Elizabeth Bishop and the Wordsworth in her World.
On reading over what I've got at hand I find I'm really a minor female Wordsworth. At least I don't know anyone else who seems to be such a Nature Lover.
I was immediately struck by her observation, because I too had felt a similarity. But the notion that one shouldn't take Bishop's comment seriously, or understand it as a positive estimation of her poetry, is all but taken for granted. Only Jeredith Merrin's 1990 book An Ennabling Humility stands out as a serious attempt to reappraise Bishop's poetic relationship to Wordsworth. Merrin's take is that for Bishop "the 'minor female' version is in some ways preferable to the 'major male' version." Certainly this is true. Yet who would now deny that Bishop was also a major poet, in her own way? In any case, I would like to shift to a different paradigm that the letter suggests: love of nature. By capitalizing both "Nature" and "Lover," Bishop is distancing herself from Wordsworth, gently mocking his arch-probity. But the "at least" also suggests it is here where any lasting--maybe major--connection will be found.
As the letter makes clear, Bishop's identification of herself with Wordsworth is prompted by her consideration of what she had "at hand." A Cold Spring was four years away at the time of the letter. It didn't even exist yet in Bishop's mind with that title. She thought to call it Correspondence. She did, however, already have its eventual title poem at hand. In another letter from July 1951, from The New Yorker to Bishop, William Maxwell writes that they at the magazine "all love and want very much" her poem "A Cold Spring," but he qualifies that she will have to let them "run it in season," as the publication always does with seasonal poetry. That meant the poem wouldn't see publication until May of the next year, but it was sparkling in her mind when she wrote to Lowell. And over the previous few years, The New Yorker had ushered a number of her other poems into print, including "At the Fishhouses" in 1947 and "The Bight" and "Cape Breton" in 1949. When A Cold Spring did appear in 1955, it contained only eighteen poems and so was coupled with her earlier book North and South to make for a more substantial volume. "A Cold Spring," "The Bight," "At the Fishhouses," and "Cape Breton" form the core of the second book (along with the magnificent but different "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance"). Four lengthier poems in an eighteen poem book, they represent Bishop's most intense, concentrated look at and impression of the natural world. When one has them at hand they do reveal a Wordsworthian engagement with nature. For the sake of this essay, though, I'll just be looking at A Cold Spring's title poem and its centerpiece poem, "At the Fishhouses." To say the least, the following readings aren't the typical assessment of Bishop's nature poetry. Herein lies the reason why it will be necessary to uncover the Wordsworth in her world by patient and precise readings, one phrase or image at a time.
"A Cold Spring"
The book opens with its title poem, and the poem opens with the words of its title. "A cold spring." Instantly, the reader is dropped into the world, sensing the temperature, feeling the season. Taking a step back from the poem so as to reflect on it as a whole, Bonnie Costello reaches some perceptive conclusions in her 1991 book Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. She writes that against "seasonal instability and temporal advance, the beholder possesses the stabilizing power of recollection and anticipation" and while "it is easy to pass over this poem, just as Keats's 'To Autumn' was once passed over, as 'mere description,"' she notes that "it is feeling and thought perfectly realized in sensation." For all Costello's resistance to admit the evidence that Bishop received a rich inheritance from Romanticism, she has no qualms about appropriating the critical vocabulary of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads to describe Bishop's poem. Among the Preface's most famous formulations, Wordsworth writes that Lyrical Ballads was an experiment that sought to fit "to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation," and "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." The stabilizing power of emotion recollected in tranquility, realized in the language of vivid sensation--it's clear that Wordsworth and Costello are writing about the same qualities.
In his 1998 book Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development, Thomas Travisano identifies in the poem the "success with which Bishop has washed her diction clean of romantic encrustation." The diction is free of encrustation, but this isn't necessarily an anti-Romantic cleansing. Wordsworth himself prominently defended poetry's use of the language really used by men. We could say of Bishop what one of her earliest champions, Randall Jarrell, provocatively said of Moore: her "language fits Wordsworth's formula for the language of poetry surprisingly well ... but I am sure Wordsworth would have looked at it with uncomfortable dislike, and have called it the language of extraordinary women." Take these lines from the poem:
Four deer practised leaping over your fences. The infant oak-leaves swung through the sober oak. Song-sparrows were wound up for the summer, and in the maple the complementary cardinal cracked a whip[.]
And these from Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence":
The birds are singing in the distant woods; Over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods; The Jay makes answer as the Magpie chatters[.]
In both the language is grammatically direct, and the statements are fit without strain one to a line. In many ways Bishop is speaking Wordsworth's real language of men. Her extraordinary diction, though, applies more pressure than most people really would. If her vocabulary isn't encrusted, she shakes the dust and crust from it with perhaps too much of a flourish. With wit ostentatiously assertive and beyond the reach of Wordsworth, she imagines the deer as practicing, the leaves as infant, and--the most showy feat of association--the song sparrows as wind-up toys. And yet her anti-Romantic performance is staged in Wordsworth's world. With her sharp associations she renders nature as offering cooperation (the "complementary" cardinal), promising life (the "infant" leaves), and exemplifying resolution (the "sober" oak). Bishop's rhythms rest in the lines like those in the quoted lines from "Resolution and Independence," yet her dazzling wit leaps above Wordsworth, only to fall right in line with his ideas. Indeed, the phrases from Costello and Wordsworth have as much or more to do with the field of ideas rolled round and bound up in the verse as they do with its surface, suggesting that "A Cold Spring" is indebted in an essential way to Wordsworthian thought.
The thought can be found among the beliefs Wordsworth espouses in the spectacular poem commonly referred to as the "Immortality Ode" and in its poetically less arresting counterpart "Ode: Composed Upon an Evening of Extraordinary Splendor and Beauty." The Immortality Ode is ambitious in what it asserts, and often jumps between its assertions with little concrete bridge. These theoretical flights, most of which have to do with pre-existence and the philosophic power of the child, result in such lines as "Behold the Child among his newborn blisses, / A four years' Darling of a pigmy size!"--punctuated with an exclamation point, the presence of irony, alas, doubtful. The lines probably didn't appeal to Bishop. Paring away the poem's indulgences in philosophic declaration, though, we arrive at a modest human core that places one person in relation to a nature with whose visionary gleam he has lost touch. In an essay not on this poem but on "Resolution and Independence," William Pritchard nevertheless succinctly captures the Ode's essence: "In the Intimations Ode, Wordsworth asked himself a leading question, 'Whither is fled the visionary gleam?', and spent most of the poem insisting that the gleam was both essentially irrecoverable and, through imagination, recoverable." No doubt Bishop would have found this statement more palatable, and it is the one essential to the Immortality Ode. It is also the reason for which the Ode ends, in satisfying paradox, with its uncertain gesture toward certainty: even though Wordsworth, remembering glory and splendor past, writes that "We will grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind," and that "the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears," he leaves unnamed where to find that strength, how to word those thoughts.
One response is the Ode itself: poetic creation. Countering critics who define the poem as a farewell to poetry, Lionel Trilling asked in his landmark essay "The Immortality Ode," "if sensitivity and responsiveness be among the poetic powers, what else is Wordsworth saying at the end of the poem except that he has a greater sensitivity and responsiveness than ever before?" The question is of course rhetorical. Similarly, in "Ode: Composed Upon an Evening of Extraordinary Splendor," Wordsworth is so impressed by the evening that his imagination is able to recover a renewed, though short-lived, glimpse of glory that he knows is only an illusion. The result is again poetic creation. Bishop's "A Cold Spring" absorbs the more modest notions that guide the odes. And while the poem does not preach them, it enacts them. The observations of the eye and ear in "A Cold Spring" accumulate to illustrate the same type of relationship between observer and nature as do the observations and declarations in the two odes--that the speaker is not usually, or ever, fully in touch with nature's visionary unity. Then in the second verse paragraph of "A Cold Spring," an evening of extraordinary splendor inspires in Bishop an act of poetic creation that catches a glimpse of the gleam.
In the first half of the poem's first verse paragraph, Bishop juxtaposes hesitation with movement, and in the second half, pastoral poetry's charm with the real-life pasture's less than beautiful detail. She writes that "For two weeks or more the trees hesitated; / the little leaves waited,/carefully indicating their characteristics." The end-stopped sentence and unexpected rhyme hold the images of hesitation together as a single unit opposed to the lines immediately following: "Finally a grave green dust/settled over your big and aimless hills." The image is balanced perfectly with, because opposed equally to, the ones previous. Pulling in closer, from the expanse of big, aimless hills to a single, specific hill, Bishop observes an animal's birth to complement the season's:
One day, in a chill white blast of sunshine, on the side of one a calf was born. The mother stopped lowing and took a long time eating the after-birth, a wretched flag, but the calf got up promptly and seemed inclined to feel gay.
Extracted like this, the description becomes more clearly what it is: a substructure within the verse paragraph, an impression caused by the framing effect of the calf's depictions. At the beginning the calf is born and at the end gets up, seeming inclined to feel gay. But within this pleasant frame (a detail that would be perfectly at home in the idealized world of traditional pastoral poetry), there is the gritty image of the mother eating the after-birth. And Bishop, not inclined only to mention it, gives a fair amount of weight to the portrayal thereof. Dramatically shorter than the previous line, "a wretched flag" attracts attention to itself, asking the reader to linger on its possibilities longer than he or she may wish to. In the pause allowed by the comma at the end of the line, our minds may start to ask questions--a flag because sort of crumpled up and folded? because rich with blood-red?--the answers to which bring to the mind's eye things we may rather not see.
It's clear that like the adult Wordsworth in the Immortality Ode, Bishop does not find a nature that seems "Apparelled in celestial light, /The glory and the freshness of a dream." Not that Bishop says as much, but she sees as much. Her natural world is one of details more dissonant than harmonious. The tense coexistence is held in equilibrium by the images' equal pulls in opposing directions, whereas what is needed to catch a glimpse of nature's splendor and glory is harmony, unity. David Ferry, in his highly original and still too little read book The Limits of Mortality (1959), characterizes one of Wordsworth's systems as sacramental, and the sacramental system as one that is woven throughout the Ode. He writes that Wordsworth can look at nature "sacramentally, regarding it in the mode of eternity, responding insofar as he can only to its harmonious relations, to those things which appear least accidental and which most easily can be symbolic of eternity." In "Ode: An Evening," Wordsworth comes across a scene that allows for just such a poetic response: "No sound is uttered,--but a deep / And solemn harmony pervades / The hollow vale from steep to steep." But in the Immortality Ode and in the majority of "A Cold Spring," the speakers are not attuned to this harmony and so cannot construe nature as a symbol for eternity or unity.
The second verse paragraph begins with a line that echoes the beginning of the first: "The next day"--three monosyllabes, one unstressed followed by two stressed. In echoing the poem's opening, the line calls attention to the progress the poem has made from it, having moved from periods of time less defined to more defined--from "a cold spring," to "two weeks or more," to "one day," to "the next day." While the next day, "much warmer," contrasts with the chill of the season, the nature Bishop perceives and relates doesn't contrast much with that of the first verse paragraph. Discordant opposition still defines the lines. "Greenish-white dogwood," rooted and gentle, has somehow "infiltrated the wood." The agent of the poetically burning petals is an unpoetic "cigarette-butt." The redbud is "motionless" yet "more like movement."
Beneath this dominant sense, however, an undercurrent more harmonious and visionary begins to churn. Bishop writes the perfectly idyllic lines--on deer, oak leaves, sparrows, and cardinals--that are the first quoted in this reading, then follows these with a poetic personification that casts the blooming season as an awakening sleeper stretching his limbs. Still, she cannot fully tap into the spiritual unity of nature. In this way she may remind us of Wordsworth in the second strophe of the Immortality Ode:
The Rainbow comes and goes, And lovely is the Rose, The Moon doth with delight Look round her when the heavens are bare; Waters on a starry night Are beautiful and fair; The sunshine is a glorious birth; But yet I know, where'er I go, That there hath passed away a glory from the earth.
Despite his awareness of nature's excellencies, despite his personification of one of nature's larger elements, Wordsworth knows he cannot sense the glory. Nor can Bishop. Both need an extraordinary moment within the natural world to allow for such a reconnection.
Sixteen lines into the verse paragraph, Bishop inserts another marker of time: "Now, in the evening." The arrival at the present moment is the culmination of the narrowing of time that has been in process since the poem's opening. You can't get any narrower than "now." The striking effect of this moment signals the importance of the now, of the evening--that it also may be the consummation of something. To be sure, as "a new moon comes," so does a new mood. "The hills grow softer," and the music of the natural world does too, lowering from the pitch of bird calls to the mellow bass of bull-frogs, "slack strings plucked by heavy thumbs." And from the line "Beneath the light, against your white front door" a truly new sense of nature sets in as the poem moves away from day, lingering in the evening:
the smallest moths, like Chinese fans, flatten themselves, silver and silver-gilt over pale yellow, orange, or gray. Now, from the thick grass, the fireflies begin to rise: up, then down, then up again: lit on the ascending flight, drifting simultaneously to the same height[.]
The opposition between movement and stasis has loosened to the freedom of drifting, a harmonious dance in which all its members move simultaneously. The earlier palette of chill whites, bright greens, and intense reds has been washed over with the soft glow of flickering and overlaid orange, gray, yellow, and silver. And in a verse paragraph that had attended so thoroughly to sound, its present absence carries the effect of silence. I now share some lines from the ode that complements the Immortality Ode, beginning with a couple that were quoted above:
No sound is uttered,--but a deep And solemn harmony pervades The hollow vale from steep to steep, And penetrates the glades. Far-distant images draw nigh, Called forth by wond'rous potency Of beamy radiance, that imbues Whate'er it strikes, with gem-like hues! In vision exquisitely clear, Herds range along the mountain side; And glistening antlers are descried; And gilded flocks appear.
How different Wordsworth's mode of description is from Bishop's, and yet how similar the scene: an "evening of extraordinary splendor," in which the twilight gilds the world, and a gem-like radiance softly glows. Yes, Bishop's evening scene is less immediately sublime than Wordsworth's: she attends, in typically Bishopian fashion, to the minute rather than majestic, but the color, light, and silent harmony are all there.
Then again, I don't want to say that Bishop's sense of the natural world is Wordsworthian because she was attracted, as was he, to describing nature at evening. That would hardly be a profound similarity. Many poems have been written on just such a subject, and many may be more nuanced and enjoyable than the ode just quoted. What's more important, the effect of the evening's splendor on Bishop reveals a mind taken with the same ideas that Wordsworth's was. For Wordsworth, the evening's brilliance offers to his eye and mind "a glimpse of glory" renewed. For Bishop it does too. Reflecting on the fireflies, she writes,
--Later on they rise much higher. And your shadowy pastures will be able to offer these particular glowing tributes every evening now throughout the summer.
That these lines are bolstered with near rhymes helps to remove them from those immediately preceding, something like (though very different from) the couplet at the end of a sonnet: the poet is stepping back from immediate observation to make a resonant concluding comment. The little bit of poetic support raises up the metaphor "these particular glowing tributes" and voices its importance all the more. Travisano hears in the metaphor "words that mimic the glib toastmaster." To be sure, Bishop often turns words ironically, but I question that she's doing so here. After all, she uses the word "tributes" rather than "toasts." In other poems, too, Bishop sincerely ascribes stately action to nature. In "Cootchie," for instance, the "sea, desperate, / will proffer wave after wave" in recognition of the servant's death. I suggest that the word "tributes" is sincere, and animated, though quietly, with moving and ambiguous power--that, say, of religion, of spirit, ceremony, or celebration.
Bishop is inspired by the glory of the evening in a way that allows her imagination to recover a glimpse thereof in poetic creation (metaphor, a symbol), uniting all that the evening has to offer in a single, resonant word. The discord of the poem has passed, and a deep harmony sounds. The ability of poetry to compensate for a nature that is from the speaker's perspective without glorious splendor is also at the heart of the Immortality Ode. Pritchard reminded us of this earlier--that the gleam is recoverable through imagination. And David Ferry, drawing from while expanding on Lionel Trilling, writes that the Ode is "about life by a man for whom, in the most radical sense, life was imagination, and one result of imagination was poetry." Moreover, "if mortal man can relate himself to the eternal only through the mediation of symbols, and mortal nature is the repository of symbols, then poetry--vision by means of symbols--is the only imaginative means available to him." During the day Bishop is struck by all the elements of nature that fight with themselves and prevent a unified vision. At twilight she is, like Wordsworth, so impressed by the splendor of the evening that she can use her imaginative poetic creation to find some of the gleam in nature that she, and he, had lost.
"At the Fishhouses"
The solitary fisherman we encounter in "At the Fishhouses" is immediately striking as characteristically Wordsworthian, and if we refuse to rest content with just that impression, an even more impressive web of connections begins to emerge. Not just a generic Wordsworthian solitary, the fisherman can be understood as an adoption and modification of Wordsworth's leech-gatherer from "Resolution and Independence," Armytage from "The Ruined Cottage," the discharged soldier, and the old Cumberland beggar. With this Wordsworthian background, the likening of knowledge and water that the poem reaches at its end then registers as an inversion of the representation of water in "The Ruined Cottage" and yet a comparison still at home in Wordsworth's world.
The poem's opening lines attend to the old man netting, his net almost invisible in the gloaming. Then the verse paragraph's interest broadens, describing the overall ambience of the scene, with careful notice, though, of minute particulars. The description is at once universal and specific. Bishop writes that, "The air smells so strong of codfish/ it makes one's nose run and one's eyes water." The use of the possessive "one's" as opposed to a more personal choice of possessive pronoun, such as 'my,' lends a sense of universality to the scene. In the lines directly after, Bishop writes that "The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs / and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up / to storerooms in the gables." "Five," "steeply," "narrow," "cleated"--Bishop is never content with naming alone. She must count, qualify, and modify. The combination of the universal and the specific suppresses the subjectivity of the observation and in doing so creates the sense that the description's accuracy is unarguable, the speaker's perceptions unquestionable.
Bishop sneaks in the declarative "All is silver." The statement, though short, is large: it pushes the description from realistic to fantastic. The reader's confidence in the veracity of the poem's observations, however, lets Bishop switch into this mode without triggering any alarms. The scene then becomes progressively more extraordinary. Benches, pots, and masts are translucent. Moss is emerald. The wheelbarrows are "plastered/with creamy iridescent coats of mail,/with small iridescent flies crawling on them." Robert Lowell, in a letter to Bishop, finds an apt phrase for the description in the poem: "great splendor." It calls to mind Wordsworth of course, who upon seeing the scene as described by Bishop very well might have remarked on its splendor. The difference is that Bishop provides a description that can elicit 'splendid!' as a response from her reader; Wordsworth provides a response--'splendid!'--that asks his reader to trust that it was justifiably elicited. This section of "At the Fishhouses" offers such splendor as removes the scene from the ordinary, locates it in a nature preternatural.
The accent then shifts back to the old man, to description of him and an exchange with him (consisting of a little act of kindness and some conversation). Yet the description of him does not depart far from the mode in the lines previous. Bishop writes that "There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb." The metaphorical rendering of fish scales as sequins immediately recalls the "iridescent coats of mail" plastering the wheelbarrows and the "iridescent flies crawling on them." In this way, the man becomes as much a part of an increasingly visionary nature as any other element down by Bishop's fishhouses. Perhaps the reader, though, could expect this, because this mode of depiction corresponds to Wordsworth's rendering of his own solitaries. In "Resolution and Independence" Wordsworth, too, describes a figure by using terms that belong to the extraordinary elements of nature. He observes the leech-gatherer propped on his staff "As a huge Stone is sometimes seen to lie/Couched on the bald top of an eminence," or "Like a Sea-beast crawled forth, which on a shelf/Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself." As does Bishop's, the portrayal casts the object of the poet's eye as an element of the natural world that is also beyond the norm of nature. The men transcend the human. In "The Discharged Soldier" (also a part of The Prelude), Wordsworth says as much when he comes across yet another solitary. Looking at the soldier, he writes, "I think / If but a glove had dangled in his hand / It would have made him more akin to man"
The speaker's interaction with the fisherman centers on a small act of charity: the gift of a Lucky Strike cigarette. To some extent the act recalls Wordsworth's "The Old Cumberland Beggar." There Wordsworth writes that,
Where'er the aged Beggar takes his rounds, The mild necessity of use compels To acts of love; and habit does the work Of reason, yet prepares that after joy Which reason cherishes. And thus the soul, By that sweet taste of pleasure unpursued Doth find itself insensibly disposed To virtue and true goodness.
Similar to those who give to Wordsworth's beggar, Bishop's speaker gives to her poem's fisherman. It can even be felt that the speaker was not pestered into begrudgingly parting with the cigarette. The old man merely "accepts" it. Her soul disposed to virtue and goodness, the speaker happily offered this act of love. Of course, that's a bit of an overstatement. A cigarette does not quite qualify as one of the necessary items that the Cumberland beggar seeks (even if it feels as necessary as food and water to any smoker). Bishop's adoption of the act of Wordsworthian giving is also a revision of--a stepping down from--the acts of love in "The Old Cumberland Beggar." (One might also recall the "little, nameless, unremembered, acts/Of kindness and of love" in "Tintern Abbey.") The revision, or reduction, parallels her reduction in the amount of explicit reflection on the act. In Wordsworth's poem, charity is for the sake of making the giver feel more virtuous. In Bishop's, it is left uncontemplated. The use of the extreme figure for the speaker's own benefit is a common strategy in Wordsworth. "Resolution and Independence," for instance, ends with just such a reflection: "'God,' said I, 'be my help and stay secure;/I'll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor.'" The leech-gatherer is significant inasmuch as he is a model for the speaker seeking freedom from the vacillation between 'mounting high in delight' and 'in dejection sinking as low.' Indeed these instances highlight a defining difference between Bishop and Wordsworth. Bishop inherits Wordsworth's figures on the extreme side of humanity but rejects their explicit moral exploitation.
Bishop comments on the conversation with the fisherman: "We talk of the decline in the population /and of codfish and herring." The casual tone carries unsettling apocalyptic resonances with little interruption of the poem's cool calm. Such coolness permeates much of Bishop's work and prevents the sort of exclamation common in Wordsworth. The content of the lines, though, reads as recognizably Wordsworthian. The conversation with the old man in "The Ruined Cottage" also notes the decline of man, if with more exclamation: "The old Man said, 'I see around me here/Things which you cannot see: we die my Friend,/Nor we alone, but that which each man loved.'" The subject of the fisherman's remark--the codfish and herring--also echoes the words of Wordsworth's leech-gatherer, who comments on the leeches central to his own occupation. If we can understand Bishop's lines in a way not most immediately apparent, the echo is still closer. Perhaps we can read the lines as saying, 'we talk of the decline in the population, and the decline of codfish and herring.' This reading only necessitates that we understand Bishop's second "of" not as modifying "talk," which the first "of" clearly does, but as modifying "decline," which it grammatically could do. This sort of ambiguity of modification is in fact common in conversation and would correspond well to the colloquial comfort of the tone. Then the conversation even more precisely echoes "Resolution and Independence," where the leech-gatherer, reporting on the decline in the population of leeches, says that "Once I could meet with them on every side;/But they have dwindled long by slow decay."
The departure into a nature imbued with the capability of inspiring Wordsworthian contemplation prepares the poem for the shift into grandeur and abstraction in the third verse paragraph, in which water becomes "like what we imagine knowledge to be." Jeredith Merrin aptly notices that "the comparison is rather traditional and grand." It's safe to say that Merrin has Wordsworth in mind when she uses the words "traditional" and "grand." And the comparison is rather traditional and grand, rather Wordsworthian. Merrin also notes that, even when Bishop arrives at this culminating moment, she does not do so without some hesitation: the comparison is "made at two cautious removes: 'It is like what we imagine'" (Merrin's emphases). She links the hesitance with the "special emotional quality of Bishop's verse," which serves to "mute the Romantic horn." But I don't think the Romantic always blares anyway. Wordsworth's thought-system sounds out loudly enough in "Tintern Abbey." But right after the ecstatic yet controlled declaration "We see into the life of things," he plays a note of uncertainty: "If this/Be but a vain belief." Is it? He at least accepts the possibility. In still other moments, he displays the tact to crucially humble the boldness of his statements with a modest, unknowing "something": "a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused"; and in "Resolution and Independence": "by peculiar grace, / A leading from above, a something given." There is something, he perceives, but hesitates to name, to know. So, when Merrin writes that "doubt--so much a part of Bishop's poetry ...--is precisely what Wordsworth's poetry attempts to debar," we should judge otherwise. Doubt, so much a part of Bishop's poetry, is part too of Wordsworth's, just a smaller part, smaller far, but crucial and essential. In context, the comparison is a climactic moment of least-hesitation. Throughout the lengthy verse paragraph, the visionary splendor brought to the surface in the first attempts again and again to breach until, in a grand Wordsworthian splash, it finally does.
As the third verse paragraph begins, the timing of Bishop's rhythm catches the ear. In the form of ripples on the verse's surface, it whispers of the larger significations immersed within the water:
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear, element bearable to no mortal, to fish and to seals ... One seal particularly I have seen here evening after evening.
The first line begins with three tense, stressed monosyllabes. Then the tension drops in an iambic riff: "and absolutely clear." The second line, which opens with two dactyls, lightens the rhythm further. The passage reaches for terms alchemical and religious: "element," "mortal." (If "alchemical" pushes Bishop too far, one can say "chemical," which notes something like the same effect. Both chemistry and alchemy pursue the order in nature, to undermine or understand it.) Just as the pressure from those scraps of higher language could crack the dam, letting flow fully Romantic rumination on nature, Bishop breaks off with an ellipsis. We find ourselves back in the water as we know it, no visionary reality. She undercuts the just past tone with a characteristic measure of wit: the seal "was curious about me. He was interested in music;/like me a believer in total immersion." Among the lines of this comic bit, transcendent diction, there if also diffused through and tethered to the wit, begins again to surface: "believer," "immersion," "Baptist hymns," "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," "judgment." The words conglomerate at their own spiritual center separate from the passage's lighter tone. Even the seal's silly behavior can take on a mystical air. Its ability (from the speaker's perspective) to "disappear" and "emerge" at will could seem angelic. Both the sacred resonances of the diction and the seal's perceived incorporeality compromise the passage's humor, pulling the speaker back to repeating the verse paragraph's unguarded beginning: "Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,/the clear gray icy water." Once again, though, Bishop hesitates to take the plunge. She pauses with an ellipsis. She retreats into wit. But for all its display of controlled human intellect, wit won't release Bishop from sensing something religious in nature. She observes that the tall firs are "a million Christmas trees" standing "waiting for Christmas."
With even wit no longer able to defend against the Romantic trajectory, the speaker turns to the water and earnestly meditates on it. The intensity of her engagement is carried alive into the reader's ear by the shifting repetition of "above the stones." First the phrase is cracked, and the words "the rounded gray and blue-gray," describing the stones, are placed between its pieces. Then Bishop places the phrase at the end of a line, then the end of the subsequent shorter one. Finally she brings it to the front of the next. The effect is quietly incantatory. The lines leading into the climactic likening are as follows:
The water seems suspended above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones. I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same, slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones, icily free above the stones, above the stones and then the world. If you should dip your hand in, your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn as if the water were a transmutation of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame. If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.
In embracing sincerity, Bishop leaves behind the church-circumscribed images and diction of the verse paragraph's first half. The lines react with powerful feeling to the forms of the natural world themselves. Consequently they alight on an image (the hand dipping into water) and on a comparison that gesture toward Wordsworth's natural religion. Bishop perceives a something in the water--free knowledge--fundamentally spiritual yet natural, and drawn from an earth mute and insensate yet personified as a mother.
The image and the likening both have precedents in Wordsworth. In "The Ruined Cottage," the old man narrates human interactions with the waters, "When every day the touch of human hand / Disturbed their stillness, and they ministered/To human comfort." In Wordsworth's poem, the water is the body disturbed, yet it nevertheless ministers to man's comfort. In Bishop's, the hand still reaches, though hypothetically, into the water, but it is the human body that is disturbed. It receives from the water no comfort. It aches and burns. Yet it is this intense discomfort that Bishop identifies as like what we imagine knowledge to be. Bishop's understanding of knowledge is still another inversion of a Wordsworthian concept, his concept of knowledge in the second book of The Prelude. There Wordsworth writes that it is "happiness to live/When every hour brings palpable access / Of knowledge, when all knowledge is delight, / And sorrow is not there." It would seem that this understanding of knowledge would never admit Bishop's.
Then again, Bishop's impressions are more at home in Wordsworth's world for their opposition to it. Perhaps this is counterintuitive or paradoxical, but Wordsworth's response to nature is just that. Wordsworth welcomes the antithetical elements of nature, even unites them. Again in The Prelude, Wordsworth writes that "Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up / Fostered alike by beauty and by fear." The lines succinctly define one of the most important tenets of Wordsworth's doctrine: the beautiful and fearful, though contrasting forces, effect the same result--development of man. Redrawing the image of water in "The Ruined Cottage" and rethinking the conception of knowledge in The Prelude, Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" is fostered by fear. Bishop doesn't synchronize herself with the hours "when all knowledge is delight," but when they are something different indeed, when knowledge is pain. If knowledge racks our bones and burns our tongue, it is a knowledge that we fear. But for all its fearfulness we are not to resist knowledge. We are to admit knowledge, because it-life-sustaining mother-nature's milk--is "derived from the rocky breasts" of the world. Bishop leaves a perfect impression of the other side of the coin so essential to Wordsworth's paradoxical embrace of the elements of nature most at odds. From the first verse paragraph up to the end of the last, the poem shares a deep kinship with Romanticism, specifically with Wordsworth. It is in fact A Cold Spring's culminating Wordsworthian response to the natural world.
All of Bishop's poems don't need to be reread in the manner I have done. It would be a wearying project indeed. Nor should Wordsworth be considered one of the poets who most influenced her. But we cannot simply rest assured in the anti-Romantic slot to which Bishop has been assigned. Any sweeping statement about a poet so devoted to detail needs to be backed up by the rich particularities of the poems. Bishop's and Wordsworth's visions briefly coincided--and I don't think "visions" is too serious a word.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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