Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry Linking with Life

Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry Linking with Life

The Filling Station: Here direct reference can be made to Bishop’s mother being permanently hospitalized for mental illness in 1917 when Bishop was young. There is no mother present in the poem, but we are constantly reminded of the need for one, which can be linked to Bishop’s desire for maternal influence during her youth, a trying time for any, but especially one without a stable family structure. The tone of the narrator is maternal as she begins remarking of the place ‘Oh, but it is dirty!’ and later ‘Be careful with that match!’, which raise issues and problems that a mother or parent would usually deal with to protect the child, such as keeping a clean and healthy environment for the child to live, or protect them from danger. Elsewhere, the need for a mother is emphasized as the sons and father are present, yet are presented as unsuitable for maintaining a suitable environment, seen in such details as when it is declared ‘Someone waters the plant,/ or oils it, maybe’, a reference to the males’ working in the filling station. The concluding line that ‘Somebody loves us all’ is an ironic lament that while someone even loves the father wearing ‘a dirty,/ oil-soaked monkey suit’ and the ‘greasy sons’ (none of whom is capable of providing a suitable family unit), Bishop has no parents to love her.

The Armadillo: In The Armadillo Bishop refers to the time of the Cold War, where she doubts the human capacity to deal with the unknown. The insurmountable armadillo represents the humans; its leathery armor shell symbolizes the belief of the time in the strength of humankind, which is coupled with the initial mention of the balloons (which later are threatening) as ‘frail’. When catastrophe strikes, the armadillo ‘left the scene,/ rose-flecked, head down, tail down’, and the humans, who were initially thought of as strong like armadillo, are later shown to be as unwilling to counter the chaotic and dangerous. The balloons can be seen to represent the world in the time of Bishop, which was taken to be turning on the innocent individuals in the time of war. However, when the world turns on the individuals, with the balloons shown as ‘steadily forsaking us’ and ‘suddenly turning dangerous’ the humans around Bishop do not attempt to stop the Cold War and challenge the world that is turning on them when it intrudes chaotically into the normality of their lives that they are used to. Instead they build bomb-shelters to protect themselves and ignore the problem that should be dealt with; as a result they are shown in their true form in the concluding stanza, weak against events they will not, or cannot control: ‘Oh falling fire and piercing cry/ and panic, and a weak mailed fist/ clenched ignorant against the sky!’

First Death in Nova Scotia: The death of Bishop’s parents and the effect of this on the poet as a child is explored here. The death of the poet’s cousin Arthur, while made seem ordinary with the presentation of the coffin as ‘a little frosted cake’, is mysterious to the young Bishop, who compares the paleness of her cousin’s body (a result of his death and the usual preparation of the body by relatives before a wake) to a doll who ‘Jack Frost had started to paint’ but for some reason ‘He had just begun… then Jack Frost had dropped the brush/ and left him white, forever.’ This can be seen to represent the child as she dealt with the death of her parents, knowing something was wrong but not aware what this was. The difficulty of a young child understanding such a situation is represented in the child’s responsive question to viewing her cousin’s body, which touches on the idea of mortality but shows no real understanding of the issue: ‘how could Arthur go,/ clutching up his tiny lily,/ with his eyes shut up so tight/ and the roads so deep in snow?’

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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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