Elizabeth Bishop

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Elizabeth Bishop is a very highly skilled poet. She deals with several different but equally interesting subject matters. I am personally drawn to many elements of her work, for example her themes and style of writing. Bishop deals with many different themes, including family, death, beauty and survival. She also uses a very unique and intriguing style of writing. Bishop has a remarkable eye for detail, her poems reach a conclusion and she puts a huge amount of her own life into her work.

Firstly I will look at the themes of her poetry. Family, childhood and home are recurring themes throughout her poetry. Bishop had quite an unfortunate childhood and lost both her parents at quite a young age. This is reflected in the unnerving images she often employs in accounts of her childhood.

This theme is central to many of her poems. “Sestina”, for example, is dominated by mages of rain, failing light and tears. Also in “First Death in Nova Scotia” she captures the confusion of a child faced with the inexplicable fact of her cousin’s death.

The use of the third person voice in “sestina” blends the poet’s adult perspective with the child’s. It also allows Bishop to distance herself emotionally. Quite noticeably there is no mother in “sestina”, which is reinforced by the repetition of “grandmother.” This lack of parental figure in Bishop’s life is common in her poems, all but “First Death in Nova Scotia”.

“Come,’ said my mother”

Bishop lost her mother at five years of age. Although her mother didn’t die at this time it is notable that the only poem in which she is mentioned is predominantly about death.

It seems Bishop never knew a true home and her search for a sense of belonging is apparent in “Filling Station.” At first she is disgusted by the “dirty” filling station. However as the poem progresses she discovers that it is a “family filling station.” She notices a warmer, more feminine touch in the home. “They lie upon a big dim doily draping a taboret.” Bishop tells us that “somebody” embroidered the doily. This somebody is the mother of the “greasy sons.”

There are also many other domestic comparisons in her work, such as the reference to “ancient wallpaper” and “tarnished tinfoil” in “The Fish.”

“The Fish” uses many different types of descriptions. Bishop’s use of both factual, objective imagery and aesthetic, subjective imagery is an element of her work which really appealed to me.

In contrast to factual description such as “rags of green weed hung down” there is quite a bit of romanticising such as “five haired beard of wisdom.” There is also a contrasting link between the fish and roses. Once again Bishop takes something quite unpleasant and makes it beautiful. “Speckled with barnacles” is hardly a pleasant image, much like the skin of the fish hanging off. However Bishop’s carefully chosen language shows beauty.

Bishop also finds beauty in the most miserable of scenes. This is clear in “The Prodigal.” The prodigal lives in a pig sty, he leads a truly disgusting life. However Bishop’s ability to find beauty in the most miserable of places shines through. “The sunrise gazed the barnyard mud with red.”

Beauty is discovered through a series of observations in “Filling Station.” At first glance the filling station is a filthy and thoroughly unpleasant place to be. “Oil-soaked, oil-permeated to a disturbing overall black translucency.” However she continues to discover more and more about their home and the images become more pleasant. “Embroidered with daisy stitch with marguerites.”

Another interesting theme throughout Bishop’s work is death. “First Death in Nova Scotia” deals with a child’s first experience of death. The child is younger than five and doesn’t understand death. This is showing where she speaks about the stuffed loon. “Since Uncle Arthur fired a bullet into him he hadn’t said a word.” The child doesn’t understand what has happened or what will happen to “little cousin Arthur.”...
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