Journal of Modern Literature 27.1 (2003) 137-148
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"A Curious Cat":
Elizabeth Bishop and the Spanish Civil War
In 1973 Elizabeth Bishop signed a five-year contract to teach creative writing at Harvard. On one of her first examination papers, she cited the following famous lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley's "A Defence of Poetry": "The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own." Bishop's instructions to her students were simple, if not particularly helpful. "Consider this very carefully," she urged, "and decide, first of all, if you agree with Shelley's reasoning or not. [. . .] This should take you at least two hours. I'd be grateful for typed papers, but careful handwriting will do."1 Bishop was a notoriously hard teacher to please. Although she characterized herself to friends as "a scared elderly amateur 'professor,' "2 she cut a far more intimidating presence in class, regularly awarding even the best students Cs and Ds on their term papers. I have often wondered whether she had an answer prepared to this particular question. Did she expect the class to agree with Shelley or not? Was love "the great secret of morals" for her too?
In this essay, I would like to consider Shelley's definition of love in relation to Bishop's definition of the poet as "a lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown."3 As Thomas Travisano points out, "her mature work everywhere displays an affinity for one of Shelley's principle values—imaginative empathy, the putting of oneself 'in the place of another world and of many others.' "4 The extent to which Shelley was an early model for Bishop is clear in the following piece of juvenilia, written when she was just sixteen years old. In it, she recalls "devoting all of my reading time to Shelley," even when on holiday: [End Page 137]
I remember sailing late one evening this summer to an island far out in the bay. It was a bleak, deserted place—nothing but sand and gulls. We, the sailors of the camp I attended, planned to camp over night there. During all the long sail out we read Shelley from a water-stained, paper-bound copy. It was a cold, star-sharp night and I slept with the music of his lines echoing through my brain. Early in the morning we sat up to watch the sun rise. It began with faint, rosy figures reaching up to the east, and at last flamed a burning gold that glimmered across the water and stained the dunes and flying gulls with gilt. It seemed to me then that Shelley was a spirit of the sunrise—one of his own creatures of whom he says:
See where the child of Heaven with winged feet,
Runs down the slanted sunlight of the dawn.5
Various Bishop poems recall Shelley directly—"The Imaginary Iceberg" and "Mont Blanc" being perhaps the most obvious examples—but what interests me here is the extent to which Shelley's ghost haunts every Bishop aubade, dragging her literally awake "to watch the sun rise" and figuratively aware to catch the experience turning into poetry. It is not the sun itself that is important in these aubade poems of course, rather the moment of threshold that it represents: between a poetry that does its thinking in the dark, reliant on the individual imagination, and a poetry that does its talking in the light, conversing with other people. The sun is a figure for communication in Bishop's art. It leads not only the eye outdoors in search of imaginative distraction but also the reader with her, curious what they might find.
In Bishop's imagination, then, a darkened room is nearly always a metaphor for the self (and the selfish poet). It sends her reeling under...