Sweet Home

Susannah Clapp

  • Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems 1927-1979
    Chatto/Hogarth, 287 pp, £10.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2694 9

Elizabeth Bishop’s great gift was to perfect a way of writing about human procedures and concerns without talking chiefly about human behaviour. Her poems are intelligent, supple, grave and witty; often perplexed, but never presenting perplexity as their main source of interest. Her verse is among the least neurotic written in the 20th century.

A first Complete Poems, supervised with resignation or irony by Bishop herself, appeared in 1969, ten years before her death. This new book adds some fifty unpublished or uncollected poems, including the whole of Geography III (1976) and a scatter of later verse. Among the previously unpublished poems there is little that changes the nature of her claim to importance as a maker of luminous landscapes: the ‘Occasional Poems’ are mostly squibbish; the ‘Poems Written in Youth’ show her writing about an elf when she was 16, and producing a sonnet full of Keatsian flushes a year later. Bishop was an explorer and a retirer, who lived for 15 years in Brazil, where, as she pointed out in an interview, there was no literary group ‘handy’ – and no word for understatement. She won prizes but less international recognition than her warm friend Robert Lowell, who consistently celebrated her:

Dear Elizabeth,
Half New-Englander, half fugitive
Nova Scotian, wholly Atlantic sea-board –
Unable to settle anywhere, or live
Our usual roaring sublime.

Elizabeth Bishop certainly never roared. In this unfinished poem, Lowell attends to some of the differences between them: Lowell the lover and leaver of roots and families; Bishop the traveller and homosexual, who by the time she was five had lost her father through death and her mother through nervous collapse. The strenuousness of some of Lowell’s verse is seen in this issue to have an affinity with Donne: Bishop’s contemplative clarity has the cunning of George Herbert.

Bishop’s poems start most often in calm, with unchallengeable announcements of time, position or attitude, then slide into qualifications and inquiries. The difference between statement and reservation may be no more than a syllable, so that error or change is presented as being built into what she sees, as it is in the first poem here, ‘The Map’:

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.

In the long loop of these lines, uncertainty is smuggled in (‘shadows’/‘shallows’), then underlined (‘edges’/‘ledges’), before the fourth line turns back on the first with the beautiful irony of ‘simple’. The next quatrain expresses and contains a giddy reversal of the first:

Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The parallelism of the questions almost disguises the change from the kindness of ‘lean’ to the violence of ‘tugging’. Almost but not quite, for the stanza ends here, with the last question the last to be left unanswered. ‘The Map’ does not present itself as a cartographical treatise, but its ‘moony Eskimo’ and ‘lovely bays’ are actual enough to make the idea that it should be considered the delineation of an inner landscape disastrous. It is a poem about the difficulty and delight of seeing and describing accurately, and, in its cool progress from certainty to certainty through a shoal of hesitations, it is a model of how to conduct an argument.

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