I. A Modern Object and Romantic Means
Early reception of Bishop’s work judged that her immediate modernist forebears were her greatest inspiration among poets past, especially the Imagists and Marianne Moore. In his review of Bishop’s first book, North & South, Randall Jarrell thought the influence was so obvious that “you don’t need to be told that the poetry of Marianne Moore” was Bishop’s “foundation.”1 Reviewing the 1955 re-publication of North & South bundled with the new book A Cold Spring, A. Alvarez detected the influence of “Auden, Eliot, Stevens” but principally Moore and “Imagism.”2 In particular, Jarrell cites the poem “Florida,” which begins, “The state with the prettiest name, / the state that floats in brackish water, / held together by mangrove roots…” (1-3, my ellipses).3 A list with no “I” and no main verb, the poem’s opening pieces together physical impressions from varied perspectives—a map’s eye view all the way down to tree roots—in a combination of precise observation and self-effacement that exemplifies what Bishop’s early critics thought she inherited from modernism.
Starting in the 1970s, though, critical reception increasingly positioned Bishop’s work as descended more from Romantic poetry, especially Wordsworth’s. Willard Spiegelman argued that “Bishop’s best poems show her to be an epistemological poet in the tradition of Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge” because they “pose essential questions about the relationship between experience and knowledge.”4 Robert Pinsky advocated for the applicability of Wordsworthian “terms” to Bishop’s and Wordsworth’s great shared theme: “the individual, single consciousness and the world not itself.”5 Focusing on how the “minor” and “female” might be preferable to the major and male, Jeredith Merrin reads Bishop’s “persistence in and resistance to Romanticism” through Bishop’s comment to Lowell that she saw herself as a “minor female Wordsworth.”6 Merrin, Spiegelman, and Pinsky all discuss the Wordsworthianism of the conclusion to “At The Fishhouses” from A Cold Spring. With a widely inclusive first-person plural, the poem’s speaker imagines a hand dipping into the cold Northern sea and says, “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free” (78-79). With its subtle echoes of iambic pentameter, varied enjambment, rise to abstraction from patient description, and concluding statement of epistemology, “At the Fishhouses” exemplifies what critics saw as the influence of Romantic poetics on Bishop’s work.
While criticism shifted from positioning Bishop as drawing more on modernism to drawing more on Romanticism, a largely overlooked possibility was that Bishop read Romantic poetry through modernist aesthetics.7 The reception of Bishop’s poems on single objects, an important through line of her career, exemplifies this gap. On the one hand, critics have seen Bishop’s object-poems as representing her modernist impulses. For instance, her early poem “The Monument,” about an ambiguous wooden structure on a surreal beach, is A. Alvarez’s prime exhibit for Bishop’s supposedly Imagist poetics. On the other hand, Spiegelman notes that Bishop’s “poems which deal with artifacts”—because they proceed from “an investigation of” the object’s “properties” through “meditation” to a “deepened understanding”—suggest a Romantic influence as much as her landscape poems do.8
Of course, literary influence is not either-or, and a particularly important case in which to stress this fact is Bishop’s poems on single objects. Explaining the rise of object-poems as a modernist genre, Nancy Willard observes that “many a poet” after 1900 turned “from the uneasy world of human institutions to the world of things” to “re-establish contact” with the physical world.9 And John C. Stout has argued that this “encounter with the object …of inestimable importance for the development of modernism” was specifically a “rejection” of what some modernists deemed a “Romantic aesthetics” which “accorded exceptional powers to the poet’s imagination and the poem’s subjectivity.”10 Certainly Bishop learned too much from the poets Willard and Stout have in mind—Moore, Williams, and Imagists generally—to reject their aesthetics wholesale. Yet by the time Bishop was writing, an egoless focus on single objects did seem limited. In what would become the most influential textbook of Bishop’s generation, Understanding Poetry, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren wrote that the poems of the Imagists had a “limited range of interest” for their stasis and brevity.11 Even Williams had moved onto writing an epic, Paterson. And, in his study’s conclusion, Stout notes that the approach to the single object of midcentury poets such as Bishop and Wilbur evinced less “experimentation” and was more “ambivalent”—a word which hints at the influence of dual traditions.12
In this essay, I argue that Bishop looks to her Romantic forebears for object-poetics that met the modernist avant-garde’s demands of egoless focus and imagistic precision yet also opened onto broader statements about art, life, and experience. In other words, I posit that Bishop’s counterintuitive, even witty project was to find in Romantic poems the very goals the modernist avant-garde apparently formed in a reaction against them.13 Of course, Bishop’s poems show many influences, and the end result is always hers. But I will isolate the way that three of Bishop’s object-poems—“The Map,” “The Monument,” and “Poem”—revisit texts, genre theory, and ideas from Wordsworth and Keats to show how concentration on an object itself can produce an insight beyond one’s self.
II. “The Map” and Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Famously, even provocatively, Bishop writes on objects that are utilitarian, ambiguous, or, to use a word that recurs throughout her oeuvre, “homely.” In this way, she could be seen as extending the ironic project of Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Mina Loy’s “Brancusi’s Golden Bird,” or Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar.” But where these poems are terse, Bishop’s are meditative, working from scrutiny to interpretation. Indeed, because of what it adapts from “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Bishop’s early masterpiece “The Map” is best seen as an exercise of Keatsian attention to a modern object. Keats’s and Bishop’s poems each open the building blocks of sonnets into odic expanse with room for questions, conjecture, and bafflement. And while Keats’s urn may hail from ancient realms of gold whereas Bishop’s map represents her childhood Canada, both objects can equally compel attention when one lets them. Throughout her poem, Bishop looks to Keats for a model of receptive experience whereby the aesthetic object’s own properties alternately transfix the speaker’s attention and spur it on, eventually to the realm of resonant universal statement.
In both poems, the object’s mimetic powers arrest the speaker’s gaze first by offering an illusion to inhabit. While the urn presents an image of people, gods, and trees, the map presents an image of land and waters. In both cases the images are schematic, abstract, yet still mimetically seductive. As Keats’s speaker gazes into the object after the opening apostrophes, he sees the figures on the vase as “men or gods” and “maidens” rather than as sculpted lines (8); in the second stanza, he even turns to address the “Fair youth” rather than the object (15).14 In the opening quatrain of “The Map,” Bishop identifies the geographical forms as “land” and “water,” not shapes. She even winks at the reader by using the very words (“line,” “edges”) that could have characterized the drawing-as-drawing to describe the drawing-as-scene:
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green. (1-4)
The lack of a main verb in the incomplete sentence of lines two through four expresses the stillness of the image. And the full takeover of reverie in mimesis is signaled by features that must only be present in the speaker’s imagination (no map pictures sea-weed) and sensations of depth (“in,” “shadowed,” “ledges,” “hang”) that testify to the speaker’s sense of immersion in what is actually a two-dimensional object. The poem’s title hovers above these opening lines, but otherwise they could have easily come from a poem such as “Florida,” which also views the land from above and freezes it in incomplete grammar. The way that the opening of “The Map” resembles a description of a scene rather than marking itself as description of a schematic image attests to the power of even this meager mimesis over the speaker. In Keats’s poem and Bishop’s, it is by clearing away context and medium that the mimetic content of the object, however abstract, invites the imagination into a world.
But just as swiftly mimesis is undone by its success because the very lack of context prompts the respective speakers to interrogate their experience, breaking the spell of silent attention. So Keats’s speaker cannot linger in the “legend” on the urn but instead seeks to identify it: “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?” (8-9). For Bishop’s speaker, the first hint of trouble emerges in the second line while she’s still immersed in the image. An otherwise static declaration lacking a main verb wobbles with the parenthetical “shadows, or are they shallows.” If mimesis depends on providing a sense of depth in which viewers can immerse themselves, this latent question is already stepping out of the image. Then questions about the image’s depth take over; an identical rhyme both decisively separates this quatrain from the previous while rendering the questions within more ruminative:
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under? (5-8)
Of course, affirmative answers to such fanciful questions are not possible, but their import here is in attesting to the way that mimesis cannot both represent and explain a world. Even the sequence of adjectives—“fine tan sandy”—sounds inquiring rather than declarative, with each word lightly separated by shared consonant rather than comma, and the similarity of the words’ sounds in turn calibrating the speaker’s visual perceptions. It is a more investigative version of the way a modernist like Williams sliced description to suggest the processual nature of observation, as in “I saw the figure 5 / in gold / on a red / firetruck.”15 In the second quatrain of “The Map,” the speaker is still viewing the object but is no longer simply immersed in it.
Unlike Keats’s urn and more like Moore’s “business documents // and school books,” the map also possesses text.16 Yet if Bishop learns from Keats how to represent the way an aesthetic object’s own properties always both attract attention and provoke the intellect, she adapts this pattern to the map’s text as well. In the second strophe, Bishop’s speaker now sees the place names on the map that the powers of mimesis had earlier caused her to overlook. While these place names do not directly answer the fanciful pondering that ends the first strophe, they respond to Bishop’s and Keats’s ur-question, What am I seeing?
The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish. (9-13)
Like the opening sentence of the first strophe, the opening sentence of the second is one line with the noun “shadow” and the verb “lie.” But now a long proper noun (“Newfoundland”) stands in the middle, and stands out. The next line, with “Labrador” in the initial position, shows the speaker’s new insistence on subordinating the image’s features to the textual labels. Because the speaker knows she’s looking at a specific province of Canada, the place-names even give the map’s features a more geographical cast. Whereas in the first strophe, the features were a world of “simple” forms such as “land” and “sea,” now the speaker notes “bays,” “mountains,” and “peninsulas” as well (11, 15, 18). We might say Bishop’s map has a “legend”—captions, inscription, text—that, if on Keats’s urn, could identify the “legend” it depicts.
Yet proper nouns both point to the object and pull the speaker away from it. While they answer questions about what’s depicted on the map, they also bring to mind the culture of those places. Thus because of the names on the map it now looks to the speaker as if an “Eskimo / has oiled it” in the way a native would oil a seal-skin, turning it a parchment-like yellow (10-11). Later in the strophe, the grip of the peninsulas on the water reminds the speaker of women “feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods”—that is, feeling the texture of goods sold by the yard, such as fabric, while shopping in the village (19). For a speaker from a Northern culture, as Bishop was, the proper nouns even allow her to bring the map into her community’s shared experiences. This strophe prompts the poem’s first and only use of a first-person pronoun (“We can stroke these lovely bays”). And the sentence attests to the experience of cleaning a trap for cage-fishing (“as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish”), a popular way in New England and Canada to catch crustaceans, shell-fish, and even salmon. Even though the map does not picture culture, the labels of its geographical representations open a passage to the world outside that the speaker can imaginatively travel by means of simile (“as if,” “like”) and metaphor.
While textuality opens the map to culture, an awareness of culture ultimately returns the speaker’s attention to the map: in the speaker’s final turn back toward the object, she plots its discursive form in an intellectual discipline. In this way, the last strophe of Bishop’s poem reworks the last stanza of Keats’s for a contemporary scientific object rather than an ancient aesthetic one. As Helen Vendler observes, the fifth stanza of the “Urn” classifies the object “according to scholarly, intellectual, or critical convention.”17 Drawing on language from the study of history and genre theory, Keats’s speaker calls the urn an “Attic Shape” and a “Cold Pastoral” (41, 45). In the last strophe of “The Map,” Bishop’s speaker classifies the map as a product of an intellectual, here scientific, discipline: cartography. The material history implied by the reference to the “printer” in the second strophe emerges as the main focus in the third (16).18 The strophe’s first word asserts for the first time that we are looking at mapped features: “Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is, / lending the land their waves’ own conformation” (20-21). The map’s image of “land” and “sea” as well as places such as “Norway” are all still mentioned but now subordinated to the strongly stressed initial word “Mapped.” (20-3). Compare the way that Keats’s naming the urn an “Attic shape” in the first words of his final stanza casts the “men and maidens” as a “brede of marble”: in both poems, the first words of the final strophes subordinate the image to the object (41-2). And the discipline to which “Mapped” refers resonates in “Topography” (a surprisingly technical word for the poem so far), “south” (cardinal directions are inventions of navigation, not properties of the world itself), and the “map-maker,” who represents the origin of the map even before the “printer” (20, 26, 22, 27). In Bishop’s third strophe, mimesis and text jostle together, but they are bookended by intellectual discourse that could, as Vendler says of Keats’s diction, “master” the object—or “map” it.
But the final two lines that deploy the cartographic discourse also step out of it. Now named, the concepts themselves can become objects—intellectual rather than physical—in the speaker’s field of attention. As Keats’s concluding aphorism no longer represents a speaker gazing at the urn and instead holds up for regard the ideas that the urn has evoked, so Bishop’s concluding aphorism contemplates not the map but map-making. In Keats’s poem: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (49-50). In Bishop’s poem: “Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West. / More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors” (26-27). Keats’s statement is half or wholly prosopopoeic, riddling but enchanting, on the one hand philosophical in its Platonic vocabulary, on the other hand aestheticist in its most overt meaning. By comparison, the statement that ends Bishop’s poem is more subdued. She has learned from Moore’s taut axioms: “Spectacular and nimble animal the fish, / Whose scales turn aside the sun’s sword with their polish.”19 She has also learned from Williams’ reticent epideixis: “so much / depends upon // a red wheel / barrow // … // beside the white / chickens.”20 Yet Bishop’s conclusion gathers force in comparison to the relative “quiet” of “The Map” overall, arriving after prolonged observation and asking for serious deliberation. It offers the poem’s first judgment of value, a break from the description and questions so far. It traces a clear logic, the first line reading as principle then evidence. In a subtle but sweeping gesture, plurals include all historians and map-makers; Bishop didn’t write the homophone “map-maker’s,” which would have been more expected since the poem has looked at the product of one map-maker. And the poem concludes with inverted grammar not unlike Keats’s register-raising chiasmus; imagine how flat the line would sound as “The map-makers’ colors are more delicate than the historians’.” As much as Keats’s aphorism, then, Bishop’s is in its own context rhetorically lofty and conceptually generalizing.
Finally, like Keats’s conclusion, Bishop’s is also a statement about aesthetics at large. Whether the map-makers’ colors or historians’ are “true” is bracketed, but the map-makers’ are no doubt preferable: “delicacy” is the ars poetica of this quiet, enigmatic poem. In short, what Bishop learns and adapts from Keats for her modern object is a model of phenomenology more than theme, verse technique, or specific diction. Much as is the case with Keats’s speaker and the urn, each aspect of the map’s meaning—image, text, artifact—first transfixes the speaker’s attention then tugs it along to consider the next. By the end of the poem, the speaker is contemplating broad aesthetic categories, but only because the object has asked her to.
III. “The Monument” and Romantic Inscription
Of course, attention to an object doesn’t directly produce a poem, which must be written. As John C. Stout notes, modernist writers such as Williams sought to “transcribe” an object’s features while creating a freestanding poem “that is itself a kind of object.”21 Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Monument,” also from North & South, solves this dilemma by drawing on Romantic nature inscription, a genre which long before showed how writing on an object could yield a freestanding poem about an object.22 In Romantic inscription, as Geoffrey Hartman defined it with reference to poems such as Wordsworth’s “Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree,” an interpreter apostrophizes a silent or conjectural passerby, gestures toward a ruined or nondescript object, and relates the story of the object’s human creator for the purposes of moral instruction or inspiration. Bishop’s poem builds on inscription’s foundation: in a barren landscape, here influenced by the art of Surrealist Max Ernst, a primary speaker alerts a skeptical interlocutor to a monument that otherwise looks merely like a stack of boxes. Yet also updating inscription for an era that prized ambiguity, Bishop’s main speaker has no more knowledge about the monument than the addressee has; rather, she’s only more aesthetically sensitive and analytical than her addressee, and her inscription will convince, or not, from deft use of these skills.
“Now can you see the monument?” asks the main speaker in the poem’s opening words (1). As ruins sink into their setting, increasingly less likely to be seen or noticed, inscription must first define an object’s separation from nature. Bishop’s poem accomplishes this demarcation of the object with mathematical diction that suggests its exactitude and therefore distinctness from its setting. As the speaker elaborates on saying that the object is “built somewhat like a box” in line two, the description becomes still more mathematical, with “corners” and “sides” idiomatic enough but “angles” specifically geometrical: “Each [box] is turned half-way round so that / its corners point toward the sides / of the one below and the angles alternate” (5-7). By the eighth line, boxes have become “cubes.” And the speaker mathematically characterizes not just the object’s appearance but also its positioning: “The monument is one-third set against / a sea; two-thirds against a sky” (18-19). No doubt the mathematical bent of Bishop’s descriptive technique is owed in part to Moore, who noted when “the pitch / of the church / spire” was “not true” and counted “The church portico has four fluted / columns.”23 Yet when Bishop applies this technique to an ambiguous stack of boxes on a surreal beach, the effect isn’t to describe so much as descry. More like the way the speaker’s precise measure of the hill of moss in Wordsworth’s “The Thorn”—“just half a foot in height”—prompts a comparison to “an infant’s grave in size,” Bishop’s measure of the object’s appearance and position in “The Monument” allows her to differentiate a possible structure from its setting.24
More subtly still, the grammar casts the object’s exactitude as an effect of its constructedness. At almost every turn, the main speaker uses past participles to imply that an agent is responsible for the object’s appearance. Twice she emphasizes that the object is “built”: “It is of wood / built somewhat like a box. No. Built / like several boxes in descending sizes” (1-3). As the strophe proceeds, the implication that the object is built is absorbed into the speaker’s frequent use of the passive voice to describe the object’s configuration and placement: each box “is turned half-way round”; “on the topmost cube is set a sort of fleur-de-lys”; and the whole object “is one-third set against / a sea” (5, 8, 18-19, my emphases). Much as the speaker in Wordsworth’s “Yew-Tree” poem points to stones but introduces them grammatically as the object of “Who he was, / That piled these stones,”25 the past participles in “The Monument” all define the object as deliberately made rather than washed ashore.
If the stack of boxes is a human construction, it might then have human significance, and in the first strophe’s climax Bishop’s speaker construes the object’s marks and embellishments through this lens. While continuing to count (“four”), the speaker also adopts a vocabulary of decoration and craft:
Then on the topmost cube is set
a sort of fleur-de-lys of weathered wood,
long petals of board, pierced with odd holes,
four-sided, stiff, ecclesiastical.
From it four thin, warped poles spring out,
(slanted like fishing-poles or flag-poles)
and from them jig-saw work hangs down,
four lines of vaguely whittled ornament (8-15)
“Jig-saw work” suggests that the ornamentation is domestic, “vaguely whittled” that it’s crude. The combination of crudity and pretension looks a bit comically stiff, yet such craft, though closer to folk art than fine art, speaks to human striving precisely because of its crudity. Paradoxically, the object is transfigured into the pinnacle of artistry: with more purely aesthetic language and at least two lines of clear iambic pentameter (9 and 11), the speaker now sees the flourish on top of the stack of boxes as “a sort of fleur-de-lys,” the boards springing off it as “petals,” and the strips hanging down from it as “ornament.” The inscription of the object so far—describing it as deliberate, exact, and artistically expressive—has recovered an object from anonymity and begun to argue for its human significance. Following the precedents of Wordsworth’s “Michael” and “Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree,” this initial phase of inscription recovers an object “almost merged with nature” and places it in our human world.26
If readers, represented in the poem by the occasional secondary speaker, now “see” the monument, do they see it as a monument yet? In the second strophe, the main speaker begins to argue for the object’s commemorative function by speculating on the agent implied by the first strophe’s passive verbs. Here begins the search for what Geoffrey Hartman calls an inscription’s “sense of hidden life” in the object’s material presence.27 Bishop’s main speaker wonders who might be commemorated by this pile of boxes and what desires of his it might materialize. “Built” becomes the active verb “build” as she imagines an
might have wanted to build a monument
to mark a tomb or boundary, or make
a melancholy or romantic scene of it … (36-39)
A man of power, the artist-prince might have had geopolitical and religious goals in mind—that is, for the object to mark a “tomb” or “boundary.” Or, a man of leisure, he might have been merely looking for pleasure, making the monument to frame a “melancholy or romantic scene,” aims that parody the type of picturesque inscriptions that influenced Wordsworth. With three “or”s, the speaker cannot decide on a particular intention. Yet the modal verb “might have wanted” gathers these intentions together so that the assumption of the artist-prince’s existence predominates over any specific aim. By leading from the appearance of the object to a human life that was behind it, “The Monument,” like the Romantic inscription, functions as a quasi-epitaph. As Hartman notes of Wordsworth’s “Yew-Tree” poem, the object in question may not actually be a tombstone, but the poet can see it as one.28 The poem’s secondary speaker, too, tacitly assents to this interpretation: when she calls the stack of boxes a “temple of crates in cramped and crated scenery,” the tone may be annoyed but she admits to seeing the object as a “temple” (55).
Because the artist-prince is unknown and absent, the suggestion of life settles on the surface of the only thing at hand: the stack of boxes. In the poem’s fourth-strophe climax, carried into the heart by multiple lines of resonant iambic pentameter (63, 66, 68), active verbs suggest not only the object’s organicity (“grow”) but its agency (“chose”), its own aspirations (“wishing, wanting”) and ultimately, like Keats’s Urn, a voice (“says”):
It chose that way to grow and not to move.
the monument’s an object, yet those decorations,
carelessly nailed, looking like nothing at all,
give it away as having life, and wishing;
wanting to be a monument, to cherish something.
The crudest scroll-work says “commemorate,” (63-68)
The direct object of “cherish” is vague and the transitive “commemorate” has no direct object, yet these active verbs without objects imply that the monument’s significance is now in its appearance of agency rather than any hypothetical or actual contents inside. Life now surges even through the grammar. Whereas the artist-prince’s intentions petered out in alternatives, this list is cumulative, a crescendo, the loose syntax piling on one more verb after another, rising to tonal certainty at the most speculative one: “cherish.” Then with the prosopopoeia, the speaker becomes a medium for the object’s voice, tapping into the genius loci to which Hartman notes the inscription poem leads: the “call from a monument in the landscape… makes the [the poet] feel he is on significant ground.”29 An “object, yet…” is not just an object; it’s animate.
To show a ruin can also be a site of renewal, Bishop’s “The Monument” adapts the arc of the Romantic nature inscription to an object and situation more clearly influenced by modern, Surrealist imagery, with her main speaker an interpreter of an artifact’s ambiguity more than explicator of its history. Her characterization of the object as grave then genius loci marks the inflection point in inscription’s arc by passing through material deterioration to personification, or as Hartman writes of Wordsworth’s inscription poems, “death to life.”30 In the final strophe, the poem completes this recovery of the object by foreseeing the monument’s power as an admonitory symbol far beyond the present encounter. Previously, the main speaker noticed the sun and wind “may have flaked off the paint” (52), but now as the poem tapers to its almost epigrammatic closure, she imagines the object remaining in the midst of future erosion:
The crudest scroll-work says “commemorate,”
while once each day the light goes around it
like a prowling animal,
or the rain falls on it, or the wind blows into it. (68-71)
First, a combination of conditional clauses and the simple present tense project the object into the future; while the object won’t remain untouched by time, its spirit triumphs through whatever trials beset it—a “defiant edifice” that “can / live / on what can not revive / its youth,” as Moore describes a coastal cliff.31 Second, the object’s durability means its significance can last into the future, too: the speaker observes that “roughly but adequately it can shelter / what is within” and, in the poem’s last words, commands the interlocutor to “Watch it closely” (75-76, 80). Unexpectedly anticipatory, the command emphasizes that the addressee’s attention to the object should extend well past the speaker’s present words on it. In this way, it is a gentle, non-hectoring version of what Hartman labels the “admonition” that ends a Romantic inscription poem, in which the addressee is asked to “heed” the story just told—that is, to let this discussion about an object’s past guide the addressee’s future values and choices.32
In the poem’s last lines, the “monument” becomes pure potential, the origin rather than the ruins of an art-object. Directly before the admonition, the poet-speaker condenses into a noun (“beginning”) the present progressive tense earlier used to personify the object (“having,” “wishing,” “wanting”) so that the object’s only fixed feature becomes its promise: “It is the beginning of a painting, / a piece of sculpture, or poem, or monument, / and all of wood. Watch it closely.” (78-80) With “a” becoming “or,” the articles are first indefinite, then just implied. Polysyndeton suggests that the list could go on and on, as if the boxes could be the beginning of any art-object. And by the end of the sentence’s second line, the referent of “it” evaporates. All along, “it” was supposed to be the monument, but now it can inspire many future objects, a monument just one. The final statement echoes the poet-speaker’s earlier comment “It is an artifact / of wood” (59-60). But now it is “of wood” and can inspire many artifacts, much as Mina Loy found Brancusi’s modernist sculpture an “aesthetic archetype” where skeptical contemporaries only saw a “lump of metal.”33 There is a comic note in locating such archetypal aesthetic power in the homely monument, but the interlocutor who so pointedly asked “what can it prove?” must at least acknowledge that the monument has proved inspiring (56). It was the inspiration for this poem and therefore holds out such promise for any attentive viewer. What Hartman says of the stones in Wordsworth’s “Michael” we can say of Bishop’s monument: it is a site of metaphorical “refreshment.”34
IV. “Poem” and the Preface to Lyrical Ballads
I’ve shown how two of Bishop’s object-poems look past and through modernist aesthetics to adapt the stanza-by-stanza trajectory of both a specific poem by Keats and a genre exemplified by Wordsworth. Similarly, the philosophy of language encoded in Bishop’s object poems extends the poetic project so famously outlined in Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. As Wordsworth sought to eschew “poetic diction,” choose subjects from “common life,” look at them “steadily” with “little falsehood of description,” and find in them “the primary laws of our nature,” so does Bishop.35 In fact, taking even more literally the definition of “looking at” and “contemplating” humble subjects than the Lyrical Ballads’ often anecdote-driven poetics did, Bishop’s studies of utilitarian, ambiguous, or homely objects puckishly follow Wordsworth’s logic all the way to its conclusion.
Yet where that extension really bears unexpected results is in the reason that Bishop values common language. In the wake of Frost, Hardy, and Ransom’s disillusioned pastoralism as well as Moore’s exhilarating bricolage, there is nothing intrinsically redeeming about low, rural, or common language for Bishop. Indeed she would more readily accept Wordsworth’s comment in his Note to The Thorn that “an attempt is rarely made to communicate impassioned feelings without something of an accompanying consciousness of the inadequacies of our own powers, or the deficiencies of language.”36 For Bishop, language is always in some way deficient to and unsuited for passionate feeling. What she tests is whether the causality Wordsworth outlined in the Note can also run in reverse—that is, if consciousness of linguistic inadequacies can lead to deepened understanding of the world.37
This experiment is foregrounded in Bishop’s late-career “Poem,” in which the speaker fastidiously describes an unspectacular painting, comes to recognize its landscape, and thereby feels connected across time to the painter, her great-uncle.38 The poem’s opening strophe shows Bishop responding to the poetics of Wordsworth’s Preface and Note by writing on a painting from “common life,” but unlike Wordsworth, she refuses to idealize the object and as yet only slips in a suggestion of its value amid explicit claims to the contrary:
About the size on an old-style dollar bill,
American or Canadian,
mostly the same whites, gray greens, and steel grays
—this little painting (a sketch for a larger one?)
has never earned any money in its life.
Useless and free, it has spent seventy years
as a minor family relic (1-7)
Noticing at first only the painting’s size and colors—its landscape too dull to grab her attention right away—the speaker compares the painting to a type of currency fallen out of circulation, inviting her comment that it has “never earned any money.” Yet between the suggestions of the painting’s worthlessness, Bishop implies there is something extravagant about the object, too. The painting can “spend” that most precious resource of all, time. And rather than actually call the painting “worthless,” Bishop calls it “useless and free,” an almost Kantian phrase that suggests the painting has value beyond economic terms even though she does not yet posit what that value is. In other words, Bishop conveys a belief that rustic, humble, or common objects at least might tap into Wordsworth’s “primary laws of our nature” but with no illusions about those objects’ flaws, clumsiness, and material insignificance.39
Similarly, Bishop accepts quotidian diction as banal but also suggests it is able to allude to the poem’s loftier themes of shared memory and aesthetic power. Throughout “Poem,” Bishop peppers many lines with colloquial adverbs and adjectives that are usually little more than placeholders in conversation. As the speaker begins her inquiry of the painting in strophe two, she guesses, “It must be Nova Scotia; only there / does one see gabled wooden houses / painted that awful shade of brown” (10-12). After she recognizes not just the general location of the landscape but the specific place, she concedes that “Those particular geese and cows / are naturally before my time” (35-36). When she reflects on how the painting links her to her great-uncle, she notes “We both knew this place, / apparently, this literal small backwater” (45-46); she thinks, “how strange” (48, all italics mine). Compare Bishop’s chattiness to the tone of Williams’ famous ekphrastic poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” from a sequence on Brueghel, in which a speaker’s presence is limited to minimal description all subordinated to the painter: “According to Brueghel / when Icarus fell / it was spring // a farmer was ploughing / his field.”40 By contrast, Bishop’s frequent adjectival and adverbial modifications are idiomatic, habitual, and incidental in spoken language.
In other words, where Wordsworth thought the real language of men eschewed “arbitrary and capricious habits of expression,”41 Bishop emphasizes that it’s full of them and “philosophical” precisely in these arbitrary phrases because they evoke meanings greater than their tone. In fact, Bishop exploits her historical situation after Romanticism by choosing words—”awful,” “naturally,” “apparently,” “strange”—that have become idiomatic but still retain connotations of their usage in Romantic aesthetics of the sublime and picturesque. The statement “Those particular geese and cows / are naturally before my time” admits that death is an unavoidable part of nature. Yet the art of mimesis—that is, the “appearance” subtly evoked by “apparently”—can transcend nature in just this way, connecting the dead and living regardless of the time that separates them. In an unobtrusive paradox, the resulting familiarity is estranging (that is, “strange”) because it seems to have overcome nature merely by the speaker’s gazing at an image of nature. Bishop’s chatty adverbs begin to intimate and even justify the poem’s most serious, sincere concerns: connections between appearance and nature, the awesome and the familiar, art and life.
Like her diction, Bishop’s syntax adopts patterns from daily speech that have covertly expressive powers, her use of self-correction and self-interruption being chief examples. In the second strophe, before the speaker recognizes the painting’s scene, she carefully examines its image (“a half-inch of blue sky / below the steel gray-storm clouds [23-4]), even acknowledging the artist’s skill (the clouds his “specialty” ), but then deflates this reverent attention with a jokey question: “A specklike bird is flying to the left. / Or is it a flyspeck looking like a bird? (26-7). The next strophe immediately ascends to the speaker’s moment of recognition before that statement is in turn deflated by forgetfulness: “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it! / It’s behind—I can almost remember the farmer’s name.” (28-29). In all of these falls from sure statement, Bishop’s grammar stands exactly antipodal to inversion, the traditionally lofty and poetical reordering of syntax frequently used by poets, such as Thomas Gray, whom Wordsworth faults for ornate phraseology.41 Where inversion suggests that the poet has planned the sentence in advance and is carefully orchestrating its conclusion, Bishop’s revisions, interruptions, and questions evoke the spontaneity of daily speech.
Nevertheless, much as the meaning in such words as “awful,” “naturally,” and “strange” are subtly activated by their context in “Poem,” Bishop’s self-revisions attest to the seriousness of the poem’s inquiry into shared memory and generational continuity—Marianne Moore’s “things that are important beyond all this fiddle.”43 In self-questioning, the speaker plumbs the depths of her mind to bring out recognition of the object. Her forgetfulness communicates that the poem is not complete, that there does exist—if for now only as a conspicuous absence—some personal connection between the speaker and the landscape. She has to become reacquainted with her past and has to stitch it back together in a consciously accessible form here and now. While the self-revisions weaken the particular statements they modify, they strengthen the sense that the speaker is noticing her own response to the painting and strives to approach a world outside the self where a landscape of shared experience awaits.
The most powerful example of the way Bishop finds philosophical meaning in linguistic inadequacy occurs in the fifth-strophe when the decidedly unpoetical comparison between the painting and currency returns, now helping to convey the climactic statement about the power of art to connect people across time. Though the referent of the appositive is fittingly enigmatic, the speaker reflects how “life and the memory of it” end up cramped on this “piece of Bristol board,”
Dim, but how live, how touching in detail
—the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance (57-60)
“Little,” “free,” and “about the size” all return from the poem’s opening comparison between the painting and an “old-style dollar bill,” and the climax’s most richly expressive term, “trust,” takes on greater meaning for operating within this previously degrading conceit. Not signifying only the faith one person has in another, “trust” condenses at least three meanings because of its specific use within the financial comparison: property held in a trust (the earth), confidence placed in a steward (future generations), and hope for the future (what abides). The entanglement of these meanings suggests how a trust simultaneously protects us and asks us to protect it. If this trust is the preservation and recovery of earthly “life and the memory of it” in art, it just might see one through. With the rich word “trust” replacing the “old-style dollar bill,” “Poem” finally brings this symbolic potential to the fore, cashing out in its climax the conceit with which it opened.
As Wordsworth said the “passions of men” are “incorporated” with the forms of nature,44 Bishop shows how the painting and the land and animals that it depicts incorporate her recognition. In the poem’s conclusion, she descends from lofty generalization back to description as the speaker imagines “our abidance,”
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese. (61-64)
Abstract concepts give way to concrete nouns. The pensive reflection “not much” sonically morphs into in the comic “munching” (a less poetic type of rumination). The grammar of definition (the appositive of the climax) dissolves into an asyndetic list. In other words, we return to the painting in its homeliness, even crudity, to borrow terms from “The Monument.” Yet Bishop sees the painting itself now manifest her recognition: the final line contains both the list’s most complex modifier—“yet-to-be-dismantled”—and the list’s only unmodified noun, “geese.” The triple-hyphenated description conveys the elms’ fate after the painting was made, and while the geese would be long gone, too, they receive no adjective at all so that they seem flying free of time altogether. In many ways, the contrast between the complex modification and lack of modification descriptively assimilates the relationship between “abidance” and “memory” in the poem’s climax: loss and continuity coexist in the same object. While Bishop does not idealize the language of the “common man” in “Poem,” she finds it able to communicate general truth in its arbitrary or capricious phrases because they admit allusions, attest to deeper cognitive processes, show profound likeness where little was expected, and then happily subside to the object that prompted such insights.
Throughout her career, when Bishop represents herself looking at a single object such as a map, an ambiguous stack of boxes, or a great-uncle’s little painting, she is quietly looking through her literary influences. Abiding by modernist imperatives while responding anew to the Romantic texts that they were formed against, Bishop tactfully manages two traditions often read in opposition, with the resulting poems all her own: without idealizing the poet’s deep subjectivity, she teases out the vagaries of perception and language that persist even in the modern object-poem, letting this play of the object’s recalcitrance and the speaker’s hesitance guide her to delicate yet resonant moments of interpretation.
Latest posts by Scott Bartley (see all)
- “Our looks, two looks”: Reconciling Traditions in Elizabeth Bishop’s Object-Poems - September 18, 2022
- A World in a Grain of Sand - February 7, 2020