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Mémoires perdues, mémoires vives

André Topia
Carle Bonafous-Murat
Marie-Christine Lemardeley

Partie II. Amérique : l'invention d'une mémoire

Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Memory

L’art de la mémoire d’Elizabeth Bishop

Herbert Marks


Cet article souligne le rôle dynamique de la mémoire dans l’œuvre d’Elizabeth Bishop, à la fois dans ses poèmes et ses fictions en prose. Le passé n’est pas conçu comme un tout à retrouver, mais se laisse modeler et transformer par le présent. Une distinction est établie entre le souvenir traumatique, refoulé, hors temps, soumis à la répétition, et la mémoire vivante, sujette à des révisions et des métamorphoses. Le texte poétique, tressé d’échos formels et sémantiques empruntés à des contemporains (Robert Lowell) ou à des œuvres du passé (Shakespeare, Coleridge), dessine un art de la mémoire qui est aussi un art de la perte.

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  • 1 I quote from reviews collected by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess, Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art(...)

1Recent cultural criticism is obsessed with memory, historical, personal, and collective. Literal violence gives the lie to fiction; art is eclipsed by testimony. Such urgency and relevance are said to be empowering. They instantly augment the critic’s sense of importance, and, unlike other forms of contagious magic, they entail no personal risk. Those hungry for this kind of immediacy have little use for poetry, which controls the pain that memory inflicts by holding it at a certain distance and interweaving it with a verbal memory of its own. This is especially true of Elizabeth Bishop, who controls the past more cunningly than any other modern poet, although her early readers, missing her allusive density, focused rather on her «naturalist’s accuracy of observation» (Bogan), her «keen eye for small physical detail» (Oscar Williams), the «splendor and minuteness» (Lowell) or oblique «verisimilitude» (Moore) of her descriptions. It was only following the publication of Geography III, and more generally after her death, that readers began to recognize the emblematic nature of her realism and to identify the personal and literary echoes that testify to the preeminence of memory in her work. In this essay I want to explore a little further those echoes, particularly as they help us to read Bishop’s maxim, «life and the memory of it,» which Brett Millier, the poet’s biographer, takes for her title.1

2It is hard to say exactly what Elizabeth Bishop means by «memory.» The word itself appears in only two of her poems — «Anaphora» and «Poem» — where it signifies, on the one hand, the mental faculty: mémoire, Gedächtnis, the dredge in «The Bight»; on the other, an object or act of recollection: souvenir, Erinnerung, the relinquished trophy in «The Fish.» In the short story «Gwendloyn,» the «crazy quilt,» which the grandmother puts on the narrator’s bed to comfort her when she is ill as a child, provides an emblem that brings these two senses together:

  • 2 The Collected Prose, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984), 214. Hereafter ci (...)

She had collected small, irregularly shaped pieces of silk or velvet of all colors and got all her lady and gentleman friends to write their names on them in pencil — their names, and sometimes a date or word or two as well. Then she had gone over the writing in chain stitch with silks of different colors, and then put the whole thing together on maroon flannel, with feather-stitching joining the pieces.2

3What moves us in this description is the grandmother’s handiwork. The patches are remnants of the departed — a piece of silk «from Mrs. So-and-So’s ‘going away’ dress, forty years ago»; another from the necktie of a brother «since dead and buried in London»; a third sent from India by a brother who went off as a missionary — but they are tokens as well of her own makings. By coloring the signatures, retracing them in «chain stitching,» she has forged as it were her own links to the past. The quilter is like the cartographer in «The Map,» assigning colors that suit her own character no less than the countries they illustrate. Like the map, the quilt unsettles dichotomies, challenging our assumption that the world is simply «there» to be recalled or described.

  • 3 William James, Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. (1890; reprint, New York: Dover, 1950). Hermann E (...)

4Empirical psychologists had likewise described memory as a process of reconstruction. Rejecting the focus on accurate recall in the work of Ebbinghaus and the German school, William James had stressed the dynamic interdependence of past and present, showing how the content of memories was transformed by the processes of crystallization and evocation.3 Although memories consist of images, most often visual, they derive their meaning, and so are constituted as memories, from the way we organize them, the stories we fashion to link them to one another and to the lives we are living. Such stories are not merely responses to prior impressions; they allow us to sort the images, rejecting those that do not fit, even as they prompt the emergence or «recollection» of new images.

  • 4 Originally written for an English course, the essay was published in the Vassar Journal of Undergr (...)

5Intuitions similar to these lie behind Bishop’s remarkable college essay, «Dimensions for a Novel,» in which the young poet describes the workings of memory as a process of constant accommodation.4 Her explicit concern is with the representation of memory in art, and her point of departure is Eliot’s conception of literary history in «Tradition and the Individual Talent.» Just as new works of art transform the shape of «tradition,» so, Bishop argues, new experiences transform the way we see the past. Time is not linear and memories are not fixed; both are continually reconfigured, and the challenge she sees for the modern novel is to take account of their relativity. In order to do justice to the dynamic quality of memory, the artist must chart its temporal «dimension,» producing a second order history of creative revisions which Bishop calls «experience-time.» Every new experience or impression will modify the significance of past impressions, creating a deliberately «blurred» effect which defies conventional mapping, becoming exponentially more complex as the story proceeds.

  • 5 The phrase «temps incorporé» appears toward the very end of Le Temps retrouvé (À la recherche du t (...)

6A more suggestive analogy might have been Proust’s idea of «embodied time» (le temps incorporé), as it is tacitly reflected in his nonlinear syntax, the prospective and retrospective contours of his prose. «Experience-time» and «embodied time» both imply a continual process of recontextualization — of narration rather than narrative. The memories they evoke are revisions, not retrievals.5 In her essay, however, Bishop fails to recognize the affinity, focusing instead on the limitations of Proust’s overt theory of apocalyptic memory and faulting him for trying to recover the past from a single point of observation. Her dissatisfaction extends to Joyce — whom she praises for presenting the first scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a child would have perceived it, but then reproaches for neglecting to show its evolution as Stephen matured — and to Woolf, whose recurrent symbols in The Waves impressed her as monotonous, despite the author’s ostensible interest in temporal flux.» A symbol might remain the same for a lifetime,» Bishop concedes, «but surely its implications shift from one thing to another, come and go, always within relation to that particular tone of the present which called it forth.» Representing the work of memory thus entails a continual «interplay between present and past.»

7Elsewhere in the same essay, she focuses on the faculty of memory itself rather than its representation, proposing a theory of deferred action reminiscent of Freud’s:

We have all had the experience of apparently escaping the emotional results of an event, of feeling no joy or sorrow where joy or sorrow was to be expected, and then suddenly having the proper emotion appear several hours or even days later…. If I suffer a terrible loss and do not realize it till several years later among different surroundings, then the important fact is not the original loss so much as the circumstance of the new surroundings which succeeded in letting the loss through to my consciousness.

  • 6 The first quotation is from «Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy» (the case of «Little Han (...)

8This reads like a prophetic abstract of the late poem «In the Waiting Room» — an autobiographical narrative explicitly concerned with the relation of external and internal history — in which the setting and circumstances of a child’s first moment of self-recognition provide a glimpse of the repressed memory behind them. Particularly in cases of repression, Freud had written, «what emerges from the unconscious is to be understood not in terms of what goes before but of what comes after.» All memory traces, however, are subject to alteration or «re-inscription» (Umschrift) as circumstances change. «Memory,» as he put it in an early letter to Fliess, «is present not once but several times over.»6

  • 7 See Eleanor Cook’s memorable discussion of the final verse as a «scheme of schemes» in Against Coe (...)

9For Bishop re-inscription or revision is the sign of poetic vitality no less than of mental health. Without it, memories and metaphors are «time’s Andromedas,» bound to the rock of the past. She restates the same paradox with sibylline confidence in the late poem «North Haven,» her elegy for Robert Lowell, where the lesson embodied in the pastoral landscape is the constancy of revision: «repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.» The poem sets out to explore what it means to «live in memory» in light of the poet’s dedication to the virtues of continual change. The memories she invokes are, as always in her work, literary as well as personal — revisionary echoes, formal and verbal, of other texts. Recognizing them, we as readers are obliged to revise our initial impressions, so that the elegy becomes itself an instance of the thing it describes.7 Perhaps it is to allow us to experience this revisionary movement more directly that the poet defers any reference to Lowell’s death until the final stanza, where its intrusion into the pastoral world — its Et in Arcadia ego — obliges us to reconsider that world’s apparent timelessness:

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue… And now — you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

10The lines superimpose two spots of time: the youthful Lowell’s first departure at the end of «that classic summer» — a summer that survived unchanged in memory (stanza 5) — and the recent departure forever or «for good.» The deceptive repetition («left… left») creates a momentary fiction of continuity between them, of pastoral permanence, which dissolves as we continue reading. Like the island itself, at once fixed and afloat (the «mooring of starting out,» in Ashbery’s phrase), to which memory keeps returning, or from which it keeps departing, «North Haven» hovers lightly between its narrated past and a narrating voice that is constantly slipping its anchor. Passage is by way of metaphor: the word «anchored» giving rise to its ship, even as the «mystic blue» on which it floats evokes, by another shift, a phantom of immobility, a northerly heaven-haven out of the swing of the sea, where «words won’t change again.» Such re-inscriptions for Bishop happen naturally, inevitably; she would neither resist them nor force them as Lowell had sought to do in his own «confessional» poems, reshuffling memories like words on a page, trying to remake himself by recreating his past. The final line of the poem, «Sad friend, you cannot change,» is poignant but also a bit patronizing, concealing, but only barely, an unnerving hint of triumph.

11Lowell’s «leaving» of North Haven, anchored or afloat, was also a bequeathing, for which the poem is grateful, and a «leaving alone,» a letting it remain much as it was, over which the poem wavers, grateful and wistful by turns. All mourning, Emerson wrote in «Experience,» «turns out to be scene-painting.» The three stanzas of pastoral at the center of «North Haven» begin ambiguously by admitting something similar, though their manner is delusively nonchalant:

The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
— drifting, in a dreamy sort of way… .

  • 8 We know from the biographies, however, that her friendship with Lowell went beyond the complicity (...)

12For Bishop there could be no «classic summer,» and the personal memories that were among her motives for the poem are here elided, replaced by «last summer» and the comparatively benign frolics of visual imagination.8 Auditory imagination sets up similar vibrations in the poem’s overture or preface, an overheard conversation, creatively remembered, in which the two poets complete each other’s thoughts by returning each other’s words in altered form, playfully competing over who can see farther and more acutely:

I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off; I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin, the sky
no clouds, except for one long, carded horse’s-tail.

13In this rough-hewn stichomythia — a direct transcription of experience in the mode, if not the tone, of Lowell’s late poems — the angles of vision, hers from onshore, his from offshore, can never coincide. Despite the short second verse, which seems to imitate the irregularity of Lowell’s own verse, the body of the stanza is more or less uniform, setting off the first of the rhymed hexameters that will keep returning with their allusive charge. Appearing here unexpectedly, it calls attention to its own length with the iconic image of the «long» horse’s tail — the adjective «carded» helping us to recognize the literal shape behind the cloud’s metaphorical name. The literal shape behind the meter itself is of course the Spenserian stanza, whose form Bishop has bobbed or revised in deference to modern tastes. Within the tradition of pastoral elegy, it also recalls Shelley’s «Adonais» — the paradigmatic tribute of poet to poet — where it served, unmodified, to translate the soul of Keats into the white radiance of eternity. But Bishop has no interest in transcendence or the poetics of stellification. By evoking the poet of Mutabilitie, she confides Lowell’s memory, no less than his work’s own hectic mutations, to the goddess of permanence-in-change responsible for the beauty of nature.

14This beauty is at its most fragile in the flower catalogue of the third stanza, which, as the poem’s most overt gesture toward traditional elegy, offers an equally complex but more ironic form of allusion. Whichever their «favorite» island was (she remains discreet), it is now «full of flowers,» all of them wild:

Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,
Hawkweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,
the Fragrant Bedstraw’s incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.

15The irony here turns on the Shakespearean close, taken from the envoy to Love’s Labour’s Lost; for the song of Spring («When daisies pied»), which ends with the repetitive note of the cuckoo mocking at married men, is hardly the kind of allusion one expects in an elegy. As riotous as the meadows themselves and as prickly as the suggestively named «Fragrant Bedstraw,» Bishop may be mocking Lowell’s «married ear» from the perspective of a potential partner who has escaped that labor, or, less directly, recalling his checkered career as a disrupter of conjugal nests — another vocation both of them shared. The humor is only partly malicious. By rallying him as if he were still there to respond and trusting to his characteristic generosity to excuse her antics, she is having it both ways, like Spenser’s goddess, and indulging the false surmise that is the point of every flower catalogue. This is revisionary poetics with a vengeance, animating the forms of elegy with strains from Arlo Hill.

16From the «yet once more» of the phantom cuckoo it is only a small step to the parliament of foules in the crucial fourth stanza, where «Nature» herself delivers the poem’s central moral in the language of bird song:

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

  • 9 On Lowell’s self-revisions, see Hamilton, 431. Imitations (1961), the remarkable book of «translat (...)

17The stanza once more has an iconic quality: the repeated qualifications — «or others like them,» «or almost does» — are self-revisions, marshalled against the rhetorical insistence of «pleading and pleading.» For Bishop, the alliance of repetition and revision defines the nature of poetry and of memory both — poetry as an art of allusion, memory as a form of narration. They are interdependent, but distinct. For Lowell, the boundaries were less certain. Increasingly, beginning with the poetry and prose of Life Studies, his memories had to be literary in order to be real. At the same time, he seemed perfectly ready to revise his transcriptions — even to the point of contradicting an original version — if he felt the effect would be more impressive. His «half-fiction,» as he called the tissue of private revelations and freely revised letters in The Dolphin, might have been the literary wing of American ego-psychology with its ritualized personal narratives and its pragmatic indifference to historical accuracy. Whether or not an event actually occurred was less important than the reality of its emotional impact; relief was in the telling not the tale.9

  • 10 Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson, 1949), 273, 279. Ryle would probably have d (...)

18Bishop agrees that we affect memory even as memory affects us, but it remains important that the past not be manipulated. For Lowell to use personal letters, and, more egregious yet, to change them, was «violating a trust.» Her own insistence on the distance between life and art was not merely decorous; it was the distance that produced the potential energy unleashed at rare moments of coincidence. Both poets would have subscribed to the philosophical view that «recalling has certain features in common with imagining,» as Gilbert Ryle had written in The Concept of Mind, and that memory is ultimately «a narrative skill.»10 But Bishop unlike Lowell would have rejected the idea that narrative reconstructions were fictions. Alternative stories might be equally effective («The Goldfinches… or others like them»), the difference between «shadows» and «shallows» might be a matter of perspective, but ultimately it was a real world that was being mapped.

19Repetition and revision, fixation and movement, silence and song — these polar coordinates belong not only to the chart of her amicable rivalry with Lowell. They form the plot of that «symbolic writing down of a life» (Kalstone) that we find inscribed beneath the surface of her work. Borrowing terms coined by the psychologist Pierre Janet over a century ago, one might describe that plot as a crossing from «traumatic» to «narrative memory,» with the Nova Scotia stories of the early 1950s as the crucial turn or breakthrough. Used without any pretension to analytical precision, the concept of traumatic memory resonates with what we know of Bishop’s childhood: the death of her father when she was two, followed closely by her mother’s episodic psychosis and lifelong confinement in a public sanatorium, leaving Elizabeth a virtual orphan at the age of five. The story of her mother’s collapse and its aftermath, as she eventually retold it in «In the Village,» gives a vivid sense of events beyond the comprehension of a child. But, although she herself once confessed to having «really morbid total recall of certain periods,» there is nothing to suggest that she ever experienced the hypermnesia and dissociation characteristic of classic childhood trauma. Moreover, it is hard to forget her own warnings against directly biographical criticism and the genetic fallacy; as Crusoe says of efforts to rediscover and rename his «poor old island,» «None of the books has ever got it right» (CP 162). Accordingly I want to suggest a somewhat subtler correlation between the stylistic shift in her work and a change in her treatment of memory as a theme — a change reflected in the tensions we have just seen between repetition and revision. It is in fact this pairing in her poem for Lowell that invites comparison with Janet’s distinction between traumatic and narrative memory.

  • 11 Janet’s most important ideas are contained in Les Médications psychologiques, 3 vols. (Paris: Feli (...)

20Janet, like Freud, was a student of Charcot’s at the Salpêtrière in the 1880s11. His pioneering work on dissociation of personality was overshadowed for much of the twentieth century by Freud’s vertical model of repression. In the last twenty years, however, it has been reclaiming the attention of researchers and clinicians impressed by the similarities between his ideas on memory storage and retrieval, and recent neurological mappings of the brain. Janet regarded normal or «narrative» memory as a constructive process, involving the activation of existing mental schemes which allow past experience to be reviewed from the vantage point of the present. Like James, he compared the activity of normal memory to the action of telling a story. «Traumatic memory,» by contrast, resulted from the failure of existing schemes to accommodate threatening experiences, which were consequently stored in a parallel system where they were «dissociated» from consciousness. In Janet’s words, a person who has suffered a traumatic event

  • 12 Janet, Les Médications psychologiques, 663. Van der Kolk and van der Hart, 427-28.

is often incapable of making the necessary narrative which we call memory regarding the event; and yet he remains confronted by a difficult situation in which he has not been able to play a satisfactory part…, so that he continues to make efforts at adaptation.12

21Whereas narrative memory is temporally structured, with a beginning, middle, and end, and temporally situated within a subject’s life history, traumatic memory is essentially timeless. It is not integrated with other mental processes, but stored separately. Under conditions of extreme stress, fragments of the unassimilated experience are apt to repeat themselves, with the recurrences duplicating vividly and precisely the details of the original event. The subject relives them in present time with a kind of hypermnesic intensity. Such repetition is not directed outward; it is a solitary activity, in contrast to narrative memory, which has a significant social function.

22I want to discuss two related poems that illustrate this contrast, but it will help to look first at the crossing itself, the stories set in Great Village which represent the artistic recovery of the childhood memories absent from the early work. Bishop had tried to write about the loss of her mother once before, prompted by the news of her death in 1934, but the project, centered on the life of a young boy named Lucius, proved intractable, and for the next seventeen years she avoided the theme. The two stories written in 1952 in Brazil pick up the matter of the abandoned drafts, but this time without the screen of a male protagonist. «Gwendolyn,» the first of the two, is both a parable of mnemonic restitution and an allegory of traumatic dissociation, in which the child and her grandmother are the divided parts of a missing self. The first-person narrator recounts how as a girl, unable to come to terms with the death of her playmate Gwendolyn — represented for her by the appearance, partly hallucinatory, of a «small white coffin» propped obliquely against a wall of the church and abandoned by its pallbearers — she «ran howling to the back door, out among the startled white hens, with my grandmother, still weeping, after me» (Prose 224). This central episode is framed by two others, in the first of which we learn that in a «bottom bureau drawer...well wrapped in soft pink tissue paper,» there was a doll, much loved by an aunt, now grown and «away in ‘the States’» — a doll whose name the grandmother had forgotten (Prose 213). The second tells how the child illicitly sought out the doll sometime after the funeral and showed her to some playmates; how the children, after carefully undressing her, decided to adorn the naked doll with flowers; and how, seeing her there «perfectly beautiful,» one of them, «but I don’t know which,» had declared «with wild joy — that it was Gwendolyn’s funeral, and that the doll’s real name, all this time, was Gwendolyn» (Prose 226). A brief coda recounts the anger of the grandmother returning home, but «I don’t remember now what awful thing happened to me.» In naming the doll the child allows the previously terrifying fact of death into consciousness, but the wild joy unleashed by this symbolic integration is inseparable from feelings of guilt, represented by the grandmother’s anger, and the story ends with a fresh failure of memory.

23In «In the Village,» begun soon after the completion of «Gwendolyn,» the child’s joy is associated with the resounding hammer of the blacksmith Nate, an idealized homo faber, whose skill has the power to fill the empty spaces left by her mother’s strange disappearance. In this story, for the first and only time in her writing life, Bishop treats the calamity of her childhood directly. Her mother, who vanishes almost without comment (at one point it is rather the child who is said to «vanish»), survives in memory as the sound of a scream, antithesis to the sound of the hammer — or rather, as the echo of a scream, which, no longer audible itself, hangs like a ghostly «stain» over the village, «not loud, just alive forever» (Prose 251). One difference between the two sounds — one private, the other audibly public — is that the echoes of the scream are constant and unchanging, whereas the reverberations of the hammer convey a slightly different inflection, a revision of the original note signalled in the text by italics: «Clang. / Clang.» By the end of the story one has the impression that traumatic memory has been not abolished but subsumed within narrative memory — the story itself which frames or contextualizes it. As a refuge from the scream or her own guilty response to it, the poet, like the child, has assembled aural fragments, reassuring correspondences musically bound to one another, and the final words of the story presage an auspicious sequel: «Oh, beautiful sound, strike again!»

  • 13 The main exception, the violence attending the suspension of time in «12 O’Clock News,» actually c (...)
  • 14 Letter to Paul Brooks, her editor at Houghton Mifflin, January 2, 1953 (One Art, 253). Because the (...)

24Although the divide is not absolute or immediate, there are sharp differences between the poems that precede these stories and those that come after. Many of the poems in North and South seem to harbor a muted but symptomatic violence all the more terrible for being under tight formal control: the sea «all a case of knives» (lifted from Herbert’s «Affliction» [IV]) in «Wading at Wellfleet»; the screaming hermit in «Chemin de Fer»; the severed heart in «The Weed»; the diamond-hard sea in «The Unbeliever»; the «insect-gladiator» and the «armored cars of dreams» in the two «Sleeping» poems; the lurking alligator at the end of «Florida»; the «open, bloody eyes» of the dead birds in «Roosters.» In these early poems time tends to be frozen, ticking loudly «on one stalled second» as in «The Colder the Air»; or petrified, like the «leaves’ fossils» dissociated from the flow of time’s river in «Quai d’Orléans»; or repetitive, vibrating to «shock after shock of electricity» with the «violently red bell-buoy» in «Pleasure Seas,» where any effort at evasion (love’s determined «straight line» for the horizon, for instance) «shatters immediately.» By contrast, the late poems are remarkable precisely for the luminous serenity, the strength without rage, of their depths, and many of them depend on an ability to control the linear progression of time: the child in «In the Waiting Room» can hold off her terror by counting the days until her seventh birthday; Crusoe can count the years since Friday’s death once he is rescued in «Crusoe in England»; the poet herself can weigh without counting the years since her trip up the Amazon in «Santarém» and note the precise age of her uncle’s painting in «Poem»; even the Moose can «take her time.»13 If certain poems, such as «A Cold Spring» from 1950, anticipate the thaw, it is still Bishop’s arrival at Santos, commemorated in the 1952 poem of that title, that marks the beginning of her new labor of integration, her «drive to the interior,» after eighteen years of suspended memory (which her «eighteen days of suspension» prior to landfall are perhaps meant to recall). Bishop herself spoke of the work she did after moving «to the other side of the Equator» as «a new departure» and wished to keep it separate from the pre-Brazil poems she eventually published in A Cold Spring.14 Her new determination to synchronize past and present appears in «The Mountain,» another poem from 1952, where traumatic memory finds formal expression in the oscillation of alternative refrains — the odd quatrains all ending with a confession, «I do not know my age,» then even with an appeal, «Tell me how old I am.» This is the only time in her work where Bishop represents her immobilization as an overt failure of memory. The repetitive spell is broken in the final stanza, which reaches closure by bringing the two refrains together, but with a crucial revision: «I want to know my age. / Tell me how old I am.» It is a small change, but it points to the successful recuperations that were already underway.

  • 15 Bishop spoke about the paintings that inspired the two poems in a 1977 interview with George Starb (...)

25The shift from traumatic to narrative memory emerges with particular clarity when one compares Bishop’s two ekphrastic poems, «Large Bad Picture» from North and South (written in Key West in 1943), and «Poem» from Geography III (written in Cambridge twenty-nine years later). Both describe pictures made years before by the same maternal uncle, and both take memory for an explicit theme.15 Although the latter work presents an image of «home» and the former a remote wilderness, it is «Large Bad Picture,» with its dated version of a natural sublime, that is introduced as a rendering of memory from the start:

Remembering the Straight of Belle Isle or
some northerly harbor of Labrador,
before he became a schoolteacher
a great-uncle painted a big picture. (CP 11)

26Bishop is still a long way from the late poem «Santarém,» where, before describing the scene, she pauses to acknowledge blithely, «Of course, I may be remembering it all wrong.» Here our only hint of unreliability is the metrically stressed conjunction «or,» rhymed repeatedly with the vague alternative object of memory: «some northerly harbor of Labrador.» The continuation of this series into the next verse, «before he became...,» followed by the rhyming of «school teacher» and «big picture,» both flat-footed trochees, suggests that Bishop is here parodying or miming in her own medium the inflated aesthetic of the sometime artist; the stressed conjunction itself, however, will prove one of the crucial words of the poem when it returns with full force in the final line.

  • 16 In the case of the «aquatic animal,» one wonders whether Bishop is not slyly playing off Edmund Bu (...)

27The uncertainty about the place represented is presumably in the mind of the beholder, but grammatically it could just as well be in the memory of the artist. The description of the scene exhibits features conventional in representations of the sublime — magnitude, recession, contrasts of scale — but, unlike the late description in «Poem,» it ignores the canvas within the frame, happy in the illusion of real presence and the adequacy of its own mimesis. The overhanging cliffs — obviously those in the landscape, not those on the canvas — are «hundreds of feet high,» and they recede as far as the eye/I can see, or, less fulsomely, «for miles.» Likewise, the waves that mask the «sea caves,» perhaps muffling their echoes, are perfect in themselves, not perfectly executed. «High above,» birds are «hanging» in the sky, not in the painting: «One can hear their crying, crying.» Announced from on high, the illusion achieves a kind of epiphany in the sighing breaths of a «large aquatic animal» — harbinger of those angels of the real that appear periodically throughout Bishop’s work: the curious seal in «At the Fishhouses,» the scorched «Armadillo» of her first carnival poem, the «Pink Dog» of its late sequel, and most memorably, the towering but homely presence in «The Moose,» bizarre domestication of the sublimity she here parodies.16

  • 17 As Kant writes in the Critique of Judgment, «We can describe the sublime in this way: it is an obj (...)

28Such evocations of the sublime are characteristically double-edged. On the one hand, Bishop is gently deriding the pretensions of a certain modernist poetics opposed to her own. The sublime in this sense is the commonplace, a paradigm for the inflated, the oracular, the «masculine»: Whitman rather than Dickinson, Pound rather than Moore (cf. «Roosters»). But at the same time she appropriates the high Romantic associations to represent indirectly her own predicament. In critical descriptions, the experience of the sublime involves a suspension or abruption of thought, produced in the mind by a negative relation to an image, real or remembered, which, because of some quantitative or qualitative excess, it finds «unattainable.»17 This was the experience Wordsworth represented as the halting of the mind before an abyss, most powerfully in Book VI of The Prelude, where, unable to conceive that he has actually crossed the Alps, the poet finds himself suddenly «lost; / Halted without an effort to break through» (6.597). In the full paradigm, the literally abysmal moment is followed by a recovery or reaction, in which the mind, taking the momentary eclipse of representation as a sign of its relation to the «supersensible,» is compensated with pleasure or power. But in Bishop’s poem, the paradigm is fragmentary: the mind remains motionless, seized by an enormity beyond its understanding, while the cries of the gulls continue to echo.

29Bishop had already brooded over a home-made analogue of this psychic overwhelming in her early poem «The Map,» written less than a year after her mother’s death during the time she was struggling with the Lucius stories. The poem is concerned in part with the reciprocal permeability of reality and its representations, figured initially in the uncertain line dividing land from sea, and its middle stanza, pursuing this theme, finds ambiguity in the positioning of the printed toponyms which seem to have a place in both worlds:

The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
— the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.

  • 18 Both essays were written in 1919 and appeared together in Selected Essays (1932), published in Lon (...)
  • 19 CP 42-44. Three years after writing «The Map,» Bishop’s story «In Prison» shows her imaginatively (...)

30The excessive emotion here is threatening, reflecting Bishop’s own experience, but the threat is covert, mediated by a cryptic allusion to another essay by Eliot, «Hamlet and His Problems» (companion piece to «Tradition and the Individual Talent» which she had cited the year before in her college paper).18 Eliot had argued that Hamlet’s inability to act was tied to his ambivalent feelings about his mother — feelings that held him more surely captive because they were «in excess» of the actual facts: «it is because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.» In a phrase that was to become notorious, Hamlet’s feelings lacked an «objective correlative.» As Eliot explained in the sentence Bishop echoes, «Hamlet… is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.» It is this excess that lay behind Hamlet’s dissemblance and levity, his puns and «repetition of phrase,» and the essay strongly suggests that Shakespeare, when he wrote the play, must have been suffering from a similar disjunction. Bishop apparently recognized herself in the description, although she was not yet ready to extemporize with the grave digger. The memories that lay just beneath the surface of «The Map» were like her «tremendous fish»: to be held for a moment «half out of water,» and reconsigned to the depths.19

31As we have seen, Bishop is a poet who becomes more indirect as she becomes more personal, whose crucial ideas are often entrusted to the subtleties of literary allusion. In «Large Bad Picture» the figurative complex I am calling traumatic memory is embodied in the «motionless» ships of stanza four, less a remembered feature of the landscape than a literary memory of the frozen ship in «The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner» («Of course, he had run across that threatening poem many times,» Bishop says of her beach-combing alter-ego in «The Sea & Its Shore» [Prose, 175]):

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

32Commentators have assigned various symbolic meanings to the Mariner’s mysterious paralysis, which Bishop’s own painted world seems obliquely to illustrate, but much of the poem’s power comes from its resistance to signification. Like Hamlet’s emotion, the curse that holds the Mariner captive day after day is out of all proportion to what provoked it. Such disproportion is analogous to the incommensurability of subject and object that precipitates both the sublime experience of abruption and the fixation of traumatic memory. In Bishop’s poem it assumes visual form as one moves from the «high» cliffs to the minute detail of the «small black ships»:

On the middle of that quiet floor
sits a fleet of small black ships
square-rigged, sails furled, motionless,
their spars like burnt match-sticks.

33Like the phantom Spirit «nine fathom deep» that followed the Mariner — or the «unfathered vapour» that «halted» Hamlet in Elsinore and Wordsworth as he crossed the Alps — the force that holds the fleet is nameless. The final verses of the poem will ask what brought them to their «destination,» but not what keeps them there or whether the flames that gave their spars the appearance of «burnt match-sticks» were ignited from within or from without. All we know is that their fixation corresponds to the life-in-death of the «small red sun,» whose fall toward the sea — prelude to extinction of «the unbeliever» in an earlier Key West poem — is always before them:

In the pink light
the small red sun goes rolling, rolling,
round and round and round at the same height
in perpetual sunset, comprehensive, consoling,
while the ships consider it.
Apparently they have reached their destination.

  • 20 Significantly, this verbal doubling («rolling, rolling») doubles that of «crying, crying» in the p (...)

34Fit cynosure of the Coleridgean ships, this source of evening light dominates the poem no less than the landscape, held in check by the mortmain of memory, yet «comprehensive, consoling,» like an image of maternal presence or a parody of eschatological vision. In its endless «rolling,» linear time is obliterated, replaced by an immobility that is auditory and logical as well as visual.20 Bishop uses verbal duplication as a rhetorical device in much of her writing (most memorably perhaps in the «Click. Click» of the dredge attacking the sediment of memory in «The Bight»); here, however, as in «The Ancient Mariner,» it works as a kind of textual stammer, signalling a state of blockage or arrest.

  • 21 In «Anaphora,» the formal duplication of the two stanzas is reinforced by a virtual parade of reit (...)

35The commutability of auditory and visual images of fixation is illustrated most clearly in «Anaphora,» the last poem in North and South, which describes the rising and setting of the sun in two formally identical stanzas.21 In the sacramental world of Coleridge’s «hermit good,» anaphora would signify the eucharistic prayer, not a figure of speech, and the poem indeed begins with a kind of Sursum corda («Lift up your heart») in response to the «ceremony» of sunrise. As in «A Miracle for Breakfast,» the elevation of the sun seems to promise a secular communion, but here the miracle that promptly appears, provoking adamic «wonder,» «instantly falls,» and the formal identity of the two stanzas (anaphora writ large) suggests that we are captives of a repetitive scheme rather than witnesses to any real presence. In the first stanza the sun rises, in the second sets, but in both he falls, taking «his earthly nature» by taking on ours: «assuming memory and mortal / mortal fatigue.» As the sun in each stanza yields to the «intrigue» of rhetoric, suffering «our uses and abuses,» he absorbs the «look» of the spectator, so that in the end —

the fiery event
of every day in endless
endless assent

  • 22 Notes toward a Supreme Fiction I.10. The poem was published on its own in 1942, two years before « (...)

36— his new «ascent» and our resigned or credulous «assent» to such repetition are figuratively consubstantial. In contrast to the sinking and mounting of the day-star, transfigured by the uniqueness of the resurrection in Lycidas, this eternal return ushers in no promise of «Pastures new,» but only the endlessly benumbing studies of a «beggar in the park» — himself an unwitting double of Stevens’s solar tramp, looking «for what was, where it used to be.»22

37In Coleridge’s poem, the easing of the traumatic fixation was figured by a shift from the monotony of the circling sun to the mutability of the moon, which as symbol of the imagination presided over the Mariner’s release. Bishop signals her own release by replacing the obdurate sun of «Anaphora,» the last poem in North & South, with the lunar imagery of «The Shampoo,» the last poem in her next volume, A Cold Spring. Written in 1952, the same year as «Gwendolyn» and «In the Village,» it is a love poem in which «Time is / nothing if not amenable.» When she evokes the Mariner’s sun one last time in «Crusoe in England,» arguably her greatest poem of memory, it is as one in a series of emblematic fixations linked together retrospectively. Crusoe’s recollection of his island is Bishop’s most detailed account of a dissociated state — isolated, repetitive, obsessive — but it is described from the perspective of one who has survived the ordeal and is able to look back and feel regret. The allusion, which links the tedium of repetition with the state of isolation, can therefore be almost transparent:

The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun
rose from the sea,
and there was one of it and one of me.

38The realm Crusoe inhabits is «un-rediscovered, un-renamable» — a form of limbo, where space and time are interchangeable and the absence of any external standard makes measurement impossible. Not only the monotonous movements of the sun but all material objects are imitations of themselves or of their idea — «The island had one kind of everything» — as if sol and solus were cognate displacements, «symptoms» of the repressed or forgotten word. The author of «Crusoe in England» has recovered that word; she can name the so-called «bliss of solitude» instead of living it as a pathology. Through her own constructions of the past, her own narrations, she has escaped the un-rediscovered country from whose bourn the ships in «Large Bad Picture» were unable to return.

39When the sun rises again in «Five Flights Up,» the last poem in Geography III, we have moved far inland. The poem invokes the old tropes of repetition but manages to escape their grip. The unknown bird and the little dog (the contemplative and the active) live innocently in their world of merely going round. The bird is unimpressed by the arrival of «enormous morning»; he «seems to yawn.» The dog is indifferent to his owner’s angry words; he continues running in circles of his own. The succession of days is benign, despite the «ponderousness» of the sun — «Yesterday brought to today so lightly!» — and even the final fall into memory that breaks the spell has, like the original banishment from the Garden, a saving qualification: «(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)» As with the ending of «Crusoe in England,» the triumph here is in the lack of triumph, the refusal to seek comfort in wisdom.

40Time is far less «amenable» at the end of «Large Bad Picture» as Bishop circles back to her starting point: «or,» the conjunction of indecision, of Hamlet’s soliloquy, from which the first stanza had seemed unable to escape:

Apparently they have reached their destination.
It would be hard to say what brought them there,
commerce or contemplation.

  • 23 The contrast between early and late work is not abolute. One of the best examples of the non-exclu (...)

41No matter how we gloss it (active or contemplative life? the ship or the iceberg?), the final verse leaves us suspended between alternatives, weighing the implications of each. By contrast, in late poems like «North Haven,» «or» tends to have a mediating function, advancing nonexclusive options, self-corrections, or even (like Latin vel) unexpected synonymies: «The Goldfinches… or others like them,» «derange, or rearrange.» The shift from exclusive to non-exclusive alternatives parallels the general movement from repetition to revision. One «or» implies arrest and ambivalence, the other movement and variation.23

42Bishop revisits the art of memory in the late poem cunningly titled «Poem» (rather than «Picture» as one might expect) — a Duchamp-like mislabeling that presents the work of remembrance as an active «making» in which the poet-viewer participates rather than a mere recording or recollection of what is already there. The picture to be described is the work of the same great-uncle who had painted the scene in «Large Bad Picture.» «Poem,» a radical revision of the earlier text, begins with a partial answer to its final question, informing us immediately that this «minor family relic» is «useless and free.» Where the «bad» landscape had been large — a hackneyed attempt at outmoded sublimity — the present canvas is modest:

About the size of an old-style dollar bill,
American or Canadian,
mostly the same whites, gray greens, and steel grays
— this little painting (a sketch for a larger one?)
has never earned any money in its life.

  • 24 Boulton ed., 63.
  • 25 Already in «The Map,» where geography and history correspond, Bishop makes spatial figures stand f (...)

43The poem raises immediately the question of scale. If the first painting was an image of the sublime, this one explores the picturesque. It shows «bits» of flowers, «tiny cows,» «minuscule white geese,» a «half inch» of sky with a «specklike bird,» the «touching» details of a «literal small backwater,» the «little that we get for free» (literal no longer). As Edmund Burke wrote in his treatise on the sublime, «to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, is one and the same thing. A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.»24 But the verse also introduces the more mysterious scalar question of time. The homely adjective — «About the size of an old-style dollar bill» — is placed so deftly that we almost miss the incongruity, a foreshadowing of the commutability that will mark the climax of the poem, where an analogous conflation of space and time follows the final, non-literal invocation of scale: «Not much. / About the size of our abidance.» As in «Large Bad Picture,» the end of the poem will revisit the opening, but now as revision rather than repetition.25

44According to biblical tradition, «the size of our abidance» is three score and ten years, which also happens to be the age of the painting:

Useless and free, it has spent seventy years
as a minor family relic
handed along collaterally to owners
who looked at it sometimes, or didn’t bother to.

45This is the second «or» in the opening stanza (there will be three more), but in contrast to «Large Bad Picture» it is now no longer, in Stevens’s phrase, «a choice / Between, but of.» The second line, «American or Canadian» (Bishop’s two nationalities), calls attention to the difference. In the late poem both options are equally acceptable; the conjunction, which signals not stasis but incremental movement, an enlargement of possibility, acquires additional resonance each time it recurs until, in the last stanza, it can bear the weight of the poem’s major theme, the allegorical equivalence between the place the poet once knew and its memory: «And it’s still loved, / or its memory is (it must have changed a lot).» The colloquial parenthesis here pulls the conjunction back toward the particular in preparation for the climactic recoil where «or» yields to «and,» and the two terms are made inseparable: «life and the memory of it.»

46This double correspondence between life and its memory, and memory and its artistic recreation is developed in a preliminary way in the descriptions of the second stanza. Having framed the painting as an object, physically and historically, the poet proceeds to the scene it represents. The description in «Large Bad Picture» respected the conventions of mimesis, virtually ignoring the physical existence of the canvas and confining itself to the scene. By contrast, the new text shuttles in and out, emphasizing at every turn the constitutive role of the artist in the scene’s production:

It must be Nova Scotia; only there
does one see gabled wooden houses
painted that awful shade of brown.
The other houses, the bits that show, are white.
Elm trees, low hills, a thin church steeple
— that gray-blue wisp — or is it? In the foreground
a water meadow with some tiny cows,
two brushstrokes, but confidently cows;
two minuscule white geese in the blue water,
back-to-back, feeding, and a slanting stick.
Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,
fresh-squiggled from the tube.
The air is fresh and cold; cold early spring
clear as gray glass; a half inch of blue sky
below the steel-gray storm clouds.
(They were the artist’s specialty.)
A specklike bird is flying to the left.
Or is it a flyspeck looking like a bird?

47The descriptive verve here is remarkable, yet Bishop takes care not to yield to the mimetic illusion by periodically calling attention to the surface of the canvas and the painter’s craft. Although it is the house painters of the village who would have painted the houses «that awful shade of brown,» it is the artist who, with «two brushstrokes,» has created the impression of cows, or, changing his technique, the image of flowers in white and yellow «fresh-squiggled from the tube.» One moment we seem to be in the village; it is «cold early spring,» and the poet remarks on the freshness of the air; the next moment that illusion dissolves, and she is back in the parlor or studio, estimating the extent of blue sky at a «half inch.» Lest the oscillations grow predictable, the paragraph ends with an aleatory twist — an element foreign both to the village and to the uncle’s picture of it — as we are left to decide (or better, not to bother deciding) whether a certain speck is a flying bird or «a flyspeck looking like a bird.»

48When we cross to the next paragraph, however, the tone shifts from wry speculation to unbridled amazement. Somehow, in the white space between the lines, memory has picked up its sable brush, and the painting has been animated or transfigured, its material representation irradiated by a virtual scene present to the mind of the viewer: «Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!» Despite the iconic power of the image (a vision of her childhood home), the poem itself keeps its detachment. The rhetorical heightening that registers the new intensity has been inflected toward a histrionic buffo, and the shifts between the scene and the material image, signified and signifier, continue unchecked — as when the viewer’s excitement at recognizing a neighbor’s barn («There it is») is immediately undercut by the witty enjambment («titanium white, one dab»). What is most important, however, is that the material image, the one on the canvas, is now the echo of a second image recollected in the poet’s mind, an image indebted less directly to the painting than to the shape constructed belatedly by her own description. She implies as much when, looking again at those zoomorphic strokes previously admired, but seeing now, instead of the painter’s craft, living «geese and cows,» she matter-of-factly admits the dimension of time, the Nacheinander integral to narration but foreign to painting. The livestock, it turns out, are not live at all: «Those particular geese and cows / are naturally before my time.»

49Bishop is careful here to distinguish «memory» from the painted image; she realizes that the viewer’s recollection was not brought on by the picture itself, but by her own recreative description of the picture. Thus, the memories of painter and viewer need not overlap — nor could they. What coincides are rather their «visions.» In an interlude she introduces her great-uncle George, «quite famous, an R.A.,» as remembered by the relative who gave her the painting. The final stanza jumps to their circumstantial spiritual kinship:

I never knew him. We both knew this place,
apparently, this literal small backwater,
looked at it long enough to memorize it,
our years apart. How strange. And it’s still loved,
or its memory is (it must have changed a lot).
Our visions coincided —.

50The word «visions» comes freighted with psychological connotations, including associations with dreams and prophecy, and the poet hastens to deflect them by substituting the smaller word «looks,» already featured in «Anaphora»:

— «visions» is
too serious a word — our looks, two looks:
art «copying from life» and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they’ve turned into each other.

  • 26 Cf. Bishop’s often quoted letter to Anne Stevenson: «What one seems to want in art, in experiencin (...)

51The sentence marks the poem’s second crucial crossing, for beneath the fluent syntax the subject has changed from Uncle George and the poet to the two kinds of vision both of them share. Like painter and viewer, life and its memory are interdependent; both require a voluntary self-forgetfulness, a concentration «useless but free.»26 The same can be said for memory and art, aligned across the rhetorical chiasmus (, life...memory) so as to underline the «poetic» or constitutive role of both. The «memory of life» is no longer an image of life but its story. The «compression» implies neither a gathering of the mutable into the immutable, of time into eternity, nor an endorsement of mimesis, of original and copy. The very scheme of chiasmus keeps us from assuming the priority of either term:

Which is which?
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
— the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust.

52Bishop’s mature poetry continues to revolve about such binary oppositions, but it evinces a principle of reciprocal transformation or mutual metamorphosis. The coincidence of looks, the common knowledge of uncle and niece, has come to figure the coincidence of experience and its recollection, unleashing a flood of feeling. The work of art grows out of that coincidence, a witness to its own possibility.

53As representations of representation, «Large Bad Picture» and «Poem» both figure the workings of memory, but they do so differently. The early poem, taking the sublime as its subject, sets out to represent the failure of representation. For Bishop the «unreachable» image, the object that defeats the viewer, stands for an aspect of her own past, so that the mental «halting» inferred from the scene corresponds to the effect of repression or dissociation. This failure does not extend to the poem itself, which, as distinct from the painting it describes, is perfectly successful within the limits of its ambition. Its own repetitions, whether at the level of poetic echo or at the level of verbal mimesis, are effective if ironic revisions — mobile versions, not static repetitions — of Coleridgean images of fixation. Like a traumatic symptom it successfully represents a failure, and what it reveals to analysis is not the substance of repressed memory but the fact of its repression.

54«Poem» also exploits the reflexivity of ekphrasis to second its representational project. What it illustrates, however, is not the fixation incident to traumatic memory but the reconstructive work of narrative memory, in which the poetic or esemplastic imagination participates as an equal partner. Accordingly, what is represented in the text is not simply another representation, but the picture side by side with the process of its fabrication. The poet shuttles back and forth between the image and its making, avoiding the illusion of simple mimesis. The master figure is no longer repetition but coincidence — not the «look» of a sun endlessly circling, but «two looks» in correspondence; not memory transfixed, but living memory, or, what comes to the same thing, «life and the memory of it,» commensurate and interdependent. The corresponding visions of painter and poet alternate with the corresponding images of painting and poem, so that, if it is coincidence that gives rise to the «poem,» it is also a «poem» (a «making,» the painting-as-poem of the title) that gives rise to coincidence. The lesson to be drawn is not necessarily reassuring, for not only the past, but our images of it remain in flux, subject to continual revision, as Bishop had insisted decades before. The memories we construct — memories of life, but of a life in which the makings of memory have a part — change as we do; their coloring darkens with our eye. All art is an art of losing. And yet there is, the poem affirms, an element of constancy, a part that does survive,

— the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.

55The last lines of the poem are miraculous in the way they join past to present, acknowledging the complicity of permanence and change. An affirmation that is at once an acceptance of responsibility flows seamlessly into the calmest of valedictions. Feeling the vulnerability in the «shivering» iris, recognizing the reliance of this «water / still standing» on vanished «freshets» whose transience foreshadows our own, lingering fondly over the oblivious geese, similar though not identical to those she has known, and the «yet-to-be-dismantled elms,» she measures the «size of our abidance» — our duration, but also our dwelling in the world, our patient endurance of its trials — without violating its trust or exaggerating her own.


1 I quote from reviews collected by Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess, Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983); see, in order, pp. 182, 184, 186, 178. It is David Kalstone who deserves credit for first countering the emphasis on descriptive precision, beginning with his review of Complete Poems in Partisan Review 37 (Spring 1970) and continuing with Five Temperaments (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) and finally Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989), where he writes, «Bishop’s descriptive poems are themselves critiques of descriptive powers.... Nothing was observed which had not been tinged by memory» (93). The new tide reached its flood with Bonnie Costello’s masterful Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991). Her chapter «Memory’s Eye» focuses on the role of the past in Bishop’s work and more specifically on the power of art to «excite memory and thus carry the past as an active force into the present» (213). Brett C. Millier pursues the same theme perceptively and with tact in Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (Berkeley: University of California, 1993).

2 The Collected Prose, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984), 214. Hereafter cited in the text as Prose. A more «terrifying» emblem of memory (a kind of anti-madeleine) figures toward the end of the story, when the narrator goes darkly groping in a kitchen cupboard in search of a basket of marbles she had received as a gift some months before. When she finally finds them and carries them out into the light they are nearly unrecognizable beneath the incrustations of dirt, dust, cobwebs, and mildew (225). Mildew returns as the invasive symbol of mortality in «Memories of Uncle Neddy» (227, 228, 250).

3 William James, Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. (1890; reprint, New York: Dover, 1950). Hermann Ebbinghaus, Über das Gedächtnis (1885); translated by H.A. Ruger and C.E. Bussenius as Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology (New York: Dover, 1964). James’s notion of an endlessly mobile «stream of thought» was a commonplace of popular psychology when Bishop was in college.

4 Originally written for an English course, the essay was published in the Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies 8 (May 1934): 95-103; compare her previous year’s contribution to the same journal, «Time’s Andromedas» (Vassar Journal 7 [1933]: 102-120), where she is already dealing with similar ideas.

5 The phrase «temps incorporé» appears toward the very end of Le Temps retrouvé (À la recherche du temps perdu, Pléiade, 1989, IV.623); see the recent discussion in Malcolm Bowie, Proust among the Stars (New York: Columbia, 1998), esp. pp. 30-67. Margot E. Gray gives a brilliant reading of Proustian memory and its relation to recent neurological research in her chapter «Memory, Neurology, and Narration,» Postmodern Proust (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1992), 67-94.

6 The first quotation is from «Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy» (the case of «Little Hans»), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey et al. (London: The Hogarth Press, 1966), 10.66. The second is from Freud’s letter to Wilhelm Fliess of November 2, 1896, Standard Edition, 1.233. In a narrow sense, Freud’s concept of «deferred action» (Nachträglichkeit) refers to the repression of infantile memories whose sexual nature is only recognized retrospectively with the emergence of the adolescent’s own sexual feelings. More generally, it applies to any traumatic experience that undergoes subsequent revision. In its broadest application, however, it refers to the way the mind continually reconstitutes its own past in conformity with present aims. It is the latter two meanings that are most relevant to an understanding of Bishop’s work.

7 See Eleanor Cook’s memorable discussion of the final verse as a «scheme of schemes» in Against Coercion: Games Poets Play (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 39-43.

8 We know from the biographies, however, that her friendship with Lowell went beyond the complicity of literary confidants and that following his two-week visit to Stonington on the Maine coast in the summer of 1948 Bishop’s imaginary rearrangements of the past would possibly have included, if only «in a dreamy sort of way,» scenes from a life together. Although she never spoke of this directly, Lowell was less reserved: «Asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had,» he wrote to her years later following a visit she paid to Castine, the third of the Maine coastal sites encompassed by the island’s drifting «north, south, and sidewise» through the poem’s comedic counterplot (Lowell to Bishop, August 15, 1957; cited in Millier, 203.) On this still obscure episode, see Kalstone, Becoming a Poet, 139-148; Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell (New York: Random House, 1982), 134-35; and Millier, 197-205. According to Kalstone, «Bishop’s reactions that first summer... were not unclouded,» and he reports an admission years later «that she might have married him.» It is also possible that her attitude to Lowell here draws on memories and feelings related to Tom Wanning, with whom she spent much of that summer and with whom she seems to have maintained a serious relationship well into the spring of 1949.

9 On Lowell’s self-revisions, see Hamilton, 431. Imitations (1961), the remarkable book of «translations» Lowell dedicated to Bishop, hinted already at the liberties he would take with the words of others. Bishop in her response characteristically worried about «mistakes» (see her letter to Lowell of March 1, 1961 in Elizabeth Bishop, One Art; Letters, ed. Robert Giroux [New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994], 394). Other letters, beginning with her comments on «Paterson II,» in which William Carlos Williams had adapted, without permission, a young woman’s personal letters, document her dismay at the «insensitivity» that could confound fact and fiction; see especially her letter to Lowell of March 21, 1972, protesting his use of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters in The Dolphin (One Art, 561-63).

10 Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson, 1949), 273, 279. Ryle would probably have denied that memory and imagination are interdependent as well as similar. He believed, like most analytical philosophers, that «recall incorrectly» was an «illegitimate phrase» (278), noting that we do not describe recollections as brilliant or original but «as relatively faithful, vivid, and accurate.»

11 Janet’s most important ideas are contained in Les Médications psychologiques, 3 vols. (Paris: Felix Alcan, 1919; Société Pierre Janet, 1984). In what follows I draw on the expert discussion in B.A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart, «The Intrusive Past: the Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma,» American Imago 48 (1991): 425-54; reprinted in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995) 158-82.

12 Janet, Les Médications psychologiques, 663. Van der Kolk and van der Hart, 427-28.

13 The main exception, the violence attending the suspension of time in «12 O’Clock News,» actually confirms the pattern, since the poem, though published in Geography III, was largely written in the 1930s. «In the Waiting Room» and «Crusoe in England» have violent passages, but the violence is under control: outside, or extinct, or part of a dream from which one has awakened. (The fires of «Night City» strike me as purgatorial rather than infernal, watched over by the angelic airplanes in the final stanza.)

14 Letter to Paul Brooks, her editor at Houghton Mifflin, January 2, 1953 (One Art, 253). Because the volume was too thin, she eventually agreed to include «Arrival in Santos» — later reprinted as the first poem of Questions of Travel — and «The Shampoo,» both written in 1952.

15 Bishop spoke about the paintings that inspired the two poems in a 1977 interview with George Starbuck, «‘The Work!’ A Conversation with Elizabeth Bishop,» Ploughshares 3 (1977; reprinted in Schwartz and Estess; see p. 312). So far as I know, the painting allegedly described in «Large Bad Picture» has been lost, while the sketch that inspired «Poem» now belongs to Alice Methfessel, Bishop’s literary executor, and has not been reproduced. Both poems are thus instances of what John Hollander has called «unassessable actual ecphrasis,» a category in which «the poem might as well be notional»; see The Gazer’s Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995), 34.

16 In the case of the «aquatic animal,» one wonders whether Bishop is not slyly playing off Edmund Burke, who in his treatise on the sublime devotes a curious chapter to «The cries of Animals» (A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), ed. James T. Boulton [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958], II.xx).

17 As Kant writes in the Critique of Judgment, «We can describe the sublime in this way: it is an object…the representation of which determines the mind to think the unattainability [Unerreichbarkeit] of nature as a presentation of ideas» (Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft [1790] in Kants Gesammelte Schriften, Prussian Academy of Sciences, 23 vols. [Berlin: 1902-1955] 5.208). See Donald W. Crawford, Kant’s Aesthetic Theory (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974), esp. 134-141. Thomas Weiskel, who translates Kant’s theory into semiotic language, distinguishes two modes of the sublime: the first, «mathematical,» characterized by «repetition, or any excess of ‘substance’ in the signifier,» induces «the sense of on and on»; the second, «apocalyptic» (Kant’s word is «dynamical»), characterized by the abrogation of temporality, is caused by an excess of the signified, in which what threatens is «stasis, a kind of death by plenitude» (The Romantic Sublime [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976], 26-27). In «Large Bad Picture» both modes are represented: the fleet of ships is multiple but static; the sun is suspended in the sky but constantly «rolling.»

18 Both essays were written in 1919 and appeared together in Selected Essays (1932), published in London by Faber and Faber and in New York (with the subtitle «1917-32») by Harcourt, Brace and Company. The line Bishop echoes is on page 125 of the American edition (where Eliot’s original title appears in the table of contents, though the shortened title, «Hamlet,» appears in the text). Helen Vendler makes note of the echo in an essay on Elizabeth Bishop, collected in The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988); see p. 298.

19 CP 42-44. Three years after writing «The Map,» Bishop’s story «In Prison» shows her imaginatively assuming the conditions of her mother’s involuntary confinement rather than continuing the analysis of her reaction to it. The striped wallpaper of the narrator’s hotel room becomes the silver bars of a cage from which there is no escape but into which memory cannot intrude. Compare her unpublished epigram in the style of Dorothy Parker: «The past / at least / is polite: / It keeps out of sight» (quoted in Millier, 79). Freud discusses the work required to overcome the resistances provoked by memory in «Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through» (Standard Edition 12.145-56); cf. the addendum on resistance in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (Standard Edition, 20.157-164), where he speaks of the «gain from illness» and the «need for punishment»; he also takes up the idea of original trauma and briefly discusses the defense of «isolation» (another name for what Janet called «dissociation»), «whose technique cannot as yet be elucidated» (164).

20 Significantly, this verbal doubling («rolling, rolling») doubles that of «crying, crying» in the previous stanza, creating a kind of second-order recursion, which prompts a reading of its literary antecedents. To my ear, these include not only the signature duplications in «The Ancient Mariner,» but echoes of Tennyson’s famous «Song» from The Princess, whose own «echoes» mimetically «dying, dying» haunt the defensive «crying» of the painted birds, as their sequel («Our echoes roll from soul to soul») resonates in the endless «rolling» of the sun — a mise en abyme of repetitive fixation.

21 In «Anaphora,» the formal duplication of the two stanzas is reinforced by a virtual parade of reiterative figures, including alliteration («begins…birds…bells»), epizeuxis («instantly, instantly»), anadiplosis («mortal / mortal»), and internal rhyme («skies…eyes»). The second stanza, besides doubling several figures from the first, adds figura etymologica («uses…abuses») and anaphora itself («sinks through the drift of» twice in successive lines). Significantly each stanza ends with a hypometric coda, a kind of headless bob and wheel, which corresponds to a change in the sun’s direction, so that instead of the stasis of mirror symmetry, we are led through a seriatim cycle of repetitions. Bishop’s use of large-scale iconicity, in which the poem’s shape or formal plan carries allegorical weight, shows the influence of Herbert. Other examples include the «gay» sestet-octave inversion in «Sonnet,» the returns of the villanelle form in «One Art,» and the irregularity of the free-verse stanza («land lies…») encircled by the redundant rhymes of the Italian octaves («in water») in «The Map.»

22 Notes toward a Supreme Fiction I.10. The poem was published on its own in 1942, two years before «Anaphora,» and, as a climate of sound, its influence may be audible already in the iconic repetition, «round and round and round,» in «Large Bad Picture» (cf. Notes III.9). Unlike the allusion to Coleridge, such subtle echoing, which like the latent content of dream has undergone displacement and condensation, is not necessarily conscious — though one might argue that the downward «drift of classes» from tramp to beggar has a revisionary slyness typical of Bishop’s wit. But whether consciously or not, she seems to have taken the chaplinesque tramp, elegiac embodiment of Stevens’s «major abstraction» — who himself had displaced the solar «project» of the poem’s beginning («Cloudless the morning. It is he») — and transferred him from the end of Part I to the bench «in the park» at the end of Part II. That the beggar is «without lamp or book» strengthens the impression, for «without» is virtually a Stevensian motto (in Notes alone it occurs twelve times) and the objects recur as emblems throughout his work. Moreover, just as anaphora must be Stevens’s central scheme, the sun is incontestably his central trope — one that Bishop engaged directly toward the end of her life in «The End of March.» That it here «sinks,» as it were «downward to darkness,» like the birds at the end of «Sunday Morning,» shows the persistence of earlier readings in her auditory memory (one recalls her acknowledgement that she once knew Harmonium «almost by heart» [Millier, 51]).

23 The contrast between early and late work is not abolute. One of the best examples of the non-exclusive conjunction occurs at the beginning of «The Map»:
Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges.
Here internal rhyme raises the phantom of a synonymy which would blend the green of the map and the green of the sea (the representation and the world it represents). Of the five occurrences of «or» in the poem, only one is an exclusive opposition — «Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?» — and it is parried in the next verse by a non-exclusive response: «What suits the character or the native waters best.» (It is probably a coincidence that the conjunction appears five times in both «The Map» and «Poem,» but the mysterious recurrence of the number five throughout Bishop’s work is enough to give one pause.) The locus classicus for this tension between optional and mutually exclusive is surely Paradise Lost, where Milton gives it allegorical resonance: «Or if Sion Hill / Delight thee more»; «to stand or fall.»

24 Boulton ed., 63.

25 Already in «The Map,» where geography and history correspond, Bishop makes spatial figures stand for temporal ones (cf. «The Argument,» where the allied terms are «Distances» and «Days»). Time enters the introduction to «Poem» more subtlely through Bishop’s choice of colors. To a reader familiar with her palette, the «gray greens» in the third line suggest mutability and age (perhaps by way of a pun on «verdigris,» the title she gave to an unpublished villanelle on the depredations of time); cf. the «gray-green foliage» in «Chemin de Fer,» the «gray-green smoke» in «The Riverman,» and especially the «gray-green bloom» of the mildew in «Memories of Uncle Neddy» which suggests «attractive morbidity — although perhaps mortality is a better word» (Prose, 228; also 250). On the elusiveness of temporal scale as an aesthetic concept, see Angus Fletcher, A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004), 211-12.

26 Cf. Bishop’s often quoted letter to Anne Stevenson: «What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration» (a program that recalls the psychoanalyst’s rule for dealing with memories) (letter of January 8, 1964; published in Anne Stevenson, Elizabeth Bishop [New York: Twayne, 1966], 66).


Professeur de littérature comparée à l’Université d’Indiana (Bloomington). Il a publié divers ouvrages et articles sur la poésie américaine et européenne. Il prépare une édition annotée de l’Ancien Testament pour les éditions Norton.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2006

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