The Numinous Moose

Helen Vendler

  • Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It by Brett Millier
    California, 602 pp, £18.50, April 1993, ISBN 0 520 07978 7

Brett Millier’s new biography of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) is a substantial one, adding extensively to the biographical material provided by David Kalstone in Becoming a Poet (covering Bishop’s friendships with Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore) and by Lorrie Goldensohn in Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry (relating, notably, Bishop’s 15 years in Brazil). Millier (who teaches at Middlebury College) surveys Bishop’s life from cradle to grave, ordering its events in a readable narrative interspersed with paraphrases of poems which illuminate the life. This is not the most interesting use of poems, but it is a legitimate one. Millier has worked in the several archives of Bishop material, and has mined Bishop’s notebooks, rough drafts and letters (including previously restricted ones) to good effect. The few errors that I (from my limited knowledge) could spot were not serious ones; Millier, for instance, seems to think that classes at Harvard were not co-educational when Bishop arrived to teach there in 1970: ‘Harvard and Radcliffe had not yet merged. Her undergraduate students would all be male.’ In fact, courses had been co-educational since World War Two, when the classrooms were emptied of men. People with an intimate knowledge of Bishop’s life, or, say, of Brazilian politics, may find similar inaccuracies here or there. But the general external contours of the life seem adequately represented here, and the paraphrases of the poems are, for biographical purposes, reliable. Millier has conversed with many of Bishop’s friends and acquaintances, and her attitude to a life made persistently disastrous by alcoholism is a sympathetic and generous one.

What is missing, from this biography as from many others concerning poets, is a justification of its effort. Who is Bishop that we should care about her? What is poetry that we should care about it? What has Bishop’s poetry contributed to the history of poetry that was not there before? In what way is the life of a poet relevant to the work (except in the most obvious sense)? How is the development of a poet best described? What would be the inner dynamic of the life of a poet? Would all poets have a comparable dynamic, or are there real varieties of the writer’s life? If so, to what variety does this life belong?

The writing of literature over a lifetime requires from its author a form of heroism. The narrative of that heroism – its successive battles, its defeats, its re-groupings, its perplexities, its leaps toward certainty – makes a thrilling story, rightly told. Often, too, the story has mysterious episodes, some of which have become clichés of literary history. Why did the poetry of Wordsworth show a falling-off, in spite of his industry and sobriety? Why couldn’t Joyce or Faulkner, those masters of language, write poetry? Why are there years of silence in Stevens’s career? The biography of an author ought to take as its centre the imaginative dynamic by which one can make sense of the oeuvre. Otherwise there is no suspense, no anxiety, no crowning triumph, no desolate worry.

The problems Bishop faced as a young writer in America were several. One was finding her genres; they turned out to be poetry and autobiographical narrative (a pair sometimes disappointing, since Bishop occasionally wanted to write for money, and neither had commercial value). Another was uncovering her subject-matter; it turned out to be metaphysical scepticism in the face of observational conviction, not an easy combination since she believed as passionately in the testimony of the word as in the testimony of the eye. Another was settling on her tone; this entailed getting rid of the religious nostalgia so evident in Eliot, Stevens, Frost and other American Modernists, along with the aesthetic nostalgia looming large in Pound. Allied to these was consolidating her prosody: available models included the syllabics of her mentor Moore, the stanzas of her beloved Herbert, or the free verse of the admirable Eliot. Yet another problem was remaining an American artist; though her roots were Canadian and her residence of many years was Brazil, she did not adopt the Anglophile or Francophile bent of many of her Modernist expatriate predecessors, nor did she choose the nativist stance of Frost. The hardest problem of all for her was how to fold a gentle comedy and irony into her lyrics, without deflecting their serious and even spiritual intent. Incidental problems (to what extent to reveal personal identity as a woman and as a lesbian, and to what extent to write about larger social concerns) were not lacking.

Millier makes more of the incidental difficulties than of the central ones. But solving each of the artistic problems required an arduous and earnest inner journey. Solving the more ordinary problems of life (where to live, whom to live with, how to earn a living) was, though not easy for Bishop, less important to her eventual place in literature. Millier’s biography tends to pass up the inner journey for the outer one – perhaps because to convey, to an unliterary reader, the issues involved in inventing a prosody, or delimiting a metaphysical position in verse, is vexingly difficult Such issues are loci of potential moral turpitude in a writer. The slide into the quasiplagiarised effect, the adoption of the well-worn rhythm, the ready invocation of facile emotion or of an idée reçue – actions demoting, say, Edna St Vincent Millay to the status of a minor poet – take place so easily that to resist them demands invention of a strenuous and unremitting sort, and self-criticism of a peculiarly harsh and sustained kind. Perhaps the biography of the poetic career belongs properly to a work of criticism like Goldensohn’s; yet one would like to see it skeletally, at least, as the animating force of the biography proper.

Bishop’s life was not one filled with event. It was a long enduring of the trauma of its beginnings: her father died when she was eight months old, and her mother immediately declined into mental illness; when Bishop was five, her mother was permanently confined in an asylum in Nova Scotia. Though Gertrude Bishop lived until 1934, Bishop never saw her again. Bishop was raised by her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia and (after an unfortunate sojourn in Massachusetts with her father’s parents, which brought on a catastrophic combination of allergies and asthma, from which she was to suffer for the rest of her life) by aunts and boarding-schools (the Walnut Hill School in Massachusetts, followed by Vassar College). She was already writing poems at the Walnut Hill School, and was confirmed in her sense of herself as a poet when, still at Vassar, she was introduced to Marianne Moore, who became a lifelong friend. Through the powerful sponsorship of Moore she was introduced to the New York literary scene, and began her equivocal and ambivalent relationship with the world of publishing. Modesty and hesitation made her the worst advocate of her own work, and her friends had almost to lead her by the hand to publishers and sources of fellowships. (The sponsorship of Moore was replaced, in later years, by the sponsorship of Robert Lowell; and almost against her own will, often without even applying for grants but receiving them through nomination by others, Bishop eventually saw her work acknowledged by prizes and honours.)

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