she was friend with confessional poets like Robert Lowell, her poetry was strictly objective and focused on descriptive verse. 

She died in her home in 1979. 

Final Elizabeth Bishop Quiz

Question

Who was Elizabeth Bishop? 

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Answer

Bishop was an American poet and short story writer in the 20th century. 

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How did Bishop's childhood contribute to her poetry? 

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Answer

Bishop's father died and her mother was institutionalized when Bishop was extremely young. Bishop was forced to move around a lot, and the search for an identity as well as loss is a central theme in her work. 

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How did Bishop get introduced to poetry? 

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Answer

She had extreme asthma when she was young. When she had to miss school, her aunts would read to her. 

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How was Bishop able to travel the world? 

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Her father was successful and rather wealthy. He left her an inheritance, which she used to travel extensively. 

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Where in the world did Bishop stay for almost 15 years? 

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Bishop fell in love and stayed in Brazil for 15 years. The poetry and landscape of Brazil deeply affected her poetry. 

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Who was Maria Carlota Costellat de Macedo Soares (Lota)? 

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She was a wealthy art collector and landowner in Brazil. The two fell in love, but their relationship was tempestuous. 

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Who was Bishop influenced by poetically? 

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She was influenced by the poet Marianne Moore who helped her first publish her works. She also met confessional poet Robert Lowell and the two shared their work with one another? 

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What is distinct about Bishop's writing style? 

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Her poetry is completely devoid of any of the intimate, reflective poetry that is typical of confessionalism. Instead, her poetry is objective and distant, though still highly descriptive. 

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Why did some critics say Bishop was against the feminist movement? 

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Answer

Bishop refused to be included in all-female anthologies. She wanted her work to be recognized based on its own quality, NOT her gender and sexuality. 

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What are Bishop's most famous poems? 

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Answer

"Sestina," "One Art," "Five Flights Up" and "In the Waiting Room" are four of her most popular poems. 

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What are Bishop's most common themes? 

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Answer

Her most common themes throughout her poetry are loss and death and the search for a personal identity. 

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Question

What is "Sestina"? 

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Answer

"Sestina is a poem written by American poet Elizabeth Bishop. It was published in 1965 in her Questions of Travel collection. 

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Who is Elizabeth Bishop and how does "Sestina" relate to her life? 

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Bishop was an American writer in the 20th century. Like the child in "Sestina," Bishop was raised by her grandparents. 

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What is a sestina? 

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A sestina is a strict form of poetry. It is composed of six stanzas each with six lines and one stanza with three lines (called an envoi). Sestinas are unique because the last word of the last line in each stanza is the last word of the first line of the next stanza. 

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What is the setting of "Sestina"? 

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"Sestina" is set in a kitchen on a rainy day in September. The rain is constantly referenced in the poem as it gives the poem a sense of rhythm and movement and reflects the character's mood. The time of year is also significant to the grandmother. 

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What is the primary conflict in "Sestina"? 

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The grandmother and granddaughter are isolated from one another and trapped in their own worlds. Although they live together and appear to get along, neither is vulnerable with the other. They are both dealing with loss but neither talks about it.  

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How does the grandmother deal with grief? 

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She busies herself and tries to ignore it. Instead of allowing herself to cry or being emotionally vulnerable and connecting with her granddaughter, the grandmother preoccupies her time with chores.  

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How does the granddaughter deal with grief? 

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She colors and escapes to a fantasy world. In this fantasy world, moons fall out of the sky, the almanac talks to her, and her grandmother sings to the stove. 

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What six words are repeated in epistrophe? 

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House

Grandmother

Child

Stove

Almanac

Tears

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What effect does personification have on the poem? 

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Personification gives life to the stove, teakettle, and almanac. This enables the girl to escape to her imaginary world. It also shows the distance between the child and her grandmother because the objects talk more than they do. And it depicts how hopeless the humans are in their grief as the inanimate objects are much more active than the humans. 

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What are the themes in the poem? 

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Answer

The home and family

Emotional isolation and solitude

Loss and grief

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