by Luiza Karakhanyan
First Death in Nova Scotia is a short poem by Elizabeth Bishop. Elizabeth Bishop published relatively few poems during her long life. This poem arises from her experience as a child living with relatives in Nova Scotia. The poem is vividly conveying the image of innocence of the persona. It is very important how it relates to the personal experience of the poet. Elizabeth Bishop shows how a child struggles to cope with the understanding of death. The young child takes refuge in the objects she sees around her. That helps her to hide from the reality and at the same time to understand the boy’s death. The poem First death in Nova Scotia is one of the most prominent poems of Elizabeth Bishop. There are few reasons for that. First of all, the topic of the poem is very unusual and dissonant as it mixes the child’s innocence and sullenness of the death in one composition. Second of all, unlike the other poems, First death in Nova Scotia, presents the mother of Elizabeth Bishop: “ “Come,” said my mother,
“Come and say good-bye
to your little cousin Arthur.” “
This is a very poignant scene, because Elizabeth loses her mother later. From the background of Bishop’s biography, we know that her mother suffered a series of breakdowns and was permanently institutionalized when her daughter, Elizabeth, was five. Therefore, we can assume that Bishop was younger than five in the poem. In her other poems, as Filling station and Sestina, we can notice an absence of mother, which is directly related to real absence of mother in her life. So, First death in Nova Scotia is the only poem that makes reference to her mother, even though this reference is very short and unemotional. Furthermore, the poem stands out because it is more like a continuation of a young girl’s thoughts rather than a Narrative type of poem, such as Fish and some other poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Metaphors and Epithets
The poem itself is just a one big metaphor, because the subject of death skirts around without actually articulating it fully. The descriptive language is used to give us a clear intense picture of the objects in the room to show how hard the child tries to avoid looking at the body of Cousin Arthur: “He kept his own counsel
on his white, frozen lake,
the marble-topped table.
His breast was deep and white,
cold and caressable;
his eyes were red glass,
much to be desired.”
Bishop uses a number of epithets for the detailed descriptions and metaphors, such as “Frozen lake, the marble-topped table”. The use of words, such a “cold”, “frozen” and colours, such as “red”, “white” are simple epithets, helping to create metaphors to avoid dealing with the issue of death. All the poetic terms and techniques are very important in this poem. Moreover, stanza №4 is the most metaphorical:
“Arthur was very small.
He was all white, like a doll
that hadn't been painted yet.
Jack Frost had started to paint him
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever.”
In order to convey the image with the use of metaphors, Bishop expresses indirect meaning of phrases through fictional characters(Jack Frost), simile(comparison “white,like a doll”) and little colour hints(“red strokes”, “white”, etc). All these techniques hint on the subject of death, which skirts around but is not actually mentioned.There are a number of images which evoke the coldness and stillness of death, e.g. ‘cold’, ‘white’, ‘frozen’, ‘marble’, ‘lily’, ‘frosted cake’, ‘frozen lake’, ‘Jack Frost’. Some of them are repeatedly mentioned all the time throughout the poem, which shows the limited range of vocabulary, which is straight-forward, factual and everyday-speechlike-indicates the tone of the poem and the narration type. Repetitions
Repetitions play a big role in First death in Nova Scotia. They create a stronger impression on their meaning and they put emphases in order to catch readers attention. In this poem repetitions are very noticeable. Emphases are out on cold atmosphere of the poem through repetitions and child’s perspective. The range of vocabulary used is not very wide which points on the child-like and detached manner of expressing the feelings. Assonance, alliteration and rhymes.
First death in Nova Scotia does not have a specific rhyme scheme, like the majority of Bishop’s poems. However, we can find few if we look closer: “Cake-Lake”, “Small-Doll”, “Go-Snow”. They have very little significance, however for a child , that is the narrator, they make the poem sound more euphonious. Assonance, such as “tiny lily” and alliterations, such as: “stood a stuffed….shot and stuffed”, have the same role. They create harmony and euphony in the sentences. Elizabeth Bishop was strongly affected by this childhood incident. Like Sestina, this poem is written from a child’s point of view. The poem explores the child’s confusion as it is her first experience of death. Death for the child is frightening and mysterious. Structure
The structure of the poem follows the confused child’s emotions as she tries to make sense of the reality of death. The child uses associations to find refuge in the objects she sees around, trying to avoid meeting with reality. Both in the beginning of the poem and closer to the end of it she repeats ideas and makes unusual connexions between things. For example, “the red-eyed loon eyed it from his white, frozen lake” and “Since Uncle Arthur fired….He kept his own counsel on his white, frozen lake, the marble-topped table”. She repeats same ideas but in different contexts, which sometimes confuses the reader and seams to make no sense. The poem is structured as a fairytale, mentioning “Royal family”: “Edward, Prince of Wales, with Princess Alexandra, and King George with Queen Mary.” and “The gracious royal couples were warm in red and ermine;” This element helps the reader to see the picture through child’s perspective and understand how child’s imagination works. In her mind, young Arthur is surrounded by lots of people and maybe that hints on death as well, and helps her to perceive that: “They invited Arthur to be
the smallest page at court’’
The real perception hits the child at the last few lines of the poem, when she starts fearing that Arthur might not be able to ever leave that coffin and come back to the normal life. She questions herself, why his eyes are closed, and why her mother lifted her up earlier to put a lily in his hand. She looks back at the earlier events and tries to conclude what’s happening, but gets into a state of confusion. The poem ends with a question mark at the end. It lets us assume that young child is still in confusion and only starts realizing what’s happening by the end of the poem. However, we can’t say for sure if she understand the whole picture fully or not. Bishop captures death in three words -“cold and caressable” . Despite the fact that it’s compact and short, it shows one more time, that she is unable to fully comprehend the meaning of death. She can still caress her cousin as when he was still alive, but for some unknown reason he is “cold” now.