Issue 174, Summer 2005
Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911. Her mother was institutionalized in 1916, and after a brief, miserable stay in her paternal grandparents’ home in Worcester, Massachusetts, Bishop went to live with her mother’s oldest sister, Maud, and her husband, George Shepherdson, in Revere, a town north of Boston. The Shepherdsons, who had no children of their own, raised Bishop from 1918 to 1927. “I’m sure what saved me from being a complete wreck was my one aunt who loved me so much,” Bishop later wrote. Bishop’s notebooks abound with intimate references to her guardian—for example, “I had a letter from Aunt Maud mostly about cutting her toenails. It is very hard to do it while wearing bifocal glasses, but she managed to finish seven before Uncle arrived home for lunch.”
The earliest of the uncompleted and unpublished poems that follow was written when Bishop was about seventeen, and the latest was written in her sixties. She wrote the first, “I introduce Penelope Gwin,” while attending the Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts. It appears to be one of two “comic” poems she rediscovered forty-five years later along with copies of the high-school literary magazine, The Blue Pencil. Bishop refers to them in a 1975 letter to Frani Blough Muser, her lifelong friend who also had written for The Blue Pencil: “Ye gods! what awful poetry I wrote then. (I hope to god I’m not deceiving myself if I think I’ve improved.) . . . I don’t think you were nearly as corny as I was. We were very strong on sonnets. My ‘comic’ poems are a lot better—couplets—but I haven’t the faintest recollection of having written them.”
“Good-Bye” was dated 1931–1934 by the archival staff at Vassar College, where Bishop’s papers are housed. “Villanelle” alludes to a central trauma in Bishop’s twenties. On July 17th, 1937, while traveling by car in Burgundy, Bishop and two of her closest college friends, Margaret Miller and Louise Crane, who was driving, were in an accident in which Margaret’s right forearm was severed. Bishop’s notebook entries about the accident are harrowing. In one she writes: “The arm lay outstretched in the soft brown grass at the side of the road and spoke quietly to itself. At first all it could think of was the possibility of being quickly reunited to its body, without any more time elapsing than was absolutely necessary. ‘Oh my poor body! Oh my poor body! I cannot bear to give you up. Quick! Quick!’ Then it fell silent while a series of ideas that had never occurred to it before swept rapidly over it.” In the margin of this passage, running vertically up the notebook page, Bishop added, “So this is what it means to be really ‘alone in the world!’”
The draft of “Mrs. Almyda” sketches out the sequence of stanzas later developed in “Hannah A.,” a poem enshrining “the housekeeper I love more than precious jewels.” Bishop arrived at the guiding metaphor in a 1941 journal entry written in Key West: “Mrs. Almyda as a Phoenix, a mythological bird of some sort . . . self-sacrificing, brooding on a nest. A Phoenix that’s forgotten how to set fire to itself & just waits—no, I guess the Pelican, self-sacrificing, tearing feathers from its breast to line its nest, is closest . . . Her exclamations of ‘Precious love!’ ‘Pleasant hope!’ et c. somehow add to the mythological character—no one else uses them, that I’ve heard. Her heaviness—clumsy hands, although she never breaks a dish—her heavy pats of affection, are like the clumsy Pelican taking off on one of her wonderful, powerful flights—once off the water she soars—Mrs. A’s love is like that (for a poem?)”
Bishop began “Homesickness” in 1948, and the handwriting suggests that this draft may date from that time. In 1964, in a letter to Anne Stevenson, Bishop writes, “My mother went off to teach school at 16 (the way most of the enterprising young people did) and her first school was in lower Cape Breton somewhere—and the pupils spoke nothing much but Gaelic so she had a hard time of it at that school, or maybe one nearer home—she was so homesick she was taken the family dog to cheer her up. I have written both a story and a poem about this episode but neither satisfy me yet.”
“A Short, Slow Life” dates from Bishop’s early years in Brazil, where she lived from 1951 to 1967, and then on and off until 1970.
Bishop’s drafts and notebooks are in the archive of her papers at the Vassar College Library, Department of Archives and Special Collections, and are reproduced with the permission of her literary executor, Alice Methfessel.
"I Introduce Penelope Gwin ... "
I introduce Penelope Gwin,
A friend of mine through thick and thin,
Who’s travelled much in foreign parts
Pursuing culture and the arts.
“And also,” says Penelope
“This family life is not for me.
I find it leads to deep depression
And I was born for self expression.”
And so you see, it must be owned
Miss Gwin belongs to le beau monde.
She always travels very light
And keeps her jewelry out of sight.
“I will not let myself be pampered
And this free soul must not be hampered.
And so besides my diamond rings
I carry with me but two things:
A blue balloon to lift my eyes
Above all pettiness and lies.
A neat and compact potted plant
To hide from a pursuing Aunt.
(Just as they took my photograph
I saw one coming up the path.
That’s why my eyes are turned away.
I mostly look the other way.)
My aunts I loathe with all my heart
Especially when they take up Art.
And anything in the shape of one
Can make me tremble, turn, and run.”
Miss Gwin will give a little talk
And tell of her amusing walk
Through country lanes and sixty states
At really quite astounding rates—
With running water, nice hot tea,
And chats with Europe’s royalty.
“Once in the gardens of Tuileries
I met this dear friend in the trees.
With flowers and little birds galore
She quenched her thirst for nature lore.
She fed grilled almonds to the birds
And spoke to them with honeyed words.
Notice her frank and honest eyes.”
(It is Miss Ellisin in disguise.)
“Once on the Tiber catching fish
I chanced on Madame Dienis.
You recollect her, I suppose?
(Notice the parasol of rose
To keep the sunlight from her nose.)
But Russia was, I bring to mind,
The place I made the biggest find.
A Russian Aunt-Eater it was—
Large appetite—and lovely jaws.
An Aunt will look at him and faint,
Even the kinds that sketch or paint.
Of course, while in Romantic France
I met with Cupid and Romance.
One glimpse at my rejected suitor—
He was a handsome German tutor.
But no! I would be no man’s wife,
The stark reality of life
For me, and he was past his prime.
His mouth hung open half the time.
It gave my senses quite a jolt
To find he had begun to molt.…
I leave you with this little thought:
‘What is not is and what is not’
(Spoken by General Richelieu
In case you didn’t know) Adieu.”
I’m sure we all admire Miss Gwin.
How very sweet and kind she’s been. . . .