Elizabeth Bishop Distinct, and difficult to define
Main Themes In ‘The Fish’, ‘Filling Station’, ‘The Prodigal’ and ‘Questions of Travel’
Often present in her poems, in many form (a fish, pigs, a sunrise, a Brazilian mountain range) Nature is powerful, redemptive, inspirational, sustaining.
Bishop deals with the resilience or the strength of the human spirit in a number of poems – ‘The Fish’ is as much about this as it is a description of a fish; the prodigal son endures his exile; the mother in the filling station adds delicate touches to the home
Travel and thoughts of home, or domestic life, are often evident in her work: in ‘Questions’, travelling is as much about our inability to be at home in new cultures as it is about the delights of travel; the Prodigal knows he must return some day; the motherly touches in the filling station surprise and reassure Bishop.
Bishop’s own experience informs the prodigal’s motivation for staying. She shares her insight with us through his character. Alcoholism More than any traditional theme, Bishop attempts to understand the subjects of her poetry: their nature, their condition, their culture, their history People/History/Understanding
Style Look, Relate, Describe, Think, Rainbow!
Observation – probing – meditation – revelation/insight/epiphany: see ‘The Fish’ and ‘Filling Station’ • Pays attention to the insignificant, making it relevant: see all of them! • Finds truth, beauty and meaning in the unexpected and insignificant: big ugly fish anyone? Or noisy wooden clogs? • Insightful on a public, universal level: ‘Somebody loves us all’ • Honest and aware in relation to her self: ‘He hid the pints behind a two-by-four) • Personal experience informs her work much more than spiritual, metaphysical, political or intellectual influence, yet her contemplation of her experience leads her to greater insight (rainbow!) • Attention to detail • Subjective descriptions – see domestic imagery in ‘The Fish’ • Deliberately off-hand, casual tone • Often humorous or whimsical, ironic: ‘or oils it, maybe’ • Masterful control of meter: double sonnets, for example • Subtle use of sound effects (alliteration, sibilance, cacophony)
The question: ‘Bishop’s patience, eye for detail and inquisitive mind lead her to find substance and universal truth in the unexpected and the personal.’ Write your response to this statement, with reference....
Bishop feels a kinship with the fish, a connection, respect and a sense of harmony which leads her to let it go in a moment of epiphany.
The non-specific ‘somebody’ along with the use of ‘us’ in the final line elevates Bishop’s observations to the universal. Whether in a spiritual sense or on a human level, be it God or a mother, “somebody loves us all.”
Bishop follows in a long tradition of artists depicting this Biblical story, but she uniquely focuses on the squalor and the alcoholic’s desire to remain in his self-imposed, dehumanising exile. However, she colours the story with a sunrise, the warmth of home, and an undeniable sense of the spiritual.