The Impact of Blind Obedience in “The Farmers Children”
“The Farmer’s Children” by Elizabeth Bishop reveals her outlook on the children’s actions through literary techniques such as characterization. Upon being sent out to guard the barn’s machinery on a winter night, Cato and Emerson did not question their stepmother, but obeyed her. There was an unhealthy filial relationship between the boys and their stepmother which led to physical and emotional damage in them. Their alcoholic father and neglectful stepmother lacked love and attentive care for their sons which ultimately resulted in the boys’ deaths. Bishop incorporates the theme of a child’s pure, unwavering compliance to their parents’ requests. Her use of allusion, characterization of parents, and characterization of the children reveal this theme. In this narrative, Bishop contrasts the pureness of Cato and Emerson’s hearts and the evil characterization of their parents to convey the theme of how blindly obeying orders can be treacherous.
Using allusions, Bishop applies striking similarities between classic fairy tale elements and her characters to expose the brothers’ blind faith in their parents. Upon confronting his step sister about his missing gloves, the stepmother scolds Cato when, in reality, Lea Leola was to blame for stealing them. The stepmother rebukes, “Now Cato, see what you’ve done!… you boys hurry up and get out of here. I’ve had enough trouble for one day” (Bishop 289). This quotation alludes to Cinderella and her relationship with her stepmother. In “Cinderella,” she didn’t criticize her daughters when they tore Cinderella’s dress for the ball; she was more devoted to her own children than to her stepdaughter. Similarly, the characterization of the farmer’s wife aligns with the evil stepmother archetype since her daughters enjoy the warmth of a loving mother while her stepchildren, Cato and Emerson, face the cold. Even with such unsupportive, unaffectionate parents, Cato and Emerson fail to confront their stepmother on the dangers of traveling down the icy road on a frigid winter night, ultimately contributing to their own deaths. Meanwhile as Judd’s replacements, Cato and Emerson were oblivious to their father and Judd’s drinking habits. The narrator explains, “Then he began to think of his father and Judd, off in town… he loved him dearly” (Bishop 292-293). This quote illustrates how Cato puts faith and trust in his father, unaware of the farmer’s true motives. While Cato is loyal and faithful to his father, the reverence is not mutual. Another allusion in “The Farmer’s Children” is the closely knit relationship between a father and his children which was also present in “Beauty and the Beast.” In “Beauty and the Beast,” despite his failing career, Belle constantly motivates her father to invent. Ironically, Bishop describes the father-son relationship when Cato recalls his admiration for his father as he and his brother freeze to death. The innocence within Cato and Emerson never doubted what their father claimed he did in town, but rather, mindlessly accepted his word. Thus, allusion is used in Bishop’s “The Farmer’s Children” as a technique to add meaning to the children’s blind acceptance of their parents’ attitude and orders to them.
The literary technique of characterization, used by Bishop to describe the parents, is effective in the story as it presents how undeserving the parents are of their children’s obedience. Contrary to Cato’s assumption, “[the father and Judd] went on ‘business,’ something to do with selling another strip of land, but probably mostly to drink; and while they were away Emerson and Cato would take Judd’s place in the old barn” (Bishop 287). As previously stated, Cato revered his father, but the father downplayed his parental role and thus, the same devotion was not returned. It never occurred to the boys that their father was not selling property; instead, they consistently took Judd’s place without complaint. As for the stepmother, “she went to find an extra quilt to put over Lea Leola, Rosina, and Gracie Bell, sleeping in one bed in the next room. She spread it out and tucked it in without disturbing them” (Bishop 291). This proves the favoritism she has for her own children. After whisking the boys out the door without gloves or blankets, the stepmother returns to her beloved daughters with an extra quilt while they remained in the comfort of their home. These examples of the cold-hearted characterization of the parents reflect the resolution of the story when the children’s dedication to their parents’ wishes prompt their deaths.
Bishop also incorporates a characterization of the children’s purity throughout the story to demonstrate their oblivion to the true nature of their parents’ behavior. For example, the stepmother reminds the boys of their duty: “‘I suppose you boys forgot you’ve got to get over to the barn sometime tonight,’ she said ironically. Emerson protested a little” (Bishop 289). Emerson is not especially confrontive to his stepmother, rejecting her reminder or criticizing her for suggesting such a trip out in the merciless cold; instead he joins his brother in accepting their fate. Additionally, when Cato and Emerson exit the house, they “[try] to warm their noses against the clumsy lapels of their mackinaws, the freezing moisture felt even worse, and they gave it up and merely pointed out their breath to each other as it whitened and then vanished” (Bishop 289). This shows that despite the bitter winter, the boys dutifully proceeded with their task. The purity and cliche of the children cost them their lives. Therefore, Bishop differentiates the characterization of the parents and the children through the parents’ unreliability and the children’s virtue.
Ultimately, the conflicting characterization between the couple and their children emphasizes an overall theme of how mindlessly following orders ends with adverse consequences in Bishop’s “The Farmer’s Children.” By highlighting comparisons and contrasts between the two, the character portrayals and allusions to fairy tale elements help illustrate the theme. Bishop inspires the reader to question seemingly logical decisions and behaviors of their parents. Overall, by highlighting these instances of fairy tale comparisons and opposite characterizations, the story accentuates the importance of sensible decisions in the real world.
The Female Body as a Piece of Art in Pink Dog
(Rio de Janeiro)
The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.
Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.
Naked, you trot across the avenue.
Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair…
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.
Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
But look intelligent. Where are your babies?
(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
While you go begging, living by your wits?
Didn’t you know? It’s been in all the papers,
To solve this problem, how they deal with beggars?
They take and throw them in the tidal rivers.
Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
Go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
Out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.
If they do this to anyone who begs,
Drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,
What would they do to sick, four-legged dogs?
In the cafes and on the sidewalk corners
The joke is going round that all the beggars
Who can afford them now wear life preservers.
In your condition you would not be able
Even to float, much less to dog-paddle.
Now look, the practical, the sensible
Solution is to wear a fantasia.
Tonight you simply can’t afford to be
An eyesore… But no one will ever see a
Dog in mascara this time of year.
Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.
What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?
They say that Carnival’s degenerating
– Radios, Americans, or something,
Have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.
Carnival is always wonderful!
A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!
Unveiling Costumes: The Feminine Body in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Pink Dog”
In “Pink Dog,” Elizabeth Bishop recounts a one-sided dialogue between the poetic speaker and a naked canine, shaved to a fleshy pink and prancing for food. Though the dog’s bold behavior captures the gaze of the speaker and a crowd of onlookers, it is the speaker’s account of the event and all its inflected intricacies, which transform the poem from a lightly comical tableau to serious symbolism. From curiosity, to threats and eventually advice, the speaker’s narrative elucidates cultural issues with the bare, feminine figure. Serving as a dehumanized representation of the human body, the brazenly pregnant dog rattles the speaker’s cultural sensibilities, intimating the closely guarded social view of the female form as well as challenging its intelligence and legitimacy.
Bishop’s dog may appear to bystanders to be a common, mangy street animal; however, to the speaker and within the poem it is a devolved representation of the female body. Throughout the poem, the speaker conflates the identity of the mutt as both dog and woman. The title, “Pink Dog,” is a premier constitution of this combination. By describing the dog as pink, the speaker attributes not only the literal color to the animal but also the important connotation of pink as the essential shade of femininity. The speaker’s continued preoccupation with the female aspects of the do g’s form compounds this evidence. For example, there is the vulgar description of its “hanging teats” and the reference to the dog as a “poor bitch.”
Both of these choices in diction are even brought to the forefront of the poem by syntactic and rhythmic details. The former is set off by the only parentheses in the poem. The latter is found on a line, which breaks away from the typical iambs of the poem in favor of anapestic triple meter; further compounding this metric and rhythmic anomaly, “poor bitch” receives a double stress that disrupts the already distinct meter. “Bitch” is also a near rhyme between “teats” and “wits” and it comes after a completed stress group, forcing it to stand in its own group, erect in all its grotesque glory.
The speaker also shows no hesitation in placing the dog in uniquely human contexts, creating more evidence for the mutt’s personification as an embodiment of the female form. For instance the speaker equates the dog to a human beggar, suggesting that she will receive the same punishment- or perhaps even worse- for her actions as all the common “idiots, paralytics, and parasites” or “anyone who begs.” This commonality of punishment reflects a perceived similarity of character between dog and human. Even referring to the dog as “naked” in the first and second stanzas is an act of personification, because it ascribes human diction to the animal; dogs are not referred to as “naked,” only humans- dogs are always “naked.” “The speaker also suggests the dog would fit in better if she dressed up for the carnival: “the practical, the sensible,/ solution is to wear a fantasia” and “no one will ever see a/ dog in mascara this time of year.” But wearing costume garb would only help a person fit in. Putting on makeup would only help a real woman. For a dog these actions would only heighten the grotesque, would only abject it further.
Yet, then why does the speaker extend such advice? The answer is that the act of costuming is not meant for the dog, rather it is intended for what the dog represents: a female body. Its nakedness and femininity is what is most alarming, most disturbing, and that is what the speaker wishes to shroud. Consider the initial introduction of the dog, “Naked, you trot across the avenue.” At this point her bodily form is ambiguous; it cannot be ascertained whether it is an animal or woman or anything specific. So in the earliest reaction what first captures the speaker’s eyes is not the form of this creature but that it is “naked” and “trotting” boldly.
These two words also gain heightened stature by the initial inversion of the line which breaks away from the iambic pentameter of the first two lines; “naked” gets a stark first stress and beat; two offbeats rise up to a climax at “trot,” making its stress and beat more powerful. This pattern is even duplicated in the fifth line with “Naked and pink,” a repetition of diction and form that also intensifies the bare womanliness of the dog. Because of this emphasizing, it is clear the speaker’s advice to “dress up” is a call to cover the flaunting of the naked female body and not just a hairless dog. The figure is unsettling. The speaker wishes to cover and contain it.
To this end, the entirety of the speaker’s dialogue can be viewed as an intimation of the extent to which society is captured by and uncomfortable with exposed femininity. In the second stanza this is illustrated beautifully as, “Startled, the passersby draw back and stare [at the dog].” The bystanders are simultaneously attracted and repelled by the sight, just like the speaker, who dedicates a large amount of attention to the dog- though this consideration is impelled by disquietude. Indeed, the lengthy, abstruse threats of beggars “bobbing in the ebbing sewage” and the advice on Carnival costumes can be interpreted as misguided attempts to relieve the speaker’s anxiety over the uncovered female form; by addressing the dog’s poverty and fashion sense, the speaker deftly avoids that which is really an “eyesore”- the startlingly naked, the brazenly pink, the overtly feminine body of the dog. In the final stanzas, the degradation of the speaker’s advice into forced and contrived pedagogical exclamations also indicates how strikingly she clings to these ideas. The affirmation of Carnival against a skeptical “They” who believe it’s degenerating is lackluster and desperate: “They’re just talking./ Carnival is always wonderful!/… Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!”
In this context, the speaker’s attempts to convert the dog to the festivities of Carnival- to its elaborate clothes, ravishing makeup, and jaunty sambas- do not represent the encouraged embrace of sexual and bodily expression usually associated with the pre-Lent carnival season, but rather a distinct veiling and repression of those very ideals. To put clothes or “mÃ¡scara” on the dog would only shroud its symbolism as a fertile feminine form, would merely detract from its naked purity. To attend carnivals and dance “sambas,” the canine would have to quit begging, abandoning her traditional womanly duty to gather food for her babies. These inherent flaws with Carnival’s costuming are best explicated through the event’s characteristic habiliment: the “fantasÃa.” This choice in diction speaks to a double meaning; the “fantasÃa” is both a disguise and a failed illusion. It is a masquerading fantasy. It only hides what the dog represents, and in the process, sullies that symbolism.
The unsound logic of this faÃ§ade is further flawed due to its propagation by a simple-minded and inconsistent speaker. Throughout the poem, the end-rhymes of each tercet often come across as hokey or juvenile, especially because of their reliance on simple, monosyllabic rhymes. The speaker has trouble retaining a steady rhythm, meter, or even number of syllables within each line; there are anapests, iambs-four and five beat lines- lines with nine, ten, or eleven syllables. These formal incongruities amplify the inherent absurdity of treating the dog like a human beggar or dressing her up in mascara because they contribute to a view of the speaker as informal and comical which betrays the otherwise serious subject of the poem. This disparity between the objective content and subjective observer within the verse amounts to a self-satirizing speaker that is undeserving of reader’s respect. And, in turn, neither is the viewpoint expressed.
In Elizabeth Bishop’s “Pink Dog,” the depth of cultural aversion and disgust towards the naked feminine form, as represented by the fleshy, pregnant canine and intimated through the speaker’s narrative, is exposed and objected to through the elucidation of its contradictions and absurdities. Its greatest incongruity, that which lies between the supposedly prized value of sexual expression and the actual environment of repression, is evidenced in the speaker’s costuming advice for Carnival. That which will supposedly make the female body more palatable- clothes, makeup, jovial sambas- is in actuality what makes it a masquerade, what veils the pure womanliness and motherhood of the bare dog. Perhaps this is the reason “They say that Carnival’s degenerating.” “Radios, Americans, or something” have degraded the otherwise traditional Latin concepts of beauty, so that even a pink little dog is too alarming- too brazen- too feminine.
Lesbian Love in the Verse “Shampoo”
In her affectionate verse “The Shampoo”, Elizabeth Bishop addresses her lesbian partner Lota, whose great black tresses have begun to bear the signs of grey aging. Her tone is tender and her language contemplative—she marvels at the marks of age with a sigh, not a scowl. Bishop infuses the poem with imagery of lichens and astros, first to observe the marks of aging, then to expose an emotional current that runs deeper than its transient, physical counterpart. “The Shampoo” serves as vehicle for a subtle and sentimental declaration of love, which Bishop asserts even against the faint manifestations of age.
In the first stanza, Bishop likens the grey hairs of her partner to marine lichens—insinuating their way through the threads of her hair and spreading forth in “gray, concentric shocks.” (The strands of grey that reveal themselves are “shocks” both in the sense that they are tufts of color and literally shocking to Bishop; they have existed all along but until now have gone unnoticed, and their presence and implications are jolting.) In the opening line of the poem, the grey hairs are termed oxymoronically to be “still explosions.” This is perhaps to say that they grow quietly, imperceptibly—almost as flowers do—until their growth is perceived, at which point the reaction of the observer is an explosion of emotion. Bishop further supports the notion of a silent maturation in line 5 when she mentions the moon, which she employs as a metaphor for Lota’s face. The “rings around the moon” are in fact the lines and wrinkles that have begun to manifest themselves upon Lota’s aging visage. As with the spreading of lichens, the changes in the waxing and waning of the moon can never quite be observed in their movement, but can instead only be detected once the full change is complete. Despite the physical transformations that have occurred and are still occurring, Bishop notes that in memories she and her lover are ever-fresh and still full of the vibrancy of youth.
Although the rhyme scheme (abacbc) remains in effect throughout the poem’s three stanzas, Bishop uses her poetic license to tweak it in the second stanza. This is appropriate given the slight shift of her tone, which becomes one of lament for her “dear friend” who has shown aging before her time. Bishop is aware of her own unrealistic wish to preserve a sort of indestructibility—an immortality—which Lota’s wrinkles and grey hairs clearly supplant. Even still, she fantasizes that the “heavens will attend / as long on us,” (Lines 7-8) as they would attend on the moon, which is seemingly an infinity. As Lota has been “precipitate” and appears to have aged suddenly, even earlier than Bishop feels she should have, so has the abstract “Time” been “amenable”—following in tandem with the practical reality of Lota’s maturation.
There is a hint of the solemn when Bishop refers to the grey hairs against the black backdrop of Lota’s head as “shooting stars.” Shooting stars do in fact illumine the sky; but shooting stars are also falling stars. Eventually, these stars will flicker out, just as life finally fails. The “shooting stars” are in “bright formation”, which gives them a sense of direction, purpose—as if they were soldiers marching toward the final clash between life and death. Lota’s lines “are flocking where, / so straight, so soon?” (Lines 15-16), Bishop asks, displaying a childlike curiosity which is merely rhetorical. Bishop herself knows the final destination of grey hairs and aging, and recognizes that they are undeniable signs of the irreversible progression of life toward death.
Bishop’s final solution to the shadows of aging is the warm and intimate act of washing her partner’s hair—a celebration, rather than a denigration, of the rite of growing old. The act of shampooing is generally thought to be an autonomous task; here, however, Bishop seeks to wash her partner’s hair in an attempt to become one with her. In its tender simplicity, the act evokes a sense of bonding with gentle and genuine caresses; it does not connote sexual love, but emphasizes rather a sincere, almost spiritual love. By washing away the worries and concerns surrounding old age, Bishop celebrates her partner and their mutual love.
In the concluding lines of the poem, Bishop beckons Lota to come to the “big tin basin” that is “battered and shiny like the moon.” The moon, with its crevices and craters, is of course Lota’s face—a face that is weathered and lined with age, yet still glowing with life and vigor. That the order of these final adjectives is “battered and shiny” is perhaps significant as the lasting impression is not of the “battered” but of the “shiny”—of the resplendence that still emanates from Lota’s face.
The Analysis of Poetry in Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop has often been linked to the poetical canon of the ‘confessional poets’ of the 1960’s and 70’s. Confessional poetry focused largely on the poet, exposing his/her insecurities and personal vulnerabilities. Bishop, however, was better known for her insistence on remaining outside of this movement. To be called a confessional poet “would have horrified the very proper and obsessively discreet author” (Gioia 19). She seemed to express the view that the tragedies within a poet’s mind should not be found on the page. As Bishop once famously said regarding confessional poets: “You wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves” (Costello 334). Despite her convictions, Bishop’s personal life was so wrought with tragedy and alienation that she sought a way to express her experiences through her work. Poetry, especially during this period of total lyrical exposure, became the perfect medium for her to work through her pain. Her peers had set the standard for audience reception of such personal poetry, and Bishop sought to utilize their idea of self-recovery in her own, much more subtle, way.
Importantly, we must recognize both the slight commonality and the distinct difference between Bishop and the confessional poets. Confessional poetry often “dealt with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships were addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical manner” (“A Brief Guide”). Considering this, we see a connection between Bishop and other confessional poets. Despite her resolution to be known outside of the confessional canon, her work somehow lends itself to expressing personal experiences and emotions. The difference is that Bishop extends herself beyond the label of “confessional” largely by using formal poetic techniques to acknowledge and work through her personal pain. She utilizes many formalistic forms, particularly narrative tone and understatement, to express private experiences in a rather subtle and personal manner. Through her use of these techniques in the poems “In the Waiting Room” and “One Art” we can see how Elizabeth Bishop’s wielding of personal experience functions beyond the bounds of ‘confessional poetry’ and becomes more about reconciling the sense of loss in her life.
“In the Waiting Room” is a poem that reads like a personal narrative from the point of view of a young girl. Here we see a child who, while waiting in a dentist’s office for her aunt, has an epiphany about her gender identity. Bishop presents this poem as a scene, giving immense details from the exact location—“Worcester, Massachusetts”—to the time of year—“It was winter. It got dark early” (Bishop 159). This prose-like narrative suggests that Bishop is telling us a story, presumably one about herself as she gives the speaker her own name. If we see this poem as autobiographical, then we can understand how there are two points of view: there is the perspective of the young Elizabeth and that of the adult, and these two points of view function to reconcile Bishop’s sense of identity. This is a poem of a child learning what it means to live in the world as a woman, as well as an adult using this memory to come to terms with her present female identity.
While the child sits in the waiting room, reading a National Geographic with photos of women being tortured, she begins to question the identity she once believed she had: “But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them.” (Bishop 160). She refuses to consider herself one of these women, because to become a woman is to become the other, the oppressed. Her fears are reinforced when the violence the magazine describes against those “black, naked women” in the outside world connects with her own world — as she hears a cry of pain coming from her aunt in the dentist’s office (Bishop 159). She finally sees that the constituents of the gender she must accept are “all just one”, a diminished and oppressed group of women; she feels as though she is drowning under the “big black wave” of responsibilities that coincide with being a woman.
As Bishop recalls this memory, we can see how the narrative tone of this work functions as a way to reconcile coming to terms with her own identity. While examining the incident in a story-like quality, she is able to disconnect herself from the experience. She is able to declare that she is no longer that terrified young girl fearful to become marginalized but rather a grown adult that defies being “a foolish, timid woman” by expressing her emotions through her art (Bishop 160). As an adult woman, she has experienced first-hand those responsibilities the young Elizabeth understands to be frighteningly oppressive and harsh. Now that she has lived as a woman, and has written of her personal anxieties, Bishop is able to accept the inevitability of her role in society. She is able to move on through her life, just as the poem, in its final stanza, portrays the world moving on after the young girl’s epiphany.
“One Art”, if examined in the context of Bishop’s life, is certainly a much more personal and heartbreaking poem than anything else in her cache. Published in her book Geography III in 1976, “One Art” was written after Bishop had moved from Brazil—supposedly the only place she ever could call a home—and after her ex-lover Lota de Macedo Soares had committed suicide. In the wake of these events, it is not hard to imagine “One Art” as a way for Bishop to master the sense of reoccurring loss in her life. This poem is “distinctively Bishopian in its restraint, formality, classicism. Yet…deals openly with loss and has been rightly called…painfully autobiographical.” (McCabe 27). We see through her repetition a sort of rationalization for the tragedies in her life. By combining losing “a continent” and her lover with things as trivial as “lost door keys” or “an hour badly spent”, Bishop attempts to marginalize her own pain regarding those losses (Bishop 178). In other words, in the poem, losing a lover is as common and mundane as losing a watch. A reader familiar with Bishop’s loss can easily see the ironic disregard of pain she is expressing through the lines “—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan’t have lied.” (Bishop 178). In her offhanded manner, she is using these understatements to force the pain of loss—and by extension her own pain—to become much less significant.
Bishop also brilliantly utilizes the strict formality of this type of villanelle poem to work through her emotions. It seems as if the fixed form is trapping the pain within the poem, forcing her to acknowledge and “master” it so she can move on (Bishop 178). Yet the subtle beauty of Bishop’s technique lies in what Kathleen Spivak calls her “surprising irregularity” and how “Bishop, a perfectionist, chose the breaking of metric” as “significant and deliberate” (Spivak 507). Near the final lines, the emotions that are reined in by the strict villanelle form begin to break free. Now, mastering the art of losing has gone from being “not hard” to “not too hard”, suggesting that there is still a feeling of pain and difficulty each time she is forced to deal with loss. This pain can only be concealed for so long, and although “displays of naked emotion are unthinkable” and the cry of grief is ultimately “subdued, suppressed and denied” (Spivak 508), it still manages to find its expression in the last few heartbreaking lines, as the narrator stumbles, repeating words, breaking punctuation, and literally telling herself to “Write it!” (Bishop 178). The beauty of Bishop’s “One Art” lies in her ability to both conceal and reveal her true emotions while attempting to master the art of loss, a pain that the poem itself proves can never fully be controlled.
Reading Elizabeth Bishop’s work is like taking part in a great poetic archaeological dig. Both the reader and the poet are searching through the words, digging through the intent, and discerning truths behind the language in order to excavate the poet’s consciousness—her life: “In a confessional and narcissistic age…her poems are more personal than autobiographical (Gioia 26). Bishop’s poetry was about more than revealing her mistakes and pain to the world, and labeling her a ‘confessional poet’ would be simplistic. Rather, her work displays a mastery at “concealing and revealing” the personal (Spivak 496). It carefully subdues personal emotions, yet acknowledges them in a way that reconciles the experiences in the poet’s life. Bishop had the astonishing ability to express these experiences and grapple with her emotions through her poetry, and yet do so while maintaining a distinct sense of conduct and discretion.
First Death in Nova Scotia
There are many things that children do not understand. Their lack of experience makes them ignorant to what is happening around them, and even oblivious to the presence of death. When someone a child knows dies, it is a really rough transition: Where did he go? Am I not going to be able to see him again? What will happen next? When a person is young, that person’s understanding is less developed, so there is a lot of questioning. “First Death in Nova Scotia” is about a little girl that just experienced her first loss, which was the death of her little cousin Arthur. The speaker introduces us, the readers, to the situation she has to endure and tries to make us understand what it is for her with a few childish analogies. Elizabeth Bishop confronts innocence with death in the hands of a little girl, who does not know a thing about death. Bishop gathers a variety of concepts and techniques in the poem demonstrate the innocence of the speaker.
One of those concepts is the language, a simple, childlike vocabulary which makes us understand her way of thinking. With her vocabulary, the speaker portrays her confusion and ignorance about death because of the metaphors and similes that she uses. In the fourth stanza she said, “He was all white, like a doll / that hadn’t been painted yet” (31-32). This comparison shows the lack of description the speaker has to say about her cousin because she is a young girl who has had a really happy, enjoyable childhood and has never experienced such a sad and confusing thing. It is out of her comfort zone. Another example is in the third stanza, “Arthur’s coffin was / a little frosted cake” (28). This language used shows how the speaker tries connect the situation with the things she is familiar with to create an image of her cousin so she can understand what is happening. This comparisons shows her knowledge about death, which is really poor. This is how Bishop emphasizes the idea of death being a new thing to the speaker and how hard it is for her to explain what she sees. Confusion is another thing the author uses within the poem to show how difficult this situation is for the child, and how she is facing it for the first time. In the third stanza the speaker’s mother tells her, “Come and say goodbye / to your little cousin Arthur” (22-23). She’s so confused that she doesn’t know what to do and her mother has to guide her into this process. This is also the only thing said referring her cousin’s death, no one shows any emotion towards Arthur’s death. It is as though the little girl is the only one that cares about him. This silence helps to intensify the little girl’s confusion. In the last stanza the speaker says: “But how could Arthur go, clutching his tiny lily, with his eyes shut up so tight and the roads deep in the snow?” (47-50). She knows he’s gone, but at the same time she doesn’t know. It is that feeling same one gets when one knows that something happened but you don’t know why it happened, what exactly happened, or what is going to happen next. She just knows that he left her and she is not going to see him again, she is uncertain of where her cousin is. But, the sentence that shows all of the speaker’s confusion is in stanza number two, where she says: “Since Uncle Arthur fired / a bullet into him, / he hadn’t said a word” (11-13). The reader gets the feeling that Uncle Arthur is the one who killed cousin Arthur because the author does not specifies who the “him” is, but in reality is indicating the death of the loon that uncle Arthur killed earlier. This confusion is made so the reader would get a sense of what it is like to being the speaker, and what is happening in the speaker’s mind. Another way the author indicates the little girl’s confusion is the absence of words like “death”, “dying”, or “dead”, with the title as an exception. This vocabulary indicates that speaker is too young to understand the whole death concept, and she does not know how to refer to it.
The repetition of cold and neutral colors, like white, symbolizes the concept the speaker has towards death, which demonstrates that the speaker sees her cousin’s death colorless and cold, something negative and depressing. This symbology isolates death making it stand out from other things; for example, white is a color different from others, a unique color. The cold can also mean the idea that when someone close dies, it seems like the whole world freezes. The speaker tries to contrast the white-theme with some red motifs like the “red eyed-loon” (29), or when she refers to the “red robes” of the royalty characters. However, this warm, life concept with the color red is much scarcer than the cold, death pattern made with the white color, making them the major topic of the poem. That is a really immature and innocent concept some one can have about death, because it is not just that. For many cultures, death is something powerful and majestic, and they venerate it, it can be as equal as life and birth. As an example of that, in the second stanza she states this description, “His breast was deep and white, / cold and caressable” We all know that when you died, you get cold because of a phase called the algor mortis or “death chill” but besides that she wants to connect and specify cold and white with death. There is constant referral the speaker makes about Jack Frost, who is related to cold, white, winter weather. In the fourth stanza, the speaker said he has always painted “the Maple Leaf (Forever)” and describes how he is starting to paint Arthur’s hair “and left him white, forever” (34-40). This is how the girl makes death a separate thing of everything else. At the very beginning of the poem, the speaker says, “In the cold, cold parlor / my mother laid out Arthur” (1). In this line, there is a reference Bishop makes about Nova Scotia, a really cold place in Canada which is also the poorest, most desolate and discontent province there is in the country, also the girl states that little Arthur has been separated from the rest of the family, building again the isolation of death. In the same stanza, the speaker says there is a dead red loon that has been placed in the same room as Arthur, and again the isolation is being brought into the poem.
Lastly, the rhyme scheme in the poem it is very simple and therefore it makes it easy to write, or think. Bishop uses words children, like the speaker, can understand and make, such as “cake” (28) with “lake” (30), and “small” (31) with “doll” (32). This shows the author’s innocent, childlike, simple, and ignorant concept that young people have towards death. Many aspects of the poem fit in this concept, and makes a steady theme in the whole piece.
After reading “First Death in Nova Scotia” by Elizabeth Bishop, we can extract many themes from the poem. However, the revelation of death at an early age is the main issue. Bishop uses many techniques like confusion, simple vocabulary, rhyme scheme, and symbology to represent the theme. The confrontation of this techniques and the thesis statement give as an idea of the speaker’s thoughts and guide us to understand the choose of words in the poem. The speaker take us in every situation she is experiencing and describes it in a very unique way, just like a child would.
The Romance and Power of Nature
Nature often horrifies and frightens us. Whether it is a snake that has the potential to kill with one bite or a raging flood that can destroy an entire town in a matter of minutes, the natural world often causes us to cower in sight of its abilities. However, what we truly fear is not an animal lacking legs or a gross amount of water; we as humans dread the inalienable power that nature holds, and this fear often turns into a desire to control, subdue, and destroy. Nevertheless, artists during the period of Romanticism in the 19th century worked to conquer the destructive desires surrounding nature and in doing so recognized the immense awe and respect the world could draw out of a person thanks to its inherent beauty. Though written after Romanticism had come and gone, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” reflects much of the period’s ideology regarding the power of and appreciation for nature. While humans may have the power to restrain and even vanquish certain aspects of the natural world, Bishop, through the image of the fish, portrays nature as resilient and commanding and in the end reveals that we can often find much more of a reward in letting it be.
Often times we view nature in the same way that the fisher in the poem originally sees the fish. She notes that the fish’s “skin hung…like ancient wallpaper…stained and lost through age.” The narrator understands that the fish once had power, though only a glimmer of what it was still exists due to its old age. Similarly, as humans have created ways to subdue nature such as a pesticide to protect crops or a dam to block a river, we connect the world with a fading, timeworn power. Drifting to a focus on technology and industry, we grow farther apart from nature which only further decreases its ability in our eyes. The fisher continues to comment on aspects of the animal that make it out to be less than desirable such as how it is “infested with tiny white sea-lice.” At this point, she chooses to see the bad and disagreeable of the fish that hamper it and its abilities. We too often perceive only the negative aspects of nature and therefore regularly view it as weighed down and burdened, and we often applaud our own inventions and intelligence for having brought that weakness about. Though humans fail to recognize it at times, nature has immense power that we will never be able to fully control.
Though the fish may appear subdued, Bishop’s use of language helps its strength and impressive nature shine through. After the fisher has spent some time assessing her catch, she realizes that “five old pieces of fish-line [and] …all their five big hooks [have] grown firmly in his mouth.” The fish has not only been caught once and lost or let go, but an astounding five times. As the fisher recognizes how much the marine beast has survived and endured, she begins to understand its resilience and starts to describe it in much more admiring terms. Similarly, the Romantics see through the curtain of insignificance that humans attempt to place over nature and instead comprehend it in light of all of its history and all that it has prevailed over. In her new perception, instead of seeing the multitude of hooks and lines as a detriment to the fish, the fisher views them as “medals with their ribbons.” The afflictions that once held the animal back now serve as a reason for esteem. Further testifying to the resilience of the fish, the prizes it bears paint the many encounters it has endured in a positive light. Likewise, in Romanticism, the triumphs and grandeur of nature are taken into account rather than the times when its abilities have not pleased humans. With this new favorable assessment of the fish and of nature, the fisher and we as humans can find much more pleasure in the two than we can by simply condemning them.
In the end, the fisher realizes that the most beneficial use of the impressive fish is to let it be. In the beginning, the fisher focuses on the multitude of colors that make the animal uglier and more uncomfortable to behold; with the different perspective, she now shifts her concentration to another mix of hues in which “oil ha[s] spread a rainbow.” In changing her attitude in how she perceives the fish, the fisher no longer notices the unpleasant aspects of the beast but instead something that people everywhere view as beautiful. When looking at the natural world with a Romantic view, our focus as humans also shifts from the obnoxious features that we once sought to destroy and control to the wonderful ones that inspire joy and awe. As “victory fill[s] up” and all that the fisher can observe is rainbow, she “let[s] the fish go.” The fish triumphs just as it has five times before and just as it will continue to do. The fisher could kill and keep it, but understands that much more pleasure can be found in releasing it for others to experience. With the same logic, why would anyone want to stem the bliss and amazement nature brings?
Just as in the fish written about by Bishop, humans often have the desire and ability to overpower nature; however, if we focus less on domination and more on admiration of the beauty it has to offer, we as humans gain much more in the end. The Romantic view of nature seeks to convey that if we alter our perception as the fisher does, we have the means to esteem the power we once feared. Many people believe that the period of Romanticism started and ended in the 1800’s, yet can we not see reflections of its perception of nature in the Environmentalism of today?
Proof of “God’s Grandeur” in “Filling Station”
In his essay “Action and Repose—Gerard Manley Hopkins’s influence in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop,” Ben Howard notes the strong influence Hopkins had on poems like “The Prodigal” and “The Fish,” by Elizabeth Bishop. Another one of Bishop’s poems that seems to draw heavily, both thematically and stylistically, from Hopkins is “Filling Station,” which describes a dirty gas station and the family that owns it. In its exploration of the dirt that man smears all over his environment, the poem seems to imitate several elements from Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur.”
The most obvious connection between “God’s Grandeur” and “Filling Station” is its shared subject matter. The first line of Bishop’s poem, “Oh, but it is dirty!” (1) directly reflects the world “seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil” that Hopkins describes (6). Additionally, just as Hopkins’s poem focuses on the fact that it is “man” who causes this dirtiness (7), Bishop describes the “Father” and the “greasy sons” as the embodiment of the station’s grime (7, 11). Finally, the most compelling image that Bishop takes from Hopkins is that of God’s grandeur as “the ooze of oil / Crushed” (3-4). The words “oil” and “grease” permeate the poem, and Bishop even employs the word “crushed” in the third stanza, directly evoking Hopkins’s line. Bishop takes Hopkins’s image of oozing oil, however, and turns it on its head, using it to represent not the power of God (as it does in the Hopkins poem), but the influence of man. In addition, Bishop’s use of the oil image differs from Hopkins’s in that in “God’s Grandeur,” it is the action of crushing the olive and producing the oil that gives the image its significance; in “Filling Station,” however, the oil stagnates in a “disturbing, over-all / black translucency” (4-5).
In addition to appropriating Hopkins’s subject matter of man’s dirt, Bishop also employs some of his well-known stylistic features. The most significant of these is the creation of hyphenated, compound adjectives. They appear in Bishop’s poem in lines like “oil-soaked, oil-permeated,” and “grease-impregnated” (3, 17-8). Though these compound adjectives do not specifically appear in “God’s Grandeur,” they are prominent in many of Hopkins’s other poems. “The Windhover” has perhaps the best examples of these compound descriptors in that it features a “dapple-dawn-drawn falcon” and ends with the image of “blue-bleak embers” (2, 13). Bishop and Hopkins also both employ strings of adjectives to describe the same noun: in Hopkins, the world is “seared…bleared, smeared” (6), while in Bishop the oil around the station is “disturbing, over-all black” (4-5). Finally, Bishop’s poem perhaps appears to make some use of Hopkins’s sprung rhythm. All the lines have either 3 or 4 major stresses, suggesting a more organized metrical scheme than free verse. At least some of the lines, such as “Somebody embraidered the daily. / Samebody waters the plant, / or oils it, maybe. Somebody,” with their consistent pattern of three stresses and varying numbers and patterns of unstressed syllables, seem to be in sprung rhythm, unmistakably reflecting Hopkins’s influence.
While “God’s Grandeur” and “Filling Station” begin by describing filthy scenes, both poems feature a volta or turn at the last stanza. In Hopkins, this turn occurs at the start of the sestet with the phrase, “And for all this” (11). The sestet focuses on how the presence of the “Holy Ghost” in nature maintains a “dearest freshness” in spite of man’s blackening influence (13, 10). In Bishop, the description of the filling station moves to the family’s porch, decorated with a “doily” and a “big hirsute begonia” (30, 27); the presence of the doily, which “somebody embroidered” and which adds a personal touch to the scene, causes Bishop to reconsider her initial assessment of the ‘dirty’ filling station and focus on its unique aspects (34). The poem’s turn, like in “God’s Grandeur,” may also revolve around the presence of nature; the family’s porch not only introduces the begonia, but it also holds the doily, “embroidered in daisy stitch / with marguerites” (31-2). As a result, for Bishop as well as for Hopkins, nature reminds one of the “dearest freshness deep down things.”
The scene on the porch also alludes to the Hopkinsian idea of individuality or unique inscape as the main source of something’s worth. Indeed, the turn in Bishop’s poem comes about in the realization that “somebody embroidered the doily. / Somebody waters the plant,” and that these objects are special precisely because they belong to this particular family (34-5). Another feature of the porch is a comic book, which provides “the only note of color— / of certain color” (22-3, emphasis mine). This seems to point to the idea that this filling station, as the sum of its individual parts, has haeciettas, that which differentiates it from all other gas stations. In the final stanza, with the act of “water[ing] the plant, or oil[ing] it, maybe,” and the movement of the “rows of cans,” the poem’s predominant sense of stagnation is lost (35-6, 37); instead, the newly-appreciated filling station takes on the positive sense of movement, the “flam[ing] out” and “gather[ing] to a greatness,” that characterizes Hopkins’s vision of the “grandeur of God” (2, 3, 1). Just as Howard notes in the title of his essay, it is this contrast between “action and repose” that marks the ultimate influence of Hopkins on Bishop.
The Role of Landscape Depiction in Elizabeth Bishop
In “Cape Breton,” Elizabeth Bishop describes a landscape for the rigid cliffs and water that compose it, but also for its representation on a grander scale. The landscape is a representation of the peaceful world and how it is inevitably interrupted by human presence, affecting its ability to be natural. To Bishop, the landscape is intriguingly mysterious but is constantly awaiting on the arrival of civilization, proving that we cannot always have just nature, but rather we must have nature in relation to humans. Bishop describes a landscape not as a world of things, but rather as a laying down of ideas and hidden meanings.
Bishop paints a mysterious landscape, one with a wall of mist that “hangs in layers among the valleys and gorges of the mainland” and “the ghosts of the glaciers” (Bishop 16, 18). The landscape is ominous and almost nervous, as if waiting on the arrival of something or someone. Bishop describes each feature of the landscape at more than just face-value. She describes each part of the landscape as having feelings rather than being lifeless and emotionless, suggesting that the landscape’s meaning goes beyond the water and rock it is composed of. The glaciers are described as ghost-like and the edges of rock are irregular and nervous. Bishop paints a more abstract scene that is difficult to read at times, focusing not on the physical features per se, but the mind’s ability to turn them into ideas. The image presents the idea that landscapes and natural in general, are most natural and peaceful when they are left alone, untouched by man. If Bishop painted the image of trees, water and all other features as individual components, it would be straightforward without any underlying meaning. But it is here, where Bishop’s description of the landscape and the physical features that compose it, work together to create emotions of mystery and magic. It allows the mind to contemplate the underlying meaning of the landscape, as something more than its physical qualities.
The mysterious landscape Bishop has described is interrupted by human presence. There are “occasional small yellow bulldozers” and “miles of burnt forests, standing in grey scratches / like the admirable sculpture made on stones by stones” (25, 37-38). The landscape that was once quiet is now dead and grey. The only sources of light are the yellow bulldozers and the yellow school bus that drives down the abandoned road. The bus is full of people and lets off a man and his baby who go through the meadow, to a house by the water. Bishop describes the physical qualities of the landscape and how they relate to human life. Once the man and baby travel from the bus to the house on the water, the landscape is no longer the same. The landscape is no longer quiet and mysterious, as if human presence has tainted this world. It is now meaningless and dead: “Whatever the landscape has of meaning appears to have been / abandoned” (31-32). Bishop does not focus specifically on the water or the mountains, but focuses on the landscape; how it feels and what themes it invokes. The landscape is not a world of things, but is rather a laying down of ideas and concepts. It is ironic how when the landscape shifts from lonely to inhabited, despite only being inhabited by two people, the tone of the landscape immediately changes. Humans, who are normally considered as being full of life and noise, make the landscape quieter than ever: “And these regions now have little to say for themselves” (39). The landscape is more than what can be seen by the eye; it is a representation of the world’s mysterious nature and how it becomes dark and dead when attempting to co-exist with humans.
Bishop’s description of a landscape focuses not on the physical parts it is composed of, but how these features allow the mind to turn them into concepts and themes. The landscape relates to a bigger picture in relation to humans; how the world will always be best when it is alone. Landscapes will always be tainted by human life, or waiting upon human arrival. Bishop describes a landscape that is ominous and mysterious, that quickly changes into a dark and dead as a response to the presence of human life. The landscape is not about the water, the cliffs or the animals, but the work of these parts to create an image that goes beyond what meets the eye.
Demonstrating Growth and Maturity Over Time in At the Fishhouses and In the Waiting Room
Elizabeth Bishop ends her famous poem “One Art” with the lines, “It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like… disaster.” Although “One Art” lists many literal and symbolic forms of loss, the one that becomes the most prominent in Bishop’s poetry is the loss of time. “In the Waiting Room” and “At the Fishhouses both display the relationship between personal development and time passing. In this essay, I intend to explore the different ways in which Bishop uses imagery to demonstrate growth and maturity over time in these poems.
Although these poems “At the Fishhouses,” which was first published in 1947, uses imagery of age and seasons very similar to that in “In the Waiting Room,” which was not written until the 1970s. The poems begin similarly, with the speaker of “At the Fishhouses” saying “Although it is a cold evening, / down by one of the fishhouses / an old man sits netting,” which is suggesting that it is winter, the season of death, and the image of the old man out in the cold reiterates this. Meanwhile, the speaker of “The Waiting Room,” who is implied to be a young Bishop, starts by speaking in very matter-of-fact terms about her surroundings, such as when she says “It was winter. It got dark / early. The waiting room / was full of grown-up people, / arctics and overcoats.” Like in “At the Fishhouses,” these lines suggest that it is the season of death, except in this poem, it is the death of her childhood. Her language moves quickly from that of childhood to that of adulthood in her narrative, and this technique gives the reader a strong sense of her childish stream of consciousness and the antsiness of waiting both to leave the dentist and to grow up.
Likewise, later in “At the Fishhouses,” the speaker comments on the “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, / the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us, / the dignified tall firs begin.” The “dignified tall firs” have grown from seedlings, so the fact that they are literally and metaphorically behind the speaker and the old man suggests that they are even older than the trees. The description of the water is similar to the final stanza of “In the Waiting Room,” when she says “Outside / … were night and slush and cold / and it was still the fifth / of February, 1918.” Here, young Elizabeth is returning to her present after being sporadically bounced around between her past, present, and future––she is neither full adult nor full child, because she is only 6, but is now aware of the growth, being, and understanding of adults after reading National Geographic and hearing her aunt scream. While the line in “At The Fishhouses” suggests certainty with her place in life, this last line of “In the Waiting Room” represents a transition back to reality.
The greatest difference between the two poems is the presence of childishness. While the movement to and from adulthood is central to “In the Waiting Room” since the emphasis is on the transition from childhood to adulthood, childhood is only glazed over in “At the Fishhouses.” After noting the icy water and the firs, the speaker says “Bluish, associating with their shadows, / a million Christmas trees stand/ waiting for Christmas.” The association of the firs behind her with Christmas is a nod to the childhood that is also behind her, but aside from this instance, she stays focused on adulthood in this poem. Meanwhile, in “In the Waiting Room,” young Elizabeth moves back and forth between childhood and adulthood in her language. She first notes how long she has been waiting for her aunt, and she shares with the reader in a childlike manner that she is reading National Geographic because “(she could read).” As the memory of her eyes moving from the science section with the volcano to the high-style section with horses to the culture section featuring the naked women, she is shocked into adulthood by the images of a world she’s not yet a part of. Immediately after she sees the image of the woman’s “horrifying breasts,” she is spurred into womanhood: her aunt’s voice escapes her lips.
While “At the Fishhouses” represents the steady acceptance of this role in the world years later, young Elizabeth is too young to accept this. Although she “ knew that nothing stranger / had ever happened, that nothing / stranger could ever happen,” she returns to childhood as she ponders her upcoming birthday. Ultimately, though, this moment of change has a lasting impact: she cannot help but wonder why it is that she will become a woman, asking herself “Why should I be my aunt, / or me, or anyone? What similarities /… held us all together / or made us all just one?” Although the adult speaker in “At the Fishhouses” may not be able to answer this fully, she does demonstrate the fact that something holds all adults together, and that adulthood must eventually be accepted.
“In the Waiting Room” and “At the Fishhouses both display the relationship between personal development and time passing. However, the first shows the reader how such a connection can be sporadic, while the second demonstrates how it is eventually accepted. Although the two have different perspectives, they both explore the different ways in which Bishop uses imagery to display growth and maturity over time in her poetry.
The Analysis of M.Moore and E.Bishop Characters
It is no secret that Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop were close friends. Although written decades apart, poems titled “The Fish” were created by both authors. Upon reading Bishop’s poem against Moore’s, we can see that both of the poems deal with themes of endurance against a greater force and of the unpredictability of life. The poems are not entirely alike, of course, with differences in form, speaker, and subject matter. Important to fully examining Bishop’s “The Fish,” she and Moore’s correspondence was well-documented, including letters on Bishop’s “The Fish.” Their back-and-forth letters reveal the influence Moore had on Bishop’s poetry, as well as instances in which Bishop stood up for the more independent choices in her writing.
While Bishop’s “The Fish” can easily stand alone as a magnificent poem, analyzing it with Moore in mind leads readers to underlying themes that one might not pick up on alone. The two poets met through a mutual friend in the mid-1930s and instantly became friends, corresponding via letters. As Lynn Keller notes, “The care Bishop apparently took composing her early letters and the descriptions they contain reflects, then, not only her desire to share with Moore intriguing or delightful experiences, but also her awareness that this correspondence provided a unique opportunity for monitored practice in writing skills” (Keller). Bishop frequently asked Moore for advice on various poems, making Moore’s influence on Bishop’s poetry is undeniable. Keep in mind that Bishop was still a young poet when the two first met; “the older writer soon placed her protégée’s work in an anthology, writing an insightful preface to the new poems” (Sweeny). Especially important, Bishop and Moore corresponded about Bishop’s “The Fish.” “I am so much longing,” Bishop wrote to Moore in January of 1940 (the same year Bishop’s that “The Fish” was published), “to see some of your new poems. I am sending you a real ‘trifle’ [‘The Fish’]. I’m afraid it is very bad” (Keller). Moore responded with criticisms and suggestions for change. A month later, Bishop replied, “I have been reading and rereading your letter ever since it came … Thank you for the marvelous postcard, and the very helpful comments on ‘The Fish.’ I did as you suggested about everything except ‘breathing in’ (if you can remember that), which I decided to leave as it was” (Keller). Here, one sees how seriously Bishop took Moore’s advice.
Bishop begins by mentioning that she has read the letter multiple times, and Bishop goes on (in the full version) to describe exactly what edits she, Bishop, made in response to Moore’s letter. However, one also sees that Bishop does not let Moore decide what changes must be enacted. In the letter mentioned, Bishop refers to what becomes the twenty-second line of “The Fish,” where she does not change the words “breathing in.” This shows how Bishop was an independent poet, but a poet who still truly valued Moore’s input. Their correspondence, in part, surely led to “The Fish” being published by Partisan Review in March of 1940.
Moore’s influence on Bishop’s “The Fish” is present in more than just the changes that Bishop made. It is important to have a somewhat in-depth understanding of each poem, on its own, in order to compare and contrast the two. Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” describes a scene in which sea creatures are exposed by sunlight while the sea crashes upon a cliff. The end of the poem indicates that the cliff will continue to endure while the sea and all of its creatures grow old at its side, thus making the cliff the most permanent object in the poem. Moore experiments with the space on the page to make a poem that takes on its own physical shape that has the appearance of ebb and flow. The poem’s appearance echoes the persistent imagery of the sea that Moore describes as “a wedge/ of iron through the iron edge/ of the cliff” as the poem crashes up against the margin of the page and retreats with its indents (Moore 18-20). Moore’s “The Fish” is a poem full of contrasts. The rigidity that the form (syllabic verse combined with an AABBCC end-rhyme scheme) creates is directly contrasted with the natural flow of the ocean that is portrayed in the physical appearance of the poem. There is also a contrast between the form and the content of the poem: the mysterious life beneath the water against the predictability of the end rhyme and syllabic verse. When the sun hits the water, it turns from “black jade” (Moore 2) to “turquoise sea” (Moore 17). The water is illuminated, an illumination which comes along with the reader’s discoveries of the “jelly fish … crabs … toadstools” (Moore 23-25). Moore’s “The Fish” thus describes a scene with immense detail, but the meaning of the poem is meant to extend beyond the descriptions given, as will be touched upon later in this essay.
Bishop’s “The Fish” also contains considerable and precise detail, including a wide variety of colors that culminate to the ultimate “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow” epiphany at the end of the poem (Bishop 75). Bishop’s “The Fish” tells the story of a fisherman (presumed to be male in this essay, although Bishop is not specific) who catches “a tremendous fish” (Bishop 1). He examines the fish from its scales to its eyes to the five frayed lines and hooks that remain lodged in its mouth. The fisherman ultimately decides to release the fish that has endured so much. The poem is written in free verse but contains short and controlled lines. This structure echoes the nature of the fish that is controlled by man, hooked many times, but is ultimately free in the sea. Bishop utilizes long, descriptive sentences, rich in color and figurative language, that flow throughout the poem, like the sea itself flows. Many colors are present in the composition as well: brown, lime, green, and white to name a few just within the first third of the poem. By the end of the poem, as touched upon earlier, the speaker exclaims, “everything/ was a rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!/ And I let the fish go” (Bishop 74-76). This final epiphany represents all of the details (all of the colors in the poem) coming together, and the speaker realizes that this fish has endured so much that it deserves to live on. To take life from this fish would be a shameful act.
This theme of endurance is present in both Moore’s and Bishop’s “The Fish.” Besides sharing a title, the poems also share common thematic elements. For one, both Moore and Bishop’s poems remark upon the alternating predictability and unpredictability of life. Moore does so through contrasting the unknown life that is lurking beneath the surface of the sea with the fact that the sea will always be confined by the boundaries that the cliff creates. One does not know what is in store for the sea-life other than that the creatures will, at some point, die. Bishop takes Moore’s original theme to a new level; what is predicted or expected is not what actually happens. Bishop expresses this theme by contrasting what the speaker is doing, catching a fish, with what the speaker ultimately decides to do, release the fish. Based on the setting, the reader may predict that the speaker will keep (and ultimately kill) the fish. However, the speaker unpredictably decides to set the old fish free. In Bishop’s case, what is predicted or expected is not what actually happens. While the speaker is not able to foresee what is in store for the weathered fish (whether or not another hook will grow “firmly in his mouth” [Bishop 55]), he does know that its life is finite. Still, the speaker leaves the fish to endure. Reading the poem, one knows the fish must die, but it is left to live out its life, whatever might happen.
The idea of “endurance” is also present in both poems. The end of Moore’s “The Fish” suggests that the cliff will continue to endure, while the sea and its inhabitants grow old and die at the cliff’s side, thus making the cliff the strongest force in the poem; it is riddled with “dynamite grooves, burns, and/ hatchet strokes” yet still endures and stands strong (Moore 32-33). The fish that is itself described by Bishop is the strongest force in her poem, which features a creature that has endured (and escaped) multiple fishermen, as five hooks and frayed lines hang from this fish’s lip (Bishop 54-56). Various parts of the fish are described as “battered and venerable” (Moore 8), “ancient” (Moore 11), and “speckled with barnacles” (Moore 16), emphasizing how long this fish has been alive and how much it has withstood. Everyone knows that fish are living creatures with finite lives, but the description of this fish may actually leave readers second-guessing the axiom that all living things must die. The reader will never know what happens beyond Bishop’s “The Fish,” as the creature of the title is released into the sea, perhaps the same sea that crashes against Moore’s persistent cliff.
Despite these thematic divergences, the most obvious difference between the two poems is that of form. Moore’s is less than half the length (line-wise) of Bishop’s, is written in syllabic verse with an end-rhyme scheme, and experiments with the space on the page to create a particularly distinctive appearance. Bishop’s poem is written in free verse, yet with short and controlled lines, and is much longer. These two different forms have entirely different effects on each of the poems. The most notable difference in the content of the poems is the subject matter. While they are both named “The Fish,” the two poems are overtly about different things. Moore’s poem is titled “The Fish,” in part, because the title runs into the first line; the fish are merely a part of her description of what lies beneath the sea. Bishop’s poem is centered around the fish; there is no poem, here, without it. Bishop’s fish holds all of the power, symbolism, and description within the poem. By arranging this poem around a fish, Bishop calls attention to the most minute of details, one fish in an infinite sea. The fish is minuscule but is the most important being in the universe of this poem, as it leads to the speaker’s ultimate epiphany: this fish has endured so much that it must live on, because this is not a life that the speaker deserves to take. The difference in the handling of the fish marks a stark contrast between these two poems.
Reading Bishop’s “The Fish” with Moore in mind helps the reader to pick up on the importance of endurance and unpredictability as central poetic themes. Comparing and contrasting the two poems calls attention the poets’ forms and to how the poets handle their fish, whether as a detail in the sea or as a center of a poem’s universe. Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” can clearly stand on its own without the additional reading of Marianne Moore’s “The Fish,” and even without knowledge of the women’s friendship and correspondence. However, knowing that Bishop was a long-time reader and friend of Moore’s enhances how one might read the poem and casts particular themes in an especially lucid light.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Fish.” Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 17-19. Keller, Lynn. “The Bishop/Moore Correspondence on “The Fish”” Modern American Poetry. Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. Moore, Marianne. “The Fish.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 319-320. Sweeny, Emma Claire. “Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore.” Web log post. Something Rhymed. WordPress.com, 1 May 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.