Rzepka, "Elizabeth Bishop and the Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads"
The "Honourable Characteristic of Poetry":
Two Hundred Years of Lyrical Ballads
Elizabeth Bishop and the Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads:
Sentimentalism, Straw Men, and Misprision
Charles Rzepka, Boston University
Elizabeth Bishop's affinities with William Wordsworth were remarked long before her death in 1979. Bishop herself confessed them in a letter to Robert Lowell in July, 1951: "On reading over what I've got on hand"--she was referring to the poems that were to appear in 1955, in A Cold Spring-- "I find I'm really a minor female Wordsworth--at least, I don't know anyone else who seems to be such a Nature Lover" (One Art, 222). Robert Pinsky, Willard Spiegelman, Helen Vendler, and David Bromwich were among the first to conduct forays into Bishop's admittedly Wordsworthian sensibility, and Vendler was the first to link Bishop specifically with "the Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads" (109).
Given the large-scale homology between the poets' lives, we would expect to find a corresponding homology in their poetry. Jonathan Barron summarizes the biographical resemblances: the early disappearance of both parents; the rural Eden of childhood that was lost with the child's removal to the spiritual suffocation of unsympathetic, middle-class guardians; the regaining of paradise, if on reduced terms, later in life. Bishop's "Hawkshead was Nova Scotia," writes Barron, "and her Grasmere was Brazil" (299).
In the past decade and a half, critical views of Wordsworth's influence on Bishop have taken on a more revisionist tone: Wordsworth's "Romantic" (here, a term of opprobrium) version of the natural world and of naturalized human figures has come to be seen by some as an obstacle that Bishop not only had to overcome, but overthrow. What is targeted for overthrow is, in nearly every case, the Wordsworth of the notorious "egotistical sublime"--domineering, intransigent, optimistic, monologistic, masculinist, self-congratulatory--in short, a sentimentalized Victorian parody of himself. Jeredith Merrin, in her landmark chapter on the two poets in An Enabling Humility, apparently had this Wordsworth in mind when she described how Bishop "resisted the Romantic poets' domination of woman and nature by diminishing masculine notions of conquest and by refusing to engage . . . in imaginative imperialism" (105). Merrin readily acknowledges the affinities between Bishop's "perceptive young children of 'First Death in Nova Scotia' and 'In the Waiting Room'" and the "nineteenth-century prototypes we find in the Lyrical Ballads," but she chooses to emphasize their differences. Bishop's children, she writes, do "not share the immunity to grief and obliviousness to loss that characterize the 'simple child' in Wordsworth's parable of wise innocence, 'We are Seven.' And the almost-seven-year-old Elizabeth in 'In the Waiting Room' experiences not a Wordsworthian sense of cosmic embrace, but rather the alternating terrors" of amorphous socialization and chilling isolation (104).
Surely, nothing in Wordsworth could more sharply contrast with the traumatized Elizabeth of "In the Waiting Room" than the blithely oblivious little maid of "We are Seven." But a more appropriate Wordsworthian proto-text for Elizabeth's fear of "falling, falling," "falling off / the round, turning world," or of "sliding / beneath a big black wave, / another, and another" is to be found in the "Intimations" ode, where "Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon" the Wordsworthian child, along with "those obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things, / Fallings from us, vanishings; / Blank misgivings of a Creature / Moving about in worlds not realised" (67-68; 141-47; emphasis added). For that matter, how significant is the difference between Wordsworth's little maid and the somber child-mourner of "Death in Nova Scotia"? The one extends her family circle to embrace the graves of her dead siblings, the other believes her dead cousin Arthur has been invited by the English Royal family to be "the smallest page at court." Neither comprehends the terrible finality of death. Differences there are, of course, but not nearly as radical as Merrin's selections for comparison would imply.
While Wordsworthian straw men do not quite litter the landscape of Bishop criticism, they seem to have been erected as targets at strategic passes, especially where ideological battles are to be joined. Thus, Merrin speaks of Bishop's consciously "working against" male Romantic "domination, of women and nature," "resist[ing] . . . undermining . . . destabilizing" (102), "debunk[ing] myths of masculine heroism and conquest" (102), "replacing the romantic poets' resounding certainties with dubiety, doubleness, radical ambiguity" (97). Not only does Merrin's diction of active resistance and subversion strike me as untrue to what Bishop herself thought she was up to, but Merrin chooses to ignore many instances of Wordsworth's own "sad perplexity" over precisely these putatively masculinist certainties. In a similar fashion, Marilyn Lombardi finds in one Bishop poem an undermining of "the Wordsworthian dream of protection and rest in nature's cradling embrace" (82), without stopping to acknowledge the poet's frequent puzzling over nature's "severer interventions," as he calls them in The Prelude (1805: 1.370), or the possibility raised in "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" that Mother Nature could, indeed, have betrayed "the heart that loved her" (122-3). Thomas Travesino cites the grotesquerie of Bishop's "Pink Dog" as a deliberate challenge to more sentimental, Romantic modes of engaging the reader's sympathy, such as the "picturesque and hopeful" Leech-Gatherer of "Resolution and Independence." "Bishop is," he says, "suggesting that the sick and homeless cannot help looking indelicate" ("'Flicker,'" 123). Leaving aside the "picturesque" exhibition of the Leech Gatherer--a doubled-over "sea-beast" (62), with (we are to imagine) leech-covered legs--what of the in-your-face indelicacy of Old Simon Lee, with his nauseatingly swollen ankles?
Bishop offers the anti-Wordsworthians some small-bore ammunition. As early as the mid-1930s, in her post-Vassar notebooks, Bishop remarked Wordsworth's irritating habit of appropriating his sister Dorothy's notebook entries for his own poetic use: "Wordsworth. 'By My Sister'--keep all the honor for himself. . . . Impossible to argue with, or to talk to" (quoted in Merrin, 84). At about the same period, Bishop characterized as "a great perversity" what she called the "Romantic" practice of "using the supposedly 'spiritual'--the beautiful, the nostalgic, the ideal and poetic, to produce the material" world (quoted in Costello, 4). Within another year or two, however, she was reading Wordsworth's Prelude--hardly comprehensible if her notebook verdicts are to be taken as serious poetic judgments. Bonnie Costello has noted the extent to which, even this early in Bishop's career, Wordsworthian practice and theory, as announced in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, was influencing her adoption, and adaptations, of surrealism (249 n12). In short, Bishop came to outgrow her personal resentment of the poet (apparently, he reminded her of her despised paternal grandfather) as she grew more and more into the "minor female Wordsworth" of her own estimation. Nor did she think that her "minor" status could save her from suspicions of major-league Wordsworthian egotism: "No matter how modest you think you feel or how minor you think you are, there must be an awful core of ego somewhere for you to set yourself up to write poetry" (quoted in Motion, 304-5). Whatever Wordsworth meant to Bishop personally, he was much too varied and self-contradictory a poet to fit comfortably in one box.
It is Wordsworth's manifold poetic achievement, I think, that makes him so tempting a target for critical misprision--that is, in its basic, etymological sense, selective "mis-taking." Selectivity is not necessarily a fault--indeed criticism is impossible without it. The rule of our profession is not Forster's "Connect, only connect," but "Select, THEN connect." My own selectivity in choosing examples of critical misprision does not prevent me from acknowledging that, more often than not, Bishop's admirers do get Wordsworth right, or at least, that they recognize a more complex and multifaceted "Wordsworth" than some of their specific readings seem to acknowledge. That is what makes these instances of critical misprision so baffling, so clearly in need of explanation. In part, such lapses seem to be the result of critical or ideological preconceptions; in part, they arise from unfamiliarity with the full range of Wordsworth's poetic practice.
Bishop herself does not seem to have suffered from either fault. She was, however, herself deeply committed to a fierce process of selection, as well as a perversely illuminating brand of misprision. And as it happens, so was William Wordsworth.
Wordsworth's deliberate "mis-taking" of other people's words is legendary by now, as is his general interest in how the "mistaking" of words, the act of removing them from their original context and placing them in new narrative settings (usually, but not always, his own), can reveal unexpected meanings that seem almost providentially decided, almost a "leading from above" ("Resolution and Independence," 51). The inscrutable song of a Highland Lass, a fugitive phrase ("What, are you stepping westward?" "Aye"), the paper printed on a blind beggar's chest, a Leech-Gatherer's laconic job description, all, as they are mis-taken from their original owners and swept into the poet's narrative orbit, reveal this Wordsworthian tendency to misprision in the service of narrative self-understanding. His poetic children, too, come under the same prehensile power of re-encryption. The little girl of "We are Seven"--encountered entirely by chance on the road to Goodrich Castle--little suspects that her willfully reiterated challenge to demography will be transformed by the poet into an example of our earliest convictions of immortality. Nor could the little Edward of "Anecdote for Fathers" possibly comprehend how his desperately unmotivated response to his father's hectoring "Why, Edward, tell me why?" (48)--namely, "At Kilve there was no weather-cock; / And that's the reason why" (55-56)--could end up showing us "how lying may be taught" in a manner so compelling that his own father could not "teach the hundreth part" (59) of it if he tried!
Bishop, too, revealed a tendency to re-creative misprision from early on. The title and text of "The Man-Moth," for instance, came from a misprint for "mammoth" in the New York Times. Bishop herself said of this typographical accident, "An oracle spoke from the page of the New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me" (Schwartz, 286). The tone is playful, the result is not--or rather, it is playful only in that somber, defamiliarizing manner that surrealism is famous for. Nor does Bishop's recurrent use of misprision suggest that this device was for her anything less than a matter of poetic life and death. Our words get beyond us, slide queasily onto other narrative sidings, as in "Chemin de Fer": "'Love should be put into action!' / screamed the old hermit. / Across the pond an echo / tried and tried to confirm it." The echo of "action," as David Kalstone observed, is "shun" (253). For the reclusive and self-effacing Bishop, wrote Kalstone, "the descriptive style was to be most valuable when it grew out of mysterious and engaging encounters in her own daily life and travels" (36), as well as, one may add, in her dreams. "The voice of the child, the testimonies of grotesque, liminal creatures," says Joanne Feit Diehl, "all convey experience profoundly felt and obliquely expressed" (93). These words apply just as well to the chance encounters and mysterious border-figures of William Wordsworth as to those of Elizabeth Bishop.
When, in the summer of 1951, Bishop called herself a "minor female Wordsworth" and "Nature Lover," she was thinking of poems largely dependent on natural description, such as "A Cold Spring," "Over 2,000 Illustrations," "The Bight," "At the Fishhouses," and "Cape Breton." Four months later, in November of that year, she landed in Rio de Janeiro for what she thought would be a brief stop-over with friends. Her stay in Brazil lasted sixteen years. The poems she wrote during that time include some well-known studies of tropical landscapes, but many more are about marginal figures, the dispossessed, the rural poor. In those sixteen years, Bishop also began to come to terms with the traumas of her early Nova Scotian childhood. She began writing short stories about these experiences, including the incomparable "In the Village."
As it happened, Bishop's interest in uncovering her own early memories dovetailed with a new-found project dear to her heart: translating, from the Portugese, the diary of a young Brazilian girl who had lived in a remote diamond-mining district in the late nineteenth century. "Certain pages" of The Diary of "Helena Morley," Bishop wrote in her introduction, "reminded me of more famous and 'literary' ones." Among these she lists scenes from Homer, Chaucer, Mark Twain, and "Wordsworth's poetical children and country people, or Dorothy Wordsworth's wandering beggars" (x). Her comment suggests that it was the poet of border-figures, not the poet of landscapes, that had now begun to interest her.
Bishop had long taken an interest in lower-class and socially marginal characters, especially during her residence, in the early 40s, in Key West. In the poetry she wrote in Brazil, however, these border-figures seem to proliferate: feeble-minded squatters and their children, river-people, fugitive burglers, wooden-clogged denizens of greasy filling stations, truckers and village women overheard conversing at a well below the window of Bishop's house in Ouro Preto. I would argue that, in the end, Bishop came to resemble Wordsworth, and especially the Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads, less in her self-described love of nature than in her willful misprision of these marginal figures, and her personal appropriation of the resulting narrative "anomalies." I also believe that Wordsworth was not her only model of misprision.
At about the time Bishop first read the Prelude, in the summer of 1936, she was also reading Augustine's Confessions, the autobiographical work that probably first showed Wordsworth how to "mis-take" the language of accidental encounters in order to build meanings for himself (Bishop, One Art, 45). In the central scene of Augustine's conversion to Christianity, in Book 8, as he sat weeping with sorrow and confusion in his garden, "all at once," he writes, "I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain 'Take it and read, take it and read.' ["Tole, lege. Tole, lege"] . . . I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall" (177). Augustine opens his Bible to Romans 13, and "in an instant," he writes, "as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled" (178).
The sortes Bibliae, like its pagan counterpart, the sortes Virgiliae, amounted to a religiously and culturally sanctioned practice of radical misprision--"mis-taking" the divine Word from its original Scriptural context and reinserting it, in a manner that itself seemed divinely ordained, into the narrative of one's own life. The affinities between Augustine's conversion experience and similar moments of inspired misprision in Bishop and Wordsworth lend further support to Barron's argument for the "epiphanic" themes common to both poets (301, 306), a position complicated by what C. K. Doreski calls Bishop's "aesthetic of reticence" (34). Passages such as the following, from an undergraduate essay written while Bishop was at Vassar, suggest that she was already predisposed to interpret such chance encounters in the Wordsworthian mode of "Resolution and Independence," that is, as instances of "a peculiar grace, / a leading from above, a something given" (50-51): "The crises of our lives . . . crop up unexpected and out of turn, and somehow or other arrange themselves according to a calendar we cannot control" (quoted in Kalstone, 24). As early as the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, as I have suggested, Wordsworth offers examples of intersecting narrative sortilege in "We are Seven" and "Anecdote for Fathers." But he is also interested in failed acts of misprision, as in "The Thorn," where Martha Ray's "Misery, O Misery!" (65) remains resistant to the self-distancing narrator, who keeps trying to accommodate it to his own speculative gossip, or in "The Idiot Boy," where Johnny's "very words"--"The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo, / And the sun did shine so cold" (449-51)--open a doorway into a narratively inverted world, a sort of photographic negative of ours, the threshold of which we are finally unable to cross, despite the poet's attempts to make narrative sense of Johnny's midnight ride (312-46).
Two of Bishop's poems in particular, one early, one late, seem to me to draw specifically on these two prototypes of thwarted epiphanic misprision from Lyrical Ballads. The early work, "Chemin de Fer," offers a dream-like epilogue to "The Thorn," a reflection on the consequences of sympathies that remain unexpressed, in which the retired, telescope-toting sea-captain of Wordsworth's poem has evolved from loquacious specular alienate to raving isolato. The impoverished scenery recalls that of Wordsworth's ballad: "The Thorn"'s "little muddy pond" (30) with its superstitious burden of misery, the drowned babe, has become "the little pond // where the dirty hermit lives," which lies "like an old tear / holding onto its injuries." The "tree by his cabin" seems to be an over-grown descendent of Wordsworth's "aged thorn" (34). It shakes with the blast of the hermit's shotgun, which in turn replaces the self-protective, distancing power of the sea-captain's telescope with the violent and immediately threatening emotions of anger and loss. In addition, the shotgun blast, sending its "ripple" "over the pond," recalls the motions of "the little breezes [that] make / The waters of the pond to shake" (205-6) in "The Thorn," breezes at which Martha Ray "shudders" and cries, "'Oh misery! oh misery!'" (208-9). In "Chemin de Fer," the self-distancing persona of the "The Thorn"--a perfect example of what Coleridge would later call the Wordsworthian spectator ab extra--has finally become what he beheld. Most significantly, of course, Bishop's poem supplies the missing moral of Wordsworth's tale of a rural village's deliberate "shun"-ning of the outcast woman's loss and pain: "Love should be put into action!" (". . . shun, . . . shun, . . . shun").
Bishop's "Twelfth Morning, or What You Will" was written much later, during her Brazilian period. Critics have remained almost unanimously silent about it, with the important exception of Costello, who notes Bishop's "mock-heroic" invocation of "the traditional Christian inversion in which the meek shall inherit the earth and a poor infant become King of the Jews" (39). The poem is about Epiphany, and the boy, Balthazar, she points out, is named after one of the three Magi. (I would add, the traditionally black one.) Linking the "whitewash" of mist to the propagandistic "whitewash" of the "exploitative . . . white-owned company that would pass off dunes for lawns" (40), Costello argues that Bishop here "marks the gradual ascendency and dignity of the poor" from degradation and exploitation "to the tin can turned star in the imagination of Balthazar. From his innocent perspective (which for the poet is highly dubious), 'the world's a pearl, and I / I am / its highlight' (40).
For Costello, the poem's dual perspectives--political and personal--recall, on the one hand, the Blakean ironies of "The Little Black Boy," in which the young victim of colonialist oppression is oblivious to the enormity of his own victimization. On the other hand, says Costello, Bishop seems to recognize "a dignity for poverty even as she protests the structures that perpetuate it" (41). This latter view, I would argue (minus the element of political protest, which seems to me muted at best) is reminiscent of the Wordsworthian perspective of a poem like "The Idiot Boy." For Costello, the contradiction between these Blakean and Wordsworthian views is irresolvable, but the very plurality of Bishop's perspectives does suggest "a way of knowing and experiencing the world which mediates between the darkness of utter skepticism and dread . . . and the solipsistic illusion of mastery or transcendence" (41).
But can we really conclude that Balthazar is entertaining thoughts of "mastery or transcendence" when he sings "Today's my Anniversary, the Day of Kings"? Does he consciously apply the words of this song to himself? There is no indication in the poem that Balthazar is even aware of what he's singing, let alone deriving a sense of "mastery" from it. Yes, the "four gallon can" on his head has turned into a star, "flashing that the world's a pearl, and I, I am / its highlight!" but not in the mind of Balthazar himself. These are the italics of the poet's own epiphanic imagination, as suggested by the poem's subtitle, "What You Will."
What the snatch of song represents to Balthazar lies, like the "burr, burr" of Wordsworth's Idiot Boy, securely beyond the poet's comprehension. That does not, however, justify characterizing Bishop's view as "highly dubious," nor her tone as "mock heroic." We should not let Bishop's postmodern reputation for debunking epiphanies get in the way of our appreciation for what she is doing here (and so very often elsewhere in her use of religious iconography): that is, attempting to rescue some vague sense (if not the certainty) of a higher meaning--a "leading from above"--from the ruck and mess of, to put it again in Wordsworth's own terms, "what man has made of man."
There is no denying that, by the time she wrote "Twelfth Morning," Bishop had become aware of the post-colonial realities of Brazil. Despite the evidence of complexion, however, Bishop's little black boy has less in common, after all, with his Blakean than with his Wordsworthian prototype. In "The Idiot Boy," the child's simple mind remains stubbornly unyielding to both poet and audience, regardless of the poet's (in this case truly) mock-heroic but utterly futile attempts to "put . . . into rhyme / A most delightful tale" (325-6) about the child's horseback adventures--"And Johnny burrs and laughs out loud, / Whether in cunning or in joy, / I cannot tell" (387-9), says the poet. He leaves Johnny's final lines about crowing owls and cold suns, at last, without speculative comment: "Thus answered Johnny in his glory, / And that was all his travel's story" (462-3). The clash between Blakean and Wordsworthian perspectives in "Twelfth Morning," then, is not undecidable. Like Wordsworth throughout Lyrical Ballads, Bishop here remarks the dreary realities of oppression and exploitation, and yet finds herself drawn irresistibly to an epiphanic sense of redemption that will come, not through political protest, but through a more strictly imaginative self-transformation. That was also the faith William Wordsworth expressed two-hundred years ago in Lyrical Ballads.
1 A Cold Spring includes "At the Fishhouses," a poem that, ever since Ashley Brown noted the resemblance while interviewing Bishop in 1966 (Monteiro, 25-26), has been aligned by critics with Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence." See, for instance, Barron (329) and Costello (111).
2 In this regard, Bonnie Costello more accurately aligns "In the Waiting Room" with "another sublime" in Wordsworth, "the sublime of the void" (124).
3 Similarly, Jacqueline Brogan contrasts Bishop's postmodernist, "Paul-de-Manian" brand of decentered lyricism with the "spoken, authentic voice" of Wordsworthian lyricism (175, 178-9), as though Frances Ferguson and Don Bialostosky, not to mention De Man himself, had not alerted us to Wordsworth's own postmodern prolepses. The same broad-brush version of Wordsworth is implied by Victoria Harrison, who traces Bishop's "poetic practice" back to a "postromanticist, empiricist, and pragmatist" American tradition "that had its roots in Emersonian thinking," but who then insists on differentiating this American brand of Romantic and post-Romantic thinking from "the [English] romantics' faith in essence" (4). Lorrie Goldensohn insists that Bishop was "in reaction against Wordsworth's Egotistical Sublime for the whole of her career," but in practice, Goldensohn is more interested in how the later poet "nonetheless came eventually to terms with his inheritance" (62). Bonnie Costello comes closer to identifying the deep affinity between Bishop and Wordsworth when she argues for the probable influence of Lyrical Ballads on "In the Waiting Room," observing that Bishop "adopts the language of the primer in conveying the child's eye, but like Wordsworth she is interested in that awareness for which the primer has no catechism" (188).
4 Cf. Travisano on Bishop's "Manuelzinho" and Wordsworth's revolutionary treatment of the "rural poor" (Elizabeth Bishop, 146), or Doreski's reading of "The Fish" (39-41).
5 As Kalstone puts it, "The experience of village life . . . held for [Bishop] one of the secrets of vitality--a language open-eyed, that is unembarrassed by anomaly" (99)--in short, the language of her childhood.
6 In conversation with me, Costello has pointed out to me that the "four gallon can" also recalls an episode from Don Quixote, Book I, chapter 21, in which Don Quixote mistakes a barber's basin for "Mambrino's helmet," a battle-prize in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. I would add to these sources their classical prototype, the famous passage describing Diomedes' shining helmet in the opening lines of the fourth book of The Iliad. The connection with Cervantes reinforces the impression that Bishop's focus is less on political protest than on the survival of the poet's individual visionary powers in a disenchanted world.Works Cited
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