"When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Elizabeth Bishop in correspondence with Robert Lowell
The Last Love Affair of Elizabeth Bishop by Megan Marshall (in The New Yorker, October 27, 2016)
1911 to 1979 (Massachusetts)
1956 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
1970 National Book Award
Elizabeth Bishop published only 100 poems in her life. From these she has become one of the most admired and loved American poets of the 20th century. Megan Marshall in Elizabeth Bishop A Miracle for Breakfast presents a vivid brilliant account of her life, a narrative relayed with the intensity of a highly skilled story teller that left me feeling very sad, loving Bishop for her art and courage to live as her heart dictated while so much hating her terrible alcoholism, her need to drink herself into oblivion. Marshall helps us understand why Bishop was driven to this. The problem endured her entire adult life, complicated her numerous friendships and romances.
Tragedy soon found Bishop, her father died when she was eight months old, shortly afterwards her mother was committed to a mental asylum which she never left. Bishop did not again see her mother. She was sent to her maternal grandparents in Novia Scotia. After a few years she moved to the home of her wealthy paternal grandparents. Bishop was not happy with them so she was transferred to the home of her mother's sister. Her aunt, paid by the grandparents for her care, instilled in her a love of poetry, this came to provide her direction in life. Her father's estate set up a trust for Bishop which sustained her for life. Having numerous health issues Bishop struggled with her schooling but did graduate from the very prestigious Vassar in 1934.
Megan lets us see the profound influence the poet Marianne Moore, Bishop met her while at Vassar. Moore encouraged and guided her in developing her poems. Megan talks about the influence of the poets Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell, she met them in 1947, on Bishop. Lowell became a life long friend and a poetic influence. Lowell helped Bishop get a job teaching creative writing at Harvard toward the end of her life and Bishop,through an extensive correspondence tried to help Lowell with his issues.
Bishop did not have to work, she was not rich but comfortable, she began shortly after college to travel extensively. She lived, in a romantic relationship with a wealthy fellow Vassar graduate in Paris for a few years. In 1938 they bought together a house in Key West, Florida where Bishop lived for a while. All the time Bishop is writing poems, Megan lets us see what a meticulous artist she was, often working on a poem for years.
In 1949, after working as poetry consultant for The Library of Congress for a year, she received a $2500.00 grant for travel from Byrn Mawr college for travel expenses. She planned on staying two weeks in Brazil but ended up staying 15 years. Bishop fell in love with Brazilian culture and a Brazilian woman from a wealthy family, her longest lasting relationship. Bishop had only same sex relationships. She loved living in rural Brazil, the contrast to New England and Canada must have been overwhelmingly. Upon the suicide of her lover, Bishop began to spend more time in America, teaching for seven years at Harvard.
Megan Marshall was a student of Bishop and she includes as kind of interludes several chapters about her relationship with Bishop.
I think one of the many things I admired about Marshall's wonderful biography was her treatment of Bishop's sexuality. A less secure biographer might have felt the need to explain this, to offer conjectures as to the psychological reasons behind this. Marshall just accepts it as not something requiring an explanation.
There is much more in this book than I have touched upon. I will, I think, reread her poetry with more understanding.
Marshall's webpage explains the genesis of this book.
I highly recommend this literary biography.