Elizabeth Bishop: Biographical synopsis
Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on 8 February 1911, to William Thomas Bishop and Gertrude May Bulmer. Although it was a difficult birth, for the first few months of her life, Elizabeth Bishop experienced the deep warmth of parents who were quite in love with each other and with their new daughter. In a letter dated 12 February, to his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Hutchinson Bulmer, an exuberant and patriotic William Bishop wrote:
Dear Ma Boomer — Enclosed is a bunch of hair Gertrude wanted sent you, cut from the head of the most wonderful baby born in America. She is a Yankee, pure Yankee. Has blue eyes and black hair. This morning she said “Daddy” and tomorrow will set up in her high chair at table. Took her picture this morning and if it turns out well will send you one. Gertrude is fine, and can probably write you herself in a day or two. Has more milk than she knows what to do with, so we shall make butter probably. We started to bare twins and when we changed our minds forgot to cut off half the milk supply. George & Maud are so sore they won’t speak to us any more. But of course they could not expect to keep up with we Yankees. Give my regards to grandpa Boomer and aunt Mary and Grace and I trust you are…all getting along as nicely and happily as we are just now.
The happiness lasted only until 8 October 1911, when William died of Bright’s disease. The impact of his death was devastating on Gertrude. It is generally stated by Bishop scholars that Gertrude’s emotional and mental instability began at this time and resulted in a series of breakdowns — leaving Elizabeth Bishop a “virtual orphan” (Bishop’s own phrase) from that time (the end of 1911) — and resulting ultimately in Gertrude’s hospitalization in the Nova Scotia Hospital in 1916. The evidence (Bishop’s own memories, probate documents, hospital case files, etc.) reveals a more complex progression of events. It appears that Gertrude Bulmer Bishop was well and caring for her daughter until June 1914 when she was hospitalized for several months for depression in a sanatorium in the United States. It is likely, and circumstantial evidence suggests, that between 1912 and 1914 Gertrude and Elizabeth visited Great Village. However, in 1915 they came to Great Village to stay. Elizabeth Bishop herself summarized events in her autobiographical prose poem “In the Village”: “First, she had come home, with her child. Then she had gone away again, alone, and left the child. Then she had come home. Then she had gone away again, with her sister; and now she was home again” (Collected Prose, 252). This passage provides an exact chronology of the events between April 1915 and May 1916. Gertrude, increasingly unstable during the first half of 1916, suffered a serious breakdown in June — to which Elizabeth Bishop was an eye witness. On 20 June Gertrude Bulmer Bishop was hospitalized voluntarily in the Nova Scotia Hospital. She remained there until 29 May 1934, when she died. Elizabeth Bishop — who never saw her mother again — remained in Great Village with her Bulmer grandparents until October 1917 when her Bishop grandparents removed her and took her back to Worcester. This removal — or “kidnapping” as Bishop called it in her prose reminiscence “The Country Mouse” — was the second major trauma of her childhood. And within a few months she was desperately ill. In May 1918 she went to live with her mother’s older sister and her husband, Maude and George Shepherdson (mentioned earlier in William’s letter), in Revere, Massachusetts. The time between 1919 and 1930 saw Bishop make yearly visits to Great Village, at first with her aunts and then by the late 1920s on her own.
Due to frequent illness (she was an asthmatic) Bishop had little formal education during her early adolescence. She attended Saugus High School for one year and North Shore Country Day School in Swampscott in 1926–1927. In 1928 she entered Walnut Hill School (an exclusive boarding school) in Natick, Massachusetts. Although she had little formal education until boarding school Bishop’s earliest memories were of learning to read and write, of discovering literature, poetry, art and music, with the help of her maternal grandmother and aunts. And, of course, her first encounter with formal pedagogy was in the Great Village school, an experience she recounts in her delightful prose memoir “Primer Class.” Bishop’s precocious mind was shaped by the sights and sounds and experiences of rural Great Village and the immigrant suburban communities of the Boston area. In 1930 she entered Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1934 her mother died, she graduated and she met the poet Marianne Moore (a watershed year for the young poet). What began at this time was an extended period of restless travelling which lasted nearly two decades. She never settled anywhere for long — she lived in New York, Key West, Paris, Mexico and other places. And she began to suffer from increasingly frequent illness cause by chronic asthma and an intensifying alcoholism. She spent a significant amount of time in hospitals.
In 1946 her first book North & South was published by Houghton Mifflin and she underwent psychoanalysis. One of the results of this therapy was a pilgrimage to Nova Scotia in that year — her first visit in over 15 years. Bishop made another visit to Nova Scotia in 1947 and returned again in 1951 — this time to visit Sable Island where the family believed her maternal great-grandfather Robert Hutchinson had been shipwrecked in the mid-1860s. She wrote to her friend and colleague, the poet Robert Lowell, about this trip: “If I am not fulfilling my destiny and get wrecked, too, I think I can turn it into an article or maybe a poem or two” (One Art, 221). These pilgrimages were important for her psychologically and artistically. For the first time in her adult life she faced her past directly. Returning to her “motherland,” as the biographer Brett Millier calls Bishop’s Nova Scotia, she reclaimed it as subject matter in her poetry. These trips did, in fact, produce major works: “At the Fishhouses,” “The Moose,” “Cape Breton,” “The Prodigal,” and several other poems emerged from these visits. She never managed to write a Sable Island piece — though she tried.
The Sable Island trip occurred just a few months before she embarked on a sea voyage around the world — an archetypal journey — which, however, ended prematurely and turned into instead a nearly 20-year stay in Brazil. It can be argued that, among many other complex factors, one of the reasons why she remained in Brazil was because she felt at home. Brazil and the life she could lead there reminded her of Nova Scotia — the Nova Scotia of her childhood. It was the first real home she had known since her childhood. Many years later, she stated her own conclusion about this experience in a letter to Robert Lowell: “What I am really up to is re-creating a sort of de luxe Nova Scotia all over again, in Brazil. And now I’m my own grandmother” (Words in Air 676). For most of her time in Brazil she lived with her companion Lota de Macedo Soares. The depth of their love and the devastation of the loss when Lota committed suicide in 1967 resonate powerfully in Bishop’s late work. There were many women in Bishop’s life but only one other woman was as important to her as Lota — her mother.
Bishop returned to the United States in the late 1960s — finally settling in Boston in 1970. She felt it was a kind of full circle — but she seemed unable to get any further north, at least permanently. During the 1970s, however, she once again began to make nearly yearly visits to Nova Scotia. After avoiding the necessity for most of her adult life, Bishop began teaching in the late 1960s, and in the early 1970s she secured a position at Harvard where she remained until she retired (she also taught at M.I.T. and Columbia). In May 1979, just a few months before her death, Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., gave her an honorary degree. It was her last visit to Nova Scotia. She died of a brain aneurysm alone in her Lewis Wharf apartment on 6 October 1979.
Elizabeth Bishop: A brief publishing history
As mentioned, Bishop’s first book of poetry, North & South, appeared in 1946. In 1956 Poems: North & South – A Cold Spring won her the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her third book of poems, Questions of Travel, was published in 1965. The Complete Poems was published in 1969 and won the National Book Award in 1970. It was not until 1976 that the fourth and last book of poetry she published during her lifetime, Geography III, appeared. The Complete Poems, 1927–1979 (which, in fact, is not “complete” and is still being added to) was published posthumously in 1983. She also wrote and published prose memoirs and stories in various magazines, including The New Yorker. The Collected Prose also appeared posthumously in 1984. Bishop translated poetry and prose from several languages: French, Spanish and Portuguese. In 1957 she published a translation of Mina Vida de Menina, the diary of a young girl who lived in a mining town in Brazil. The translation was entitled The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’. In 1972 she co-edited with the poet Emanuel Brasil an Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry. A list of Bishop’s awards and honours makes impressive reading. She received over a dozen major fellowships and prizes, including Guggenheims and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (the first woman and American to receive this award). She received seven honorary degrees, including one, as mentioned above, from Dalhousie University.
Significant events in Elizabeth Bishop’s early childhood:
The earliest years of Elizabeth Bishop’s life contained a number of traumatic events which had a significant impact not only her immediate circumstances, but also on her emotional and aesthetic development. These events and their affects remained forces in her daily life and creative endeavours until her death.
The first of these events was the premature death of her father, William Thomas Bishop, on 12 October 1911, eight months after Elizabeth’s birth. Her mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, struggled to maintain normal life for her infant daughter; but in 1914 she suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized for several months in Massachusetts. In 1915, Gertrude took Elizabeth to Great Village, N.S., where they lived with Gertrude’s parents, William and Elizabeth Bulmer.
However, early in 1916 Gertrude again suffered a breakdown and on 20 June she voluntarily admitted herself to the Nova Scotia Hospital, Dartmouth, N.S. Elizabeth was five years old.
Though neither the Bulmers nor Gertrude could know in 1916, Gertrude remained at the hospital until her death in May 1934: eighteen years.
Elizabeth remained with her maternal grandparents for the next year. While the family was sad and grieving for the ill Gertrude, they remained in close contact with the hospital. And they tried to keep daily life as normal as they could for the young Elizabeth. She was a precocious child and sensed the great sadness around her. Years later she recalled this time in her life in the prose poem “In the Village.”
Moreover, “The War was on,” as she wrote in the poem, “In the Waiting Room.” Daily life was filled with the news great battles and lost lives.
Elizabeth began school in September 1916. She attended Grade Primary at the Great Village school. Years later, she recalled this important event in the delightful memoir “Primer Class.”
The close-knit community of Great Village, where everyone knew the Bulmers’ sorrow, became a refuge for Elizabeth. And while there she believed that her mother would return. However, in September 1917, her paternal grandparents, John and Sarah Bishop, arrived in the village with the intention of taking Elizabeth back with them to live in Worcester, MA. Early in October they removed Elizabeth from Nova Scotia.
This event was perhaps the most traumatic of all that had yet occurred because Elizabeth was taken from the only home she had ever fully, consciously known and transported to a city and house which were unfamiliar and unsettling. Many years later, she wrote about this time in her memoir, “The Country Mouse” and in the poem “In the Waiting Room.”
These events of her early childhood gave the nascent artist a profound sense of the fragility of home and family. This complex (un)certainty affected to varying degrees and in a variety of ways every aspect of her life and art.
Significant places in Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood:
When Elizabeth Bishop lived in Great Village, N.S., (from April 1915 to October 1917), certain sites in the village entered deeply into her imagination. Four of these sites were her grandparents’ house, the Presbyterian church, the bridge over the Great Village river and the route along which she took the cow to pasture.
Each of these sites found their way into her writing. Her grandparents’ house appears most directly in the poem “Sestina,” where it is described as an “inscrutable house.” The St. James Presbyterian (now United) Church makes its most significant appearance in the opening of “In the Village.” This masterpiece also contains the bridge and the route to the pasture in their fullest manifestations.
However, in Elizabeth Bishop’s art, houses, churches, bridges and roads are larger motifs, symbolic in their character and function; and many variations on these architectural and geographic themes appear over and over in her poems and stories.
All these places (which tend to be domestic — that is, sites created by humanity’s individual, familial and communal presence) — settled deeply into Elizabeth Bishop’s psyche. For the rest of her life she was drawn to such sites in her daily life and explored their many, often contradictory, meanings in her art.
Compiled by Sandra Barry
Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2009
Letter from William Bishop to Elizabeth Bulmer, Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Special Collections, Vassar College, X, 78.4
Elizabeth Bishop, The Collected Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.
Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters, ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994.
Thomas Travisano, ed., Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2008.