Like many poets, Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979) had a rather complicated life, full of dramatic challenges, trials and obstacles on the way to happiness, and probably fighting with those calamities was the main stimulus for expressing pains and sorrows in poetic words. However, Elizabeth Bishop was not going to be the same as her contemporary colleagues. While the majority of the American poets of the first part of the twentieth century tended to build their art on the basis of their personal tragedies, Bishop preferred to distance her feelings and to express them through the description of the world around. As Lombardi (1) underlines, “Bishop maintained a style that was equivocal and ambiguous about the contours of her private life; while others of her generation were fully engaged in literary politics she kept her distance in Key West, Mexico, and Brazil, refusing enlistment in the ranks of any particular aesthetic movement.” In this way she managed to work out her own, incomparable style and method, without falling under somebody’s influence or encouragement. Her own life experience and inner striving for words was her best manager. What is more, she was sincere and ironically plain in reflecting her views and attitudes, meanwhile without saying a word about herself. Sense of estrangement became Bishop’s central theme. “The poet shows a protective interest in “off creatures” who escape conventional definition, hyphenated protagonists posed on a threshold between the organic and the inorganic, the mechanical and the sensual,” Lombardi (3) explains. It means that Bishop managed to combine the deepest tension of what is happening to a person with the most up-to-date tendencies in a literature world, with the hints of technocratic era and cynicism of the art nouveau. Against the background of all the diversity of her art, the crucial theme in her poetry is known as “the nature of loss”.
To understand how this theme is uncovering itself, it is suitable to compare and confront the two poems of different periods, “Quai d’Orleans” and “One Art”. “Quai d’Orleans” presents a lyrical speculation on how the barges are moving by the river Seine. Their movement and disappearance of the wakes becomes the symbol of the healing process of time, however put under dispute. The barges are compared to giant oak leaves “of gray lights on duller gray”. The simile of the fallen leaves also gives birth to a chain of other associations: the autumn-driven end of something, light sorrow, and slow-motion shift of time. It is interesting to underline that in the poem leaves exist not only as a figure, but as a real agent as well: “behind it real leaves are floating by, / down to the sea.” Everything is moving away, and the memories are drifting as well, to the great and vast sea of unknown depth, of non-existence. Another simile is present in the third stanza: the “giant leaves” (already standing as a metaphor for barges) are moving “as softly as falling-stars come to their ends / at a point in the sky.” It is shown that nothing is stable and nothing stays the same, everything is gone, but at the same time the desirable oblivion turns out not to come. “But for life we’ll not be rid / of the leaves’ fossils,” Bishop concludes in the final line, and here the reader realizes that painful memories never go away, they go on living in our heads as ghosts of the past. Their mummies poison the conscience and never give a relief. The nature’s utter indifference is shown in contrast with the depth of human anxiety and regret. Meanwhile, nature is personified: the water is “nervous”, and together with the light it holds the “interview” – a bright depiction of how the surroundings are living their own lives, different from the inner world of a person or, probably, two, who are “as still as stones”. From the latter simile, it is interesting to underline that while natural phenomena are personified, humans are vice versa materialized. Further on, due to the so-called transfer of agency (instead of “we could forget what we see” Bishop stipulates “If what we see could forget us…”), the association with a place of pain is fixed to show that memories are usually awakened by scenery and atmosphere. In this way the author creates a “highly detailed and objective, distant point of view” provoking striking and moving images. As Lombardi (177) concludes, “In the simplest and most superficial of terms, “Quai d’Orleans” is rather obviously concerned with linguistic representation and its groundless relation to human consciousness.”
While “Quai d’Orleans” is of something we unfortunately cannot get rid of, another poem, “One Art” is about what we vice versa do not wish to lose. But the more we wish, the more we lose, that is why this poem’s text is about the art of losing something. The refrain of the poem is “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”, but the more the statement is repeated, the more we are convinced that it is not so easy. By structure the poem is a villanelle, with nineteen lines and two rhymes (master – disaster) throughout. In comparison with the first poem, this one is full of irony, but still it has the same dramatic idea of moral difficulties we cannot overcome. The things are personified, while they are, for example, told to have “the intent to be lost”. The concept of time (given in the image of hours and “mother’s watch”) and the concept of space (from lost houses to cities and so on) are put together to show the universal scale of the supposition. Bishop lines up a row of material things like keys, watches, houses and realms together with some immaterial things like time (“Accept the fluster / of lost door keys, the hour badly spent”) to make up a road of associations. But the true sense of this row is to compare them with the loss of something much more essential. It is obviously the loss of love meant: “Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied.” It seems that the lyric character is convincing the lover that the loss of their love is either no disaster, but it is understood that the one whom she is trying to convince is only herself. “The villanelle “One Art” is an exercise in the art of losing, a rehearsal of what we tell ourselves to keep going, a speech in a brave voice,” Millier (506) shows. Through simplification and matching love to other ordinary things, Bishop tries to win the feelings by logic and ratio, learning step by step, moving from small losses to bigger ones, but it doesn’t sound convincingly (“though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster”). In this way, the optimistic and energetic tone of the poem cannot hide the bitterness of the very sense of the statement. Naturally, the life does not stop and one really learns to live in a new away, adapts to the world without this or that thing, no matter how important it is, a man is an adaptive being by nature, but still grief is collected in people’s mind and it can never go away forever. It is even sadder because sometimes people do not realize it when they are losing something and do not appreciate what they have until they lose it irrevocably.
Despite the difference in tone and atmosphere, both poems are of how it is important and simultaneously difficult to be strong for a woman, to get a grip over herself, to pull herself together, to keep her head right. “This all, perhaps, “one art” – writing elegies, mastering loss, mastering grief, self-mastery,” Brett Candlish Millier (513) resumes. Both poems have two grounds, the one expressed in words and creating the atmosphere, and the second connotative, hidden behind the words and making up the very intention of the poet. These two grounds contribute to the ambiguity of Bishop’s poetry, the tone of which is on the whole comfortably high, at such a level where the prosaic and intelligently platitudinous are combined towards poeticized entities by skillfully executed shifts of direction. All in all, the nature of loss is depicted through the abstract, intellectual, and emotional musings, which echo deep in the reader’s imagination.
Lombardi, Marilyn May. Elizabeth Bishop: the geography of gender. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1993.
Millier, Brett Candlish. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the memory of it. Ewing, NJ: University of California Press, 1995.