Approaches to Biographical Literature Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell Research Paper

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Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

The publication in 2008 of Words in Air: The Collected Correspondence of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop offers the reader a privileged glimpse into the long and emotional friendship between two major postwar American poets, who were each an active influence on the other's work. Bishop would enclose a poem in a 1961 letter to Lowell, claiming the draft "undoubtedly shows your influence" but also noting that "I'll probably make more changes" (Words in Air, 379). In a 1964 interview, Robert Lowell would claim Bishop as one of "the poets who most directly influenced me." (Kunitz 86). Indeed Travisano notes in his introduction to the letters that "Lowell's Life Studies and For the Union Dead, his most enduringly popular books, were written under Bishop's direct influence, as the letters make clear" (Words in Air, xviii). But those two titles mark a major shift in Lowell's style, to what would come to be described after the fact as "confessional poetry," while Bishop's own later work would move in the opposite direction, to a rather cool and detached reticence. This dynamic between confession and reticence would culminate with Bishop's sharp critique of Lowell's The Dolphin in 1973, and would affect even her own elegy for Lowell, "North Haven." An examination of the letters and poems reveals that the chief influence on Bishop's work was through negative example: the more Lowell revealed, the less openly autobiographical Bishop's work would become.

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop would first meet in January of 1947, and the correspondence collected in Words in Air begins in May of that year. Lowell and Bishop were friends for over a decade at the time when Lowell's own style began to make a remarkable divergence in the work ultimately collected in Life Studies. Before publication, Bishop herself was remarkably enthusiastic about the work, and in a letter from October 30, 1958 she records her glowing response to the manuscript of Life Studies, which she calls "the BOOK":

I've read through the BOOK again and really, it is very fine. The older poems are good in the old way and the new poems are good in a new way, and altogether they are (the new ones) solid, real, intensely interesting, honest -- and very interesting metrically. I think you should be very proud of the whole effort, and at the same time all the new ones have a strangely modest tone that I like too, because they are all about yourself and yet do not sound conceited! They really make almost everything I see look pretty dreary, or labored, or absolute silliness (like poor dear Eberhart)….I don't know what the real differences are, I suppose only the critics know them, but your poetry is as different from the rest of our contemporaries as, say, ice from slush… (Words in Air, 273)

It is worth observing here that Bishop praises these autobiographical poems for their coolness ("ice") rather than heat. She openly praises them for being "honest" and not being "conceited," but in the image she uses it seems like she is praising the work for avoiding the heat of emotion. Indeed it seems that she retains this association of what is best about Life Studies even after publication. In the 1961 letter where she claims Lowell's "influence" on a new poem, the work enclosed begins by describing an emotionally frozen world:

In the cold, cold parlor my mother laid out Arthur

beneath the chromographs:

Edward, Prince of Wales,

with Princess Alexandra,

and King George with Queen Mary.

Below them on the table stood a stuffed loon shot and stuffed by Uncle

Arthur, Arthur's father. (Bishop, "First Death in Nova Scotia")

It is clear, though, that Bishop confesses Lowell's influence because she is thinking in particular of his description of dealing with his mother's death in "Sailing Home from Rapallo" in Life Studies, which records precisely the same imagery of ice and family grief:

…the burning cold illuminated ?

the hewn inscriptions of Mother's relatives:

twenty or thirty Winslows and Starks.

Frost had given their names a diamond edge....

In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother's coffin, ?

Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL.

The corpse ?

was wrapped like panetone in Italian tinfoil.

(Lowell, "Sailing Home from Rapallo")

Bishop's stuffed loon corresponds to Lowell's bagged panetone, as jarring domestic objects which here stand as metaphor's for death's indignity. But poems focus on chill and ice, perhaps to capture emotional remoteness of the siutaiton. Lowell's poem is unable to repress the typographical error on "Mother's coffin," which offers the hint of a "LOVE" otherwise held at bay in the description. Bishop seems willing to imitate Lowell's recollection of the illustrious names of Boston brahmins in his mother's graveyeard by including the hovering photos of the royal family in her scene, which explains her claim of Lowell's influence on the poem.

But to a certain degree, Bishop's claim of influence here is slightly disingenuous. In point of fact, Lowell himself derived this "burning cold" nexus of imagery from the first poem by Bishop that he comments upon in their letters. In 1947, Lowell read Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" in the New Yorker, and wrote that "I felt very envious in reading it" (Words in Air, 7). But his letter criticizes Bishop's concluding lines:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same, slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones, icily free above the stones

If you should dip your hand in, your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn as if the water were a transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue.

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:

dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts forever, flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

(Bishop, "At the Fishhouses")

Lowell says in 1947 that "the description has great splendor and the human part, etc., is just right. I question a little the word breast in the last four or five lines -- a little too much in its context perhaps; but I'm probably wrong" (Words in Air, 7). Yet these lines also contains Bishop's introduction of an image of water described as both "icily free" and causing a "burn / as if the water were a transmutation of fire." Critics of Bishop as varied as Bonnie Costello and Harold Bloom have argued that the "breasts" which shock Lowell in "At the Fishhouses" in 1947 are Bishop's extremely reticent way of discussing her own fraught relationship with her mother. The suggestion is that Lowell found the "breasts" too revealing in 1947, but by the time of Life Studies he understood Bishop's method of revelation and intended to adapt it to his own purposes. But the "burning cold" in "Sailing Home from Rapallo" is clearly derived from Bishop's own poem, which is thought to be about her own dead mother, but which never confesses the fact.

Perhaps the best-known poem included in Life Studies, "Skunk Hour," is dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop. Lowell himself would later explain the dedication as an acknowledgement of Bishop's own influence upon himself -- specifically, he described "Skunk Hour" as a response to Bishop's poem "The Armadillo." As with the interrelations noted above, here Bishop and Lowell seem to be writing poems in response to one another. "The Armadillo" was dedicated to Robert Lowell and published earlier, and it seems like the two poems are intended as perfect mirrors of each other. The similarity in these two poems is purely structural, as Lowell himself would admit: several stanzas of description are followed by a focus on a single animal. Bishop's poem describes a peasant custom in Brazil, where "almost every night / the frail, illegal fire balloons appear" offered in devotion to the cult of a local saint. -- the fifth stanza ends with the note that sometimes the fire-balloons can, of course, fall, "suddenly turning dangerous." Then the next stanza begins with the event: "Last night another big one fell." The introduction of this man-made flame into the Brazilian forest results in conclusion that gives Bishop her title (and subject): "A glistening armadillo left the scene / Rose-flecked, head down, tail down." In the final stanza, though, the armadillo has become an emblem:

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!

O falling fire and piercing cry

And panic, and a weak mailed fist

Clenched ignorant against the sky! ("The Armadillo,")

In asking what Bishop's poem is about, and why it is dedicated to Lowell, it is worth looking at the reading of the poem offered by Bonnie Costello. Costello sees "The Armadillo" as Bishop's response to Lowell with "a critique of his way of making art out of suffering" (Costello 75). In particular, she understands "The Armadillo" as…[continue]

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