- The Collected Prose of Elizabeth Bishop edited by Robert Giroux
Chatto, 278 pp, £12.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2809 7
Elizabeth Bishop was refined. Manners interested her, as The Collected Prose makes clear. She can remember learning ‘how to behave in school’ with more recall than most people: ‘this meant to sit up straight, not to scrape your feet on the floor, never to whisper, to raise your hand when you had to go out, and to stand up when you were asked a question.’ Fifty-odd years later in Brazil, she teaches manners to two little girls who are following a crazy woman and giggling at her: ‘I give them a look.’ At the same time, she could see the limitations of manners, could see beyond their immediate and important utility as guides to behaviour. She realises that manners are provisional. They change. Which is why her poem, ‘Manners’, carries the ironical epigraph, For a Child of 1918. Elizabeth Bishop knows that this rigid six-inch ruler, serviceable in its way, cannot measure the larger reaches of human behaviour. ‘Manners’, then, isn’t quite the charmingly simple, didactically homespun affair it pretends to be. It is an elegy for a lost, straightforward world. Present, too, squally and intractable, is the unmentioned problematic present.
‘A Trip to Vigia’ is a comedy of manners masquerading as a travel essay, in which the manners of a ‘shy poet, so soiled, so poor, so polite’ are anthropologically scrutinised by another shy poet, Elizabeth Bishop, whose financial advantages are mysteriously rendered impotent: ‘the car was on its last legs; it had broken down twice just getting us around Belem the day before. But what could we do? I couldn’t very well flaunt my dollars in his face and hire a better one.’ Everyone means well but the occasion comes to resemble a curious courtship in which neither party can advance the issue and make the trip a relaxed affair. The formality of manners somehow outflanks both parties, as if they were speaking different languages – which, in a way, they are. A fine packed lunch proves to be an embarrassment because it reflects on their host’s poverty: ‘finally M. and I miserably gobbled up some lunch by ourselves.’ When the trip is over, Dona Elizabeth offers their guide a drink. He will accept only coffee and somehow contrives to pay for the lot behind their backs. The high spot of the trip is not the church which is their destination, but a passage of behaviour, a little epiphany of etiquette that appeals to the connoisseur of manners: ‘we had met Ruy just two days before. That morning I asked M. to let me know when the mystic moment arrived and she’d shift gears from addressing him as “Dr Ruy” to “you”. This use of the vocé or second person is always a delicate problem and I wanted to see how M. who has the nicest Brazilian manners would solve it.’ The metaphor, ‘shift gears’, nicely places the transaction by reminding us of the actual vehicle. They are travelling over difficult social terrain in a ramshackle, makeshift affair which keeps breaking down. For once, the Americans are not in the driving seat dictating the direction.
In the stunning memoir of Marianne Moore, this preoccupation is, if anything, more pronounced. Again, there is the same mixture of tactful respect, forbearance, even admiration, and a wry agnosticism. The absolutes promulgated by Miss Moore (‘we called each other “Miss” for over two years’) and her mother are enormously attractive – yet shown to be provisional and, on occasion, battily arbitrary. On the one hand, their manners are charming, other-wordly, a refreshing change from ‘the crass atmosphere of the 20th century’: ‘what I remember most is that at the proper floor, as the passengers stared, Marianne and her mother both bowed to the elevator boy pleasantly and thanked him, Mrs Moore the more profusely, for the ride. He was unaccustomed to such civility, but he was very pleased and tried hard not to push his handle or close the doors as quickly as on other floors. Elevator men, subway change-makers, ticket takers, taxi drivers – all were treated to these formalities, and, as a rule, they were pleasantly surprised and seemed to respond in kind.’ On the other hand, the system can be inelastic: ‘a very well known and polished writer, who had known Marianne since he was a young man and felt great admiration for her, was never invited to Cumberland Street [the Moore residence] although his friends were. Once, I asked innocently why I never saw him there and Marianne gave me her serious, severe look and said, “He contradicted Mother.” ’
The failure here is, perhaps, on both sides – a kind of double fault. But at other moments, Elizabeth Bishop is amused, gentle but firm in her disagreement with the code:
Besides exercising on the trapeze, Marianne was very fond of tennis. I never saw her play, but from the way she talked about it, it seemed as if she enjoyed the rules and conventions of the game as much as the sport. She engaged a young black boy to play with her, sometimes in Prospect Park and sometimes on the roof of the apartment house. He was finally dismissed because of his lack of tennis manners; his worst offence seemed to be that instead of ‘Serve!’ he would say ‘Okay!’
Her own finesse and tractability didn’t always prevent Elizabeth Bishop from coming into conflict with the rules: she is criticised for using the word ‘spit’ in a short story and later for the impropriety of using ‘water closet’ in a poem. ‘But by then I had turned obstinate.’ In any case, this deliberately shaped memoir shows that these rules were necessarily strained, often by simple emotions of the baser kind, like human curiosity: ‘several times over the years Marianne asked me abruptly, “Elizabeth, what do you have on under your dress? How much underwear do you wear?” ’ And it is this maverick behaviour, these exceptions to the rules, which appeal to Elizabeth Bishop because they reveal the irrepressible individual – the nonconformist who took tango lessons; the baseball enthusiast; the eccentric who, however much she flattened her headgear, nevertheless possessed and wore ‘the Holbein/Erasmus-type hat, and later the famous tricorn’; the zany who learned to drive at a dangerously advanced age and preferred the front seat of the roller-coaster at Coney Island.
In the essay on the primitive painter, Gregorio Valdes, Elizabeth Bishop concludes: ‘there are some people whom we envy not because they are rich or handsome or successful, although they may be any or all of these, but because everything they are and do seems to be all of a piece, so that even if they wanted to they could not be or do otherwise.’ Marianne Moore is a case in point: her poetry is packed with moral nostrums and eccentric detail; it is of a piece with what Elizabeth Bishop calls her ‘chinoiserie of manners’. As a person and a poet, she adored rules, but was a natural nonconformist: she would telephone her young friend for a rhyme or to check on the metre of a poem. ‘These were strange requests, coming from someone who had made contemporary poets self-conscious about their crudities, afraid to rhyme “bone” with “stone”, or to go umpty-umpty-um. Marianne was doing her best, one saw, to go umpty-umpty-um when she sensed that La Fontaine had gone that way, but it seemed to be almost – I use the word again – physically impossible for her to do so.’ The endeavour to conform takes her at last to a poetry workshop run by Louise Bogan, where her Socratic though innocent questions about the art consistently embarrass the instructor. It is charming yet ridiculous – but never held up for ridicule by Elizabeth Bishop, who concludes sombrely, meditating on ‘the rarity of true originality and also the sort of alienation it might involve’.
Clearly, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry owes a great deal to Marianne Moore. Yet she, too, is a true original and the difference between them as poets is the difference in their manners: the mandarin social manners of Marianne Moore find their poetic counterpart in what she herself called ‘all this fiddle’. Elizabeth Bishop is just as sensitive, but straighter, less fiddly. And this, too, is part of her total personality: she is more sceptical, even of herself, and can refer boldly to her own ‘neurotically “kind” ’ personality. Her general verbal attack is less mannered, less finicky than her mentor’s.
A further difference, also related to manners, shows up in Elizabeth Bishop’s themes. For Marianne Moore and her mother, manners are a set of rigid rules, instructions for living, tested ways of making life work smoothly. Essentially, they are an extension of religion, whereas Elizabeth Bishop has no faith and this colours her poetry, giving it a distinctive shade. The area where the two part company is here: ‘Marianne was intensely interested in the techniques of things – how camellias are grown; how the quartz prisms work in crystal clocks; how the pangolin can close up his ear, nose, and eye apertures and walk on the outside edges of his hands “and save the claws/for digging”; how to drive a car; how the best pitchers throw a baseball; how to make a figurehead for her nephew’s sailboat. The exact way in which anything was done, or made, or functioned, was poetry to her.’ It isn’t that Elizabeth Bishop isn’t interested, too. Clearly, she relishes this delicious catalogue. But her underlying attitude is different from this transposed Deism, which is founded on a general confidence that she does not share – a belief in rules and explanations, in finality. Her own world is less confidently Victorian. Explanations, knowledge, are less forthcoming. Her poetic manner is provisional:
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
This coda from ‘At the Fishhouses’ is more explicitly eloquent than anything else in her poetry, surprisingly akin to the finale of Arnold’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum’. Usually, Elizabeth Bishop is less dramatically inconclusive about the provisional nature of human knowledge. One thinks, for instance, of ‘The Bight’, a poem which resolutely refuses to reach for significance. Baudelaire, the idea of correspondences, a metaphysical metonomy in which the small can signify a larger whole, are raised and regretfully dropped. ‘The bight,’ we are told, ‘is littered with old correspondences.’ And the poem ends with stoical low-key accuracy, fading quietly to its anticlimax:
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.
Unlike her talentless students, corresponding out of their loneliness to the USA School of Writing, Elizabeth Bishop knows how to deploy her detail and how to desist from the neat moral: ‘there was also the same tendency in both primitive painting and writing to make it all right, or of real value to the world, by tacking on a grand, if ill-fitting, “moral”, or allegorical interpretation.’ She, on the contrary, insists on the pattern of having no pattern – something frequently seen in her prose too.
‘To the Botequim – Back’ is typically inconsequential. Nature is brilliant; the people, today at least, are fairly awful; and the piece ends with a characteristic aposiopesis:
and this is where the stream disappears, like the sacred river Alph in Coleridge’s dream. It fans out over the red stone, narrows and rises in cold gray ridges, disappears underground, and then shows up again further off, dashing downwards now through more beautiful rocks. It then takes off downwards for the Underworld. You can hang over the rocks and see it far below. It keeps descending, disappears into a cavern, and is never seen again. It talks as it goes, but the words are lost ...
‘Primer Class’, the first, deceptively guileless reminscence of her childhood in Nova Scotia, is true to the merely contingent nature of experience and yet has its own subtle significant form. The detail is lavish: ‘we ate porridge from bowls, with a cup of cream at the side. You took a spoonful of porridge, dipped it into the cream, then ate it; this was to keep the porridge hot’; ‘my grandmother had a glass eye, blue, almost like her other one, and this made her especially vulnerable and precious to me’; ‘there was a poor boy, named Roustain, the dirtiest and raggediest of us all, who was really too big for Primer Class and had to walk a long way to school, when he came at all.’ (How much more raggy ‘raggediest’ is than the alternative ‘most raggy’!) On the other hand, there is the artist’s conscience, the duty to make sense of it all, the pressure of form as Henry James apprehended it: ‘really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.’ In ‘Primer Class’, Elizabeth Bishop’s solution to these two conflicting artistic demands of unfettered inclusiveness and the desire for form is arrived at without illusion or falsification. There is no geometry, only arithmetic. The memoir’s thrillingly rich detail exists within formal brackets: it begins and ends with arithmetic, the memory of ‘mysterious numbers, the columns, that impressed me so much – a mystery I never solved when I went to Primer Class in Nova Scotia!’ For Elizabeth Bishop, experience will never add up – and she concludes, stubbornly, beautifully, emblematically, as she began: ‘it was utterly incomprehensible. Those mysterious numbers.’
After her father’s death, her disturbed mother was committed to an institution and Elizabeth, after a delay, transplanted brusquely to Boston where her paternal grandparents lived. There the manners were different – formal, unquestionable, without true tenderness. Though she is unwilling to criticise explicitly, her grandfather is an immediately recognisable egotist: ‘now he descended, god-like and swearing, swept Grandma out of the way, and wedged himself in the lower berth.’ This behaviour on the Pullman is her introduction to Boston manners and things do not change significantly: the servants are in a state of permanent revolution; when the cook leaves, Grandma cooks (appallingly) and her grandfather goes off to an hotel. At first, the young orphan is intimidated and submissive to her new role, her only reaction a series of psychosomatic illnesses. Gradually, though, she realises the absurdity and inadequacy of this new social code. The moment of truth occurs one day when Beppo, the Boston bull terrier, punishes himself for an offence against propriety:
when he was ‘bad’, he was punished by being put in a large closet off the sewing-room and left there, out of things, for half an hour. Once when I was playing with him, he disappeared and would not answer my calls. Finally he was found, seated gloomily by himself in the closet facing the wall. He was punishing himself. We later found a smallish puddle of vomit in the conservatory. No one had ever before punished him for his attacks of gastritis, naturally; it was all his own idea, his peculiar Bostonian sense of guilt.
And what was Elizabeth Bishop punishing herself for? What was her own idea of herself that created the long series of illnesses?
I don’t think that she ever knew, which is why this memoir was not included in her projected list of contents for a collected prose. The answer, however, isn’t far to seek. As ever, it is to do with manners. On that Pullman, her grandma introduced her to the certainties that were to be imposed on her.
Yes, I was beginning to enjoy myself a little, if only Grandma hadn’t such a confusing way of talking. It was almost as if we were playing house. She would speak of ‘grandma’ and ‘little girls’ and ‘fathers’ and ‘being good’ – things I had never before considered in the abstract, or rarely in the third person. In particular, there seemed to be much, much more to being a ‘little girl’ than I had realised.
Her failure to be this ‘little girl’ was what she was punishing herself for. And the memoir ends with a prose version of her extraordinary poem ‘In the Waiting Room’, where she encounters, not the social fiction, but her true self as she felt herself to be, and it disgusts her: ‘ “You are not Beppo, or the chestnut tree, or Emma, you are you and you are going to be you forever.” It was like coasting downhill, this thought, only much worse, and it quickly smashed into a tree. Why was I a human being?’ Like Marianne Moore, she could not be ‘in the third person’. She was rather the first person singular and horrified by her singularity. At seven years of age, Elizabeth Bishop could match Hopkins’s ‘selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours’.
In ‘The USA School of Writing’, she continues to examine her own queer individuality, stimulated by her bogus identity as Mr Margolies, a previous instructor whose role she has inherited. Again, the conflict is between her own free-floating uncertainty about life and a colleague’s Marxist panacea – another rigid code she cannot accept, preferring instead a bogus association with anarchism, though temperamentally she belongs nowhere. And ‘The Baptism’, an early story, examines the penalties exacted by certainty. Quiety, firmly, she insists on the absurdity of belief. Lucy, unlike her sisters, wishes to join the Baptist Church. They are Presbyterians, unfanatical, but not untouched by theological pedantry and its attendant callousness: ‘her news was that her sister’s baby had died the day before, although they had done everything. She and Emma, Flora, and Lucy discussed infant damnation at some length.’ Finally, Lucy dies of her religious literalness:
but a problem came up that she had not considered. She now believed ardently in the use of total immersion as practised by the Baptists, according to their conception of the methods of John the Baptist. She could not join without that, and the river, of course, was frozen over. She would have to wait until the ice went out.
She does, but the immersion kills her.
‘The Baptism’ is an uncharacteristically bitter story, a settling of scores with these score-keepers who can coolly tot up a baby’s chance of damnation. Eventually Elizabeth Bishop repudiated it: ‘I published a very bad short story a year or two after I first knew the Moores and I was reprimanded by both of them for having used the word “spit”.’ In his introduction, Robert Giroux incorrectly identifies the offending story as ‘The Farmer’s Children’ – an implacable masterpiece which he stigmatises as ‘more conventional and sentimental than anything else she wrote’. ‘The Farmer’s Children’ is devoid of sentimentality, full of controlled sentiment, even better than the more famous ‘In the Village’ and deserves to take its place, alongside Kipling’s ‘ “They” ’ and Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, as one of the greatest short stories of the 20th century. Mr Giroux has been misled by the reference to spitting (which occurs in both stories). ‘The Farmer’s Children’ was published in 1948, long after Elizabeth Bishop met the Moores in 1934, whereas ‘The Baptism’ was published in 1937, with this brilliant aside as the immersion takes place: ‘one boy or young man, of course, always dared to spit over the railing.’
Like ‘The Baptism’, ‘In Prison’ and ‘The Sea – the Shore’ are apprentice work, but they disclose the same concerns – the randomness of experience and the desire for certainty. ‘The Sea – the Shore’ is an account of Edwin Boomer’s life as a litter collector. He clears the beach of its daily detritus of newsprint and is insanely absorbed in its classification. Three categories present themselves in his effort to make sense of what he finds: ‘everything that seemed to be about himself’; ‘stories about other people that caught his fancy, whose careers he followed from day to day in newspapers and fragments of books and letters; and whose further adventures he was always watching out for’; and, finally, ‘the items he could not understand at all, that bewildered him completely but at the same time interested him so much that he saved them to read. These he tried, almost frantically, to fit into first one, then the other, of the two categories.’ Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Bight’ is her mature treatment of this theme, a theme which also generates ‘In Prison’ – a story related in a bizarrely frigid 19th-century patois, whose narrator is eager to embrace the certainties, the rigid rules, of penal confinement.
Elizabeth Bishop’s attitude towards her experience is best summed up, not in her own words, but in a telling quotation from a letter from Hopkins to Robert Bridges which crops up in her preface to The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’. Hopkins is exercised by the bristling technicality of Two Years before the Mast, ‘which I most carefully go over and even enjoy but cannot understand’. For Hopkins, ‘the charm and the main point’, even of terrible things like flogging, are this: ‘it happened.’ Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and prose are filled with things that have happened, things which she enjoys but cannot understand – things she will not pretend to understand. No writer is further from glibness. ‘The Farmer’s Children’ demonstrates her quiet pessimism and its terrible clarity. This story concerns two stepchildren, Emerson and Cato, who have to guard the equipment in a distant barn by sleeping there overnight, while their father and Judd, the hired man, are on an expedition to the town. The boys have done this several times before, with Cato always fantasising the two of them as Hansel and Gretel, though the stepmother isn’t wicked, merely off-hand, a little short-tempered and preoccupied with her own smaller children. An early sentence whispers horribly to the reader: ‘most of these facts later appeared in the newspapers.’ It is like a brief glimpse of a razor. There follows a miraculous, methodical inventory, an inspired double-counting of the small change of childish existence. Nothing is skimped. We are plunged into the intricacies of a game of shipwreck so graphic that it ends in tears. Every item on the supper table is described from a child’s point of view. As Cato steals bread to lay a trail of crumbs, ‘his thoughts sounded loud and ominous to him.’ The boys dress warmly for the barn. A sister has maliciously hidden a pair of gloves. He knows by her sly look. On the way to the barn, the two boys discuss a bicycle seen in a hardware store window. They invent and reject various implausible routes to ownership. They climb a telegraph pole and, listening to the wires, discuss the fate of bees in wintertime. The cold weather forces itself on them as a topic of conversation – whether it is too cold to snow. Finally, crumbs dropped in a trail, they reach the barn where, failing to find the blankets, they snuggle under the hay. As Cato is falling asleep he thinks ‘the disks of the harrow looked like the side – those shields hung over the side – of a Viking ship.’ Then Elizabeth Bishop simply and swiftly wipes out all this accumulated detail which, as it piles up, makes that early sentence fade to a mote in the middle distance.
He turned to Emerson and called his name, but Emerson only moaned in his sleep. So he fitted his knees into the hollows at the back of his brother’s and hugged him tightly round the waist.
At noon the next day their father found them in this position.
The story was in all the newspapers, on the front page of local ones, dwindling as it travelled over the countryside to short paragraphs on middle pages when it got as far as each coast. The farmer grieved wildly for a year; for some reason, one expression he gave to his feelings was to fire Judd.
Reading this unflinching, stoical envoi, I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s account of learning to write in ‘Primer Class’: ‘what I liked best about the slate was washing it off at the kitchen sink, or in the watering trough, and then watching it dry. It dried like clouds, and then the very last wet streak would grow tinier and tinier, and thinner and thinner; then suddenly it was gone and the slate was pale gray again and dry, dry, dry.’ ‘The Farmer’s Children’ shares the same lovingly observed minor events and the same remorselessly blank conclusion. By comparison, Beckett looks a little mannered, a little over-insistent, a touch melodramatic.
Miss Bishop’s artistic manners are impeccable. Her art is the art of refinement, of precision. Somehow it is typical that she should write, not about the famous Lady of Shalott, but about her more obscure relation, the Gentleman of Shalott. On that Pullman to Boston, she is sick: ‘I threw up, yellow, into something I referred to ... as a “hopper”.’ That ‘yellow’ is priceless, funny, and an example of good manners – even vomit has its individuality and deserves its share of attention. As a writer, she sometimes waited for years for exactly the right word, having resolved ‘never to try to publish anything until I thought I’d done my best with it, no matter how many years it took – or never to publish at all’. At a time when, in English poetry, we are often asked to admire the agonised perfectionism of a Geoffrey Hill or a Donald Davie, with its inbuilt grunts of effort, it is worth considering the perfection, tout simple, of Elizabeth Bishop. ‘Why had no one ever written about things in this clear and dazzling way before?’ she asked herself on first reading Marianne Moore. It applies equally to her own work. The critic, weighing words, testing them, is banished from the final draft. She does not agonise in her work about her work: she simply gets it breathtakingly right. Nor does she bore us, profound though she is, by insisting on her profundity. The whole operation is made to seem as natural as reaching for the right fork. It feels entirely appropriate that, at their first meeting, Robert Giroux should have noticed ‘her excellent manners’. Now may we have the collected letters, please.