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Swinging Through the Years: Elizabeth Bishop and "The End of March".

Walking on the beach near Provincetown, Elizabeth Bishop spent long days letting her eye catch the odd detail. It was the summer of 1938, and she was visiting friends, painter Loren MacIver and poet Lloyd Frankenberg. One day she found a Chinese keg she turned into a stool; on another she spotted a pale green and white beach ball bouncing on the waves, the waves reminding her of purple and blue bags tied with string, snapping and falling on the beach. When she wasn't outside, she was in her "shack" writing in her notebook and completing a draft of "Spleen," the poem that would become "Cirque d'Hiver," her first poem accepted by The New Yorker. Mostly, though, Bishop went to the beach to fly her bright red kite. For Marianne Moore she sketched the morning two gulls flew right up to the six-foot kite to investigate, the evening some pink-breasted barn swallows "tried to light on the string," and the day she flew the kite a mile up in the sky. "It looks wonderful that high up over the ocean and gets rather waspwaisted, but I blistered my hands pulling it in." (1)


Cape Cod and the wild seashores of Nova Scotia, Florida, and Brazil resonated through Bishop's entire writing life. With poems like "The Map," "Florida," "Seascape," "At the Fishhouses," "Cape Breton," "The Bight," and "Sandpiper," stories like "The Sea and its Shore," and artworks like "Anjinhos," Bishop continually investigated the landscape's potential. She traced descriptions of the beach in her journals, took notes for pieces about Sable Island and her great-grandfather's drowning at sea, and drafted poems she would never complete. When her New Yorker editor Howard Moss suggested she put Duxbury in the title of "The End of March," she responded thoughtfully, "Yes, I think that putting Duxbury in the title is much better--I forget it isn't known the world over ..." always with the little joke at the end. (2) It was the collision between two worlds, and in this case two seasons, that interested Bishop and offered the greatest promise for her work. Hers is a meditation on the intermediacy of experience, both physical and psychological, of being caught in two places at once, the past and the present, north and south, here and there. In "The End of March" Bishop brought together much Of her earlier writing and reshaped it with longer open lines, detached humor, and autobiographical de: tail. Though she was still interested in writing a poem that traced "the poetry of the mind," as she had been as a young writer, Bishop self-consciously probed the limits of language in this understated poem about the search for protection.

If we go along with Gaston Bachelard and say that all poetry is a kind of shelter, then the significance of "The End of March" in Bishop's work comes into focus. According to Bachelard, "the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace," and later he writes: "the house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability." (3) Bishop's use of repetition and refinement (proto-dream house, crypto-dream house, crooked box, green, but greener) allowed her to playfully build the house, each repetition calling it into being, and her use of questions and parentheses gave the lines their humor. Bishop knew that the possibility for her desires to be realized were, in her own word, dubious. These devices allowed her to step outside of time. Abstract ideas become familiar, even homely, through her humor. She once said to her student Wesley Wehr, "I'm afraid I have a bit of the ham in me--more than I realized." (4) The theme of rebirth from A Cold Spring (1955) Comes into play here, but she questions the assurance she possessed two decades earlier. Gone is the confidence of the title poem: "Now, in the evening,/a new moon comes" and "Now, in from the thick grass the fireflies/begin to rise." Bishop was a deeply ironic writer, and her, romantic vision darkened with modernist doubts.

Like so many of her poems, Bishop's setting for "The End of March" is a place that is not entirely her own. "The End of March" takes place in Duxbury, Massachusetts, at the summer home of Bishop's friend of more than thirty years, the Nova Scotian writer John Malcolm Brinnin and his partner Bill Read. Bishop sent the poem to thank them for letting her and Alice Methfessel stay at the beach house for a week in June 1974. She told Robert Lowell that the poem started out as "a sort of joke thank-you-note--John B. was so appalled when I said I wanted that ugly little green shack for my summer home! (He doesn't share my taste for the awful, I'm afraid.)" (5) In the third stanza Bishop began by surveying the outside of the house from the beach and imagining a life there:
    I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream-house,
   my crypto-dream-house, that crooked box
   set up on pilings, shingled green,
   a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener
   (boiled with bicarbonate of soda?),
   protected from spring tides by a palisade
   of--are they railroad ties?
   (Many things about this place are dubious.) 

Bishop sent the poem to Lowell in September 1974, and he replied candidly, admiring the poem and recognizing the situation of the speaker. Having recently completed History (1973) he had the passage of time and one's relationship to it much on his mind. "I have been brooding on this last one since it arrived," he began, "and have ached to live in such a house too--I have all my life--cut my losses and live the life of severe deprivation, idleness and imagination. I think I have felt this at least from Kenyon on, and in a queer luxurious way have achieved it." (6) Bishop in her own way achieved "it" in the poem after the long wish list of the third stanza, days spent Watching birds, reading books, taking notes, and talking to herself, "At night, a grog a l'americaine," and with the understanding embedded in the phrase "--perfect! But--impossible." What struck Lowell about the poem was its slow rhythm, its wandering quality, which reminded him of prose and some of Moore's poems. Perhaps the "mutton-fat jade" called to mind the jade of "The Fish." On May 26, 1975, almost two months after "The End of March" appeared in The New Yorker, Bishop exclaimed to Brinnin, "My house is GONE! ... Perhaps the owners saw my poem & looked at it with new eyes--at any rate, a flimsy, gray but 'modern' affair is rising on the site, and the railroad ties lie in confusion all around it." (7)

During the 1940's Bishop surveyed the possibilities of the seaside in poems like "At the Fishhouses" and "The Bight." With "At the Fishhouses" appearing in the pages of The New Yorker less than a year before and "The Bight" just accepted by New Yorker editor Katharine White, Lowell encouraged Bishop to continue investigating the possibilities of the maritime scene. Writing to Bishop, who was vacationing in Maine, he urged: "You must put Wicassett 'Harbor' in a poem, the mud, the deadness, the quiet, the old half-turned-over ship, the houses, the little drug store where the only literary magazine is 'Tomorrow.'" (8) Lowell understood that with these poems, the sea and its shore were proving to be a rich site for Bishop's poetry. He even cast her in this landscape as a mermaid in "Water." Lowell identified the combination of images Bishop investigated at the time--the literal harbor, not much of a harbor at all, the ship, the houses--and the implicit metaphors these images offered for a way of thinking and states of mind. While the harbor, ship, and houses create a landscape, a mixture of emotions underlies them, dormant, tired, and wry. She sorted out her ideas in her notebook:
    I am annoyed with myself though for not being
   able to express exactly what ails things in
   Wicassett, just scolding away about it, its
   obvious shortcomings. [Illegible] for feeling so immediately
   like myself when I get with a place like this. After all I should
   be able to find the right things to say there--the ironies of
   [begin strikethrough]that place[end strikethrough] it certainly
aren't as
   subtle as all that--I just don't want to bother to think, I
guess. (9) 

Bishop did not take these notes any further. The location may have proved too domestic for Bishop, too arranged. The shape of this harbor suggested closure. Bishop's seasides were more open, the Nova Scotian beach stretching into the sea. She preferred the exposure of stripped elements in her ocean landscapes, something closer to a wilderness than a clipped garden.

The image of the kite returned to Bishop's writing in the 1950's. She was taken with the kites she saw on the beaches of Rio and outside her eleventh floor window. These kites were cut in the shape of birds with their wings outspread in broad strokes of color. They were nothing like her red kite from Provincetown, the box-kite she once tried, or the pink and yellow Key West kites, whose long tails "snap slowly, like a serpent" and float in her painting of the Harris School. (10) Here people made their kites do tricks in the air and fight with others. (11) She bought postcards with pictures of boys flying them on the Copacabana beach and was photographed with Robert Lowell siring among them, arranged as if they were about to fly off the sand. While she and her partner Lota de Macedo Soares had their house built in Samambaia, Bishop looked out across the hillside and spotted a thin line wavering in the lush green. "The other day we saw something very strange," she recorded in her notebook. "I suddenly noticed what looked like a thread, or a drawn line, in the air, up in the vast gorge, or steep valley behind the house--about a 1/4 of a mile away, apparently. It stretched right across, from mt. to mt.--it disappeared against the rock, but was visible against the green--." Bishop called Soares and the workmen over, none of whom believed Bishop at first, and they saw the string, too.
    It would have been almost impossible to get to
   it. I saw it off & on all afternoon--once entirely
   against the sky, (when it touched the mts.) it
   was impossible to see exactly how far away it
   was. The next day it wasn't there. The only possible
   explanation is that it was the string of an
   escaped kite that had somehow blown that far
   & caught on one side, with the string on the
   other--but an extremely long string, if that is
   what it was. (I kept thinking of Klee's "take a
   walk with a line'--). (12) 

Bishop's imagination drew her to the odd detail, the object out of place that stood out of its surroundings. Working with ideas from Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, she developed a history for the kite string, tracing it back to some rough, though finally, unknowable origin.


It does not seem that she brought the seaside and kite together until she began "The End of March." Though it is unclear exactly when Bishop began drafting the poem, she left for Brinnin and Read's house on the Cape that June evening with hopes of getting her own writing done. With Brinnin and Read away in Europe, Bishop must have started on the poem without delay, since she sent them a copy near month's end. Bishop and her companion Alice Methfessel visited their summer home regularly, and they spent time on the beach digging clams, "little ones, delicious." (13) It was a place where she could get away to spend time with friends, bicycle on the beach, watch birds, and look at wildflowers, a place where she could make a strawberry shortcake "for I don't know how many" on the Fourth of July. (14) Describing the house to Frani Blough Muser, a friend from her days at the Walnut Hill School and Vassar College, Bishop observed wryly, "a very pleasant house--too full of distracting books, however, when one intends to work ..." (15) After giving the poem to Brinnin and Read, Bishop sent it to Moss from North Haven, Maine, where she headed after spending the Fourth in Duxbury. Beginning with her usual banter, she half-mocked, "I'm not sure whether your magazine has declared another moratorium on poetry or not--I rather think it has. But I'll send this along anyway. It's my version of the Lake Isle of Innisfree." (16)

The way Bishop went about writing her "Lake Isle of Innisfree" resembles someone making a sketch. All of the extant drafts were typed and then corrected by hand. In what appears to be her first draft, almost all of Bishop's lines extend to the margin as if she were writing prose. Many Of these lines were to be broken in half in subsequent drafts. She wanted to get the base image on the page first, making a general outline, and then through the next several versions she expanded these lines, testing the weight and rhythm of her words. Perhaps the story of the poem came quickly to her or perhaps there are manuscripts not in existence today, but it is fair to say that Bishop did a fair amount of pre-writing off and on since she first recorded her observations on the Cape. She tried at least five different times to shape the images that prefigured the images of the kite and the beach in poems she drafted but did not finish or chose not to publish. Whether she consciously, thought of these earlier pieces or even had them on hand is difficult to say; however, in the drafts for "Real Estate Development 6 A.M.," which became "Twelfth Morning; or What You Will," Bishop employs a setting strikingly similar to that found in "The End of March":
    A thin gray mist, like a fresh coat (of whitewash)
   still wet, lets everything show through.
   Everything--that is, one negro boy,
   a horse, a fence, a house--
   --or rafters and cement set in the dunes
   of [begin strikethrough]soiled white[end strikethrough] dirty sand
   company pretends
   are lawns. Shipwreck, we say,
   so why not housewreck? (17) 

Bishop has the mist, the fence, the house, the beach, but not the kite. The most important correspondence between the poems is, of course, the house. "Shipwreck, we say,/so why not housewreck?" Yet the difference between the two is vast. The newness of this house contrasts sharply with the proto-crypto-dream-house. It had hardly endured what the Duxbury house would have or embodied the dry humor of those soft, bright shingles, all the more lasting for their wear. When Bishop sat down at her typewriter, one can see her thinking through "The End of March," typing and then retyping lines or phrases, writing in the margins, perhaps when it was still on the platen. As she made her way through the drafts, the first stanza takes shape within the first drafts, then the second stanza, and finally the third, a more or less steady progression. Bishop changed. the fourth stanza after she sent it to The New Yorker and then again after those changes were made. Bishop also revised the stanzas from top to bottom, so the first half of a stanza was in place before the second half, the lines and images reworked, and finally word choice was refined. To achieve the desired understatement Bishop chose to simplify the language and the image with one and two-syllable words. Simplification recreates experience as embellishment cannot: In effect she created her own painting of the beach as her great-uncle George Hutchinson of "Poem" recalled the Nova Scotian village scene.

The crucial decision Bishop made in the first draft of the first stanza was to have the speaker begin walking out to the house instead of having the speaker completing her journey in a couple of lines. She probably made this judgment quickly. Crossing out "then the other (as we turned back)" was imperative for the movement of the poem. Instead of having the journey end, the narrative over, Bishop extended the moment of the poem, the memory, by bringing the closure of this line down to the last stanza on the same draft. It begins: "Turning back, our faces froze on the other cheek." The choice resulted in a lyrical treatment of time, with the speaker's meditation taking place on the beach; the first choice, a more narrative mode of reflection, would have emphasized the passage of time, with the speaker positioned in the wings. It is a way to be both in the moment and outside it at the same time. Bishop did not even consider the present tense of "A Cold Spring," so far had she come from believing she could even capture a moment as it unfolds. When she moved the first lines down to the bottom of the draft, she opened the poem up, and this reenactment becomes the impetus behind the poem, giving it its dramatic quality. The effects of this change can be found in the switch from "It was scarcely the day to take a walk on the long beach" to "that long beach" in the first line. "That" particularized the beach, gave weight to the speaker's memory by placing it farther in the distance. We're not at "the beach" anymore, over even "this beach." The choice of "that" also lends the poem a more conversational tone. Bishop's move towards understatement heightens the intensity of the poem. Bishop employs the same paradox in the last line of the stanza; a "fine ascending steady of mist" eventually became "upright, steely mist." An upright, steely mist had a physical heft and texture that an ascending mist, for all its aspirations, cannot. Bishop created a dual consciousness of being here in the present and there in the past at the same time.

When Bishop sorted out the poem's second stanza, she quickly came to the first three sentences, settling on the color of the sky, "mutton-fat jade," the prints on the beach, and the kite string. She spent much more time elaborating the sentences from "Finally" on. Bishop chose these first images so quickly that she seems to have insisted on them. "In the Duxbury poem the water was the color of mutton-fat jade," she said to Jerome Mazarro. "The settings, or descriptions, of my poems are almost invariably just plain facts--or as close to the facts as I can write them." (18) Though she stressed the color--"was the color of mutton-fat jade"--she also admitted to her own subjectivity in describing the scene, "the settings, or descriptions," with the hesitancy of "almost invariably." The slowness of the phrasing, "was the color of mutton-fat jade" in the poem instead of, say, "the mutton-fat jade colored water" or "water colored mutton-fat jade," emphasized the mind making a metaphor instead of gliding smoothly over the process.

The paw-prints on the beach have a varied history. One of the poems that Bishop wrote during the mid-1960's was "Suicide of a Moderate Dictator" about Julios Vargas, a poem which she later abandoned. Bishop may have transported the following lines into "The End of March":
    This is a day that's beautiful as well,
   and warm and clear. At seven o'clock I saw
   the dogs being walked along the famous beach
   as usual, in [begin strikethrough]shiny[end strikethrough] gray green
   dawn leaving their [begin strikethrough]dog[end strikethrough] paw
   prints draining in the wet.
   The line of breakers was steady and pinkish,
   [begin strikethrough]rainbow in segments[end strikethrough] segmented
   rainbow (hung)
      steadily hung above it.
   [begin strikethrough[By[end strikethrough] At eight two little boys
   flying kites. (29) 

Among the shifts Bishop made from "Suicide of a Moderate Dictator" were putting the poem into the past tense, changing the weather from "beautiful" to windy and rainy, and expanding on the images of the dog-prints and kites. The use of the past tense may have allowed Bishop to air out the text and let memory inform the poem. She kept the present in her parenthetical clauses, which makes it clearer that she is addressing an audience, first Brinnin and Read, then the figure(s) who accompany her on her walk, and lastly a more general audience. These asides position her in two time frames at once. The change in weather also seemed to open up additional possibilities for Bishop. Critics have compared Bishop to Emerson, and if we take Emerson's view of nature--"In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows"--then the reason for changing the weather from a beautiful to a stormy day is clear. The threatening storm offers both delight in language while giving a correlative for a possible inner landscape. A beautiful day may have leaned too much in the direction of Emersonian delight at this point for Bishop. In "Suicide" the dogs are just dogs. Bishop did not change them into anything else, and they seem, along with the kites, to be part of a long list of details, something like the lists in "Florida" or "Cape Breton." But in "The End of March," Bishop immediately made the dogs into something else. By using the parenthesis to compare the dog-prints to "lion-prints," Bishop instantly sharpened the metaphor's possibility by drawing attention to the image. With the parenthetical phrase as a form of understatement, Bishop went both ways, quietly commenting on the side while amplifying her voice at the same time. This decision suggests a self-conscious relationship to the poem. She did something similar with the kites.

In "The End of March" Bishop spent more time on the image of the kites than she did in "Suicide of a Moderate Dictator," teasing it out over the course of several lines, playing with the rhythms, and hinting again at metaphor with "snarl," "mansize," and "sodden ghost." She made the later image more human and more animal at the same time; there is a blending of worlds that plays with the idea of an afterlife. This play appeared in other abandoned poems as well. Lines from "Ungracious Poem" echo the second half of the second stanza, where "Suicide of a Moderate Dictator" broke off.
    Sometimes Nurses carry
   a doll-size lily cup
   (Their own dolls long ago
   gave up the ghost; they couldn't get I word in
   With a pill in it that falls out
   No one can go scrambling, after all,
   for an unknown pill, so it too
   gives up its ghost on the floor. (20) 

Bishop maneuvered this ghost image in other places as well. We see "The Tin Can" resting at the water's edge, tossed by the tide, flashing and shining "among some smallish stones":
iron & tin
  the green [begin strikethrough]wtare[begin
                     strikethrough] shows never a stain--
                     dark fragment, s dark lace on the small
                     softly softl [begin strikethrough]entering the
                     water[end strikethrough] purplish
                         [line from "lace" to
                     the small stonesare wet, dry, wet dry
                     a ghost of a tin can
                     puxx intrigues the eye (21) 

Bishop came to the ghost image in "The End of March" fairly quickly. The image of the ghost entered "The End of March" in the margin of the second draft. By the fifth draft, the ghost image was securely a part of the poem. The dolls, the pill, and the tin can echo the kite and the string, not just because of the play with the ghost and religious language but also because of their homeliness. Like the kite, the dolls are discarded toys, the pill, which has the power to cure, is useless, and the tin can is trash on the beach. None of these objects serve their original functions, but it's in the memory of their original functions--to play, to cure, to satisfy--that they hold their power. Bishop is drawn to a world that is fallen, embracing its abandoned objects.

Bishop did not begin seriously reworking and expanding her ideas for the third stanza until the stanza's third draft. In the movement to the second draft from the first, Bishop broke her thoughts into lines and condensed her language. In the third and fourth drafts, the third stanza is missing and there is a separate sheet for it. Bishop was evidently still more interested in refining the other stanzas. As with the others, Bishop began revising this stanza by making her way down the page, drawing out various moments to give them more force. So "my pseudo-dream-house" became "my crypto-dream-house" became "my proto-dream-house, my crypto-dream-house" in the fifth draft. Bishop had to discard "pseudo" in order to generate the sense that the house, the "dubious Bide-A-Wee" of the first draft, is mysterious, and could be a model or blueprint for the unknowable. Using the hyphen to draw out the words, Bishop injected a fair amount of humor into the lines, while she set up the parenthetical aside ("Many things about this place are dubious") for later. She continued to fashion the poem's casual, breezy air by changing "I want to retire and live in 2 bare rooms and do nothing" from the first draft to "I'd like to retire there and do nothing,/or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms." These lines sound like part of a letter from forty years earlier: "I should like to do nothing but sit all evening and copy off such sentences as 'That wee call a bee bird is a small dark gray bird,' or 'What word you give our knotts or gnatts, a small marsh bird, very fatte and a daintye dish.'" (22) Condensing "I want" to the contraction "I'd like" softened the declaration by lengthening the sound of the syllable, and in degrees of intensity, "I'd like" was a cooler phrase that "I want." The abbreviation also drew less attention to the speaker, since the pronoun no longer stands alone but is combined with the subjunctive. Nevertheless, Bishop strengthened the sentiment since "would" suggests that the speaker has thought about retiring to the artichoke of a house for quite a while, so that the feeling for the house, coupled with the qualification of "nothing much," is not sudden.

In addition to enlarging individual moments, Bishop attached others as she progressed. On the sheet where she executed only the third stanza, she switched the drink from a hot-rum toddy to a grog a l'americaine, developed the image of the diaphanous blue flame in the margin, and incorporated the droplets sliding down the window pane. These additions allow that the weather inside the house is not so different from the weather outside the house or inside the speaker. There's something a bit wry in having to pronounce the full-throated "grog a l'americaine," but Bishop gave it even more seriousness by back-lighting the image with the flame. Pronouncing the drink undercuts the poem's professed worldliness, especially compared to the cozy quality of a hot toddy. Bishop may have been pulling from previous poems with the images of the flame and the droplets. Indeed in her early poems, Bishop often utilized these images to signal vision, understanding, and change.

They resound through the body of her work, calling to mind the gas flame in "The Bight," the icy fire in "At the Fishhouses," the quartz arrowheads in "Cape Breton," the tear in the Man-Moth's eye, or the isinglass eye in "The Fish." Bishop selected a pallet similar to these poems, particularly "At the Fishhouses," with its "dark purple-brown" and "blue-gray." These landscapes are jeweled, like Emily Dickinson's. Yet the lighting in the two poems is radically different. The iridescent gloaming is natural, its translucence lasting; it comes from within. The diaphanous blue flame is entirely human; its flash is brief and sudden; it occurs only in the mind. The beach in "The End of March" is hardly soaked by the same light of knowledge as the beach in "At the Fishhouses." The day is rainy and gray, and the sun is hidden in the clouds.

Bishop strove to get the poem's punctuation right since she relied upon its visual, vocal, and rhetorical effects. The crucial line in the poem, "A light to read by--perfect! But--impossible" first appears on the third draft of the middle stanza. She moves it through a series of progressions in the drafts:
    a light to read by.
   Quite All perfect, but impossible
   Oh! It's perfect! But impossible--! [written in
      the margin]
   A light to read by--perfect. But impossible!
   A light to read by--perfect! But, impossible ...
   A light to read by? Perfect! But--impossible
   A light to read by! Perfect! But--impossible.
   A light to read by--perfect! But--impossible. 

Like someone sorting through a puzzle or trying to break a lock, Bishop went through all the different combinations until she got the pacing of the line just right and filled the pause with a kind of ontological erasure. Despite Bishop's labor with this stanza, her discussions with The New Yorker centered on its punctuation. Moss drew Bishop's attention to her hyphens, dashes and commas. "In stanza 3 the proof readers say the dashes aren't coordinate, and suggest putting a comma after 'green,' taking out the dash before 'a sort of,' and leaving the dash before 'are they railroad ties?'" (23) Moss probably sent the proofs along with this letter, as he usually did, or at least sent them a day or two after, since Bishop was looking at the proof in her response. The proofreaders must have taken the hyphens out of "sea-birds" and "off-shore," something Bishop and the editors of The New Yorker had gone back and forth about since she first published there:
    I suppose Webster has it about the words "seabirds"
   and "offshore" & I really should get another
   dictionary besides the Oxford, which leads
   me to such variations, usually. The dash before
   "a sort of artichoke" etc. shd. also come out with
   a comma after "green"--I like the comma after
   "icy", however, and have put one in after "far"
   the next to last line of the third stanza. It should
   have been "a palisade"--my mistake, I think.
   Everything else seems all right. (24) 

Bishop agreed to the changes in the third stanza but lobbied for other lines to stay the same. The ungrammatical comma after "icy" gave her poem the pacing she wanted and modified "rackety," lending a temperature to the sound instead of the wind and separating the quality of the wind from it. Adding the comma after "far" lengthened the pause at the end of the line and filled it with a mixture of unstated disappointment and acquiescence, thus recreating the experience of time in the speaker's mind. Bishop had experimented with the potential punctuation at least since "At the Fishhouses" and the line "cold dark deep." The proofreaders asked her to place commas between the words, to which Bishop politely replied, "For some reason or other it seems more liquid to me without them and I think in this case the sense is plain enough without them, don't you?" (25) "My mistake, I think," suggests that Bishop had a hard time yielding to the proofreaders, since they missed the effects she wanted to create.

The fourth stanza of the poem is the one that gave Bishop the most difficulty. While she was drafting the poem, she did not significantly revise this stanza or make as many additions as she did to the others. She arrived at the main idea in the first draft and did not stray too far from the original image in her revisions. This decision may be due to the fact that she had already handled the sun in the closing of another abandoned poem, "Apartment in Leme, Copacabana." In "Apartment in Leme," written for Robert Lowell, the speaker walks along the littered beach early one New Year's morning. A running dog and two bathers leave their tracks on the landscape. In the final section of the poem, Bishop opted for ending the poem with the image of the sun rising slowly, "metallic, two dimensional," suggesting a kind of reluctant hope for the figures standing at the open mouth of the cold ocean. These lines may have provided too much closure, considering that the poem takes place on New Year's and connects the holiday to the festival of lights on the beach. In "The End of March" Bishop let the blurring of the weather, the move from winter to spring, suggest change and renewal instead of using New Year's Day, which is weighed down by symbolism and marked change. Bishop did not bring the prints on the beach into "The End of March" until the fifth draft, and she played with the phrasing after she had the first half of the stanza down. The lion sun had "grandiose footprints," "classical, big foot-prints," and finally, "big, majestic paw-prints." Atypically, it would be the first half of the stanza she would return to later and rewrite. Bishop sent a copy of the poem to Lowell, and it was his response that spurred her to rework the first six lines. Though praising the poem, Lowell also offered some tentative criticism:
    The meter I see is steadily iambic ... any number
   of terrific seemingly tho quiet details--
   you arrive at your castle safely. I am troubled
   by one thing, a sort of whimsical iambic Frost
   tone to the last five lines or so, tho I think they
   are needed. New lines might make a fine poem
   into one of your finest. Nothing else needed, I
   think. (26) 

Bishop must have strongly agreed with Lowell's comments since she went on to rewrite the last stanza; however, Bishop did not locate the problem in the last five lines of the stanza but in the first five. It was an issue of positioning the poem for the closing image. She sent the revised lines to Moss even though, the poem was already in the process of being readied for the printer. "I'm afraid I'm being a nuisance--but I don't think I have done this kind of thing very often, have I? The last stanza of THE END OF MARCH never pleased me, so this morning I've made some changes that I think improve it a lot. I hope you'll agree." (27) Moss, accommodating and supportive of Bishop, as always, responded, "I think the changes in THE END OF MARCH are all splendid, and they are being put into proof. The ending is much more beautiful this way and yet nothing essential is changed." (28) Bishop changed the lines from:
       The sun came out for just a minute
      and for a minute the embedded stones
      showed what colors they were
      and all those high enough threw out long
      individual shadows, then pulled them in again.
      The sun came out for just a minute.
      For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
      the dim, occasional stones,
      were all of different colors,
      with all those high enough throwing out long
      and, after a minute, pulling them in again. 

She slowed the poem's movement by breaking one sentence into two, dwelling on the image of the stones by adding a line, and shifting to present participles. She emphasized the connection between the movement of the Shadows and the lion sun batting the kite out of the sky. Nonetheless, Bishop was still not satisfied with the last stanza of the poem, and she rewrote the stanza again sometime after sending the second version to Moss. It reads:
    The sun came out for just a minute.
   For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
   the drab, damp, scattered stones
   were multi-colored,
   and all those high enough threw out long
   individual shadows, then pulled them in again. 

The change comes in regard to the stones. "Dim, occasional" becomes "drab, damp, scattered" and "all of different colors" became "multi-colored." She then went back to the lines she. submitted to Moss in July to wrap up the sentence, removing the participles and taking out the third reference to "minute" that she added in the October version. Scrapping "Throwing" and "pulling," Bishop goes back to "threw" and "pulled," perhaps to put a brake on the rhythm of the poem, which with the repetition of "minute," draws more attention to the end, giving it the speed of a rhetorical sweep, finality and closure. In this final version, Bishop extends the moment with the steady beats of "drab, damp, scattered stones," while she lifts the weight of the "d's" with the bright quality of the phrase "multi-colored." If she stayed with "different colors," the "d" sounds would be too heavy and weigh down the end of the poem. With the long pause after "multi-colored," she creates an echo for the full dash before the final tercet. This change keeps the poem in action, instead of letting it come to rest, generating an open ending with the rhythmic pauses.

By reworking the last stanza, Bishop kept the movement of the poem fluid, letting it slide from association to association. Lowell apologized for his letter making suggestions:
    My suggestions for the end of your poem must
   have been troublesome. I think I've spent more
   futile hours trying to perfect something satisfactory--
   always pressing and invisible, the
   unimagined perfect lines or ending, for there
   it usually fails. Often I've given up, and wondered
   why I ever found fault. There are the experiences
   we haven't had, working in a spool
   factory etc. and can't imagine, and there are others
   like the end of Lycidas where all the experience
   is easily ours, but we can't turn to it or find
   the right sound. I've just spent a week or more
   on three lines which finally ended in changing
   the position of two words. (I did other things). I
   hope you won't bother anymore, you were probably
   right all along. (29) 

Bishop, in fact, was very pleased with the new stanza, and to White she commented, "Thank you for liking the Duxbury poem--I did have a much better last stanza that I forgot to send to Howard until it was too late." (30) After all of her effort on the stanza, fine-tuning it like a violin, Bishop turned to her experience by turning slightly away from it. She lets a turn of phrase, a line break, and a pause create experience instead of meeting it head on. As Dickinson says, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--/Success in Circuit lies." Bishop's self-conscious show of invention suggests the movement of the mind, and her rhetorical substitution indicates the flux of time. Through the organization of her images and her subsequent transformation of them, she is both in time and outside of it, the maker commenting on what she has wrought.

Bishop believed that the greatest poets were religious poets, and though she did not subscribe to any organized religion and balked at the idea of attending church, the Baptist hymns of her childhood were more than a distant memory. The twin pull of memory and desire, a story for one's past and one's future, though Bishop would never pick such phrases, was where she located her own religious feeling. Like the religious, the poet's predicament resides in the state of expectation. To borrow Wordsworth's phrase, she found that feeling in the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility, albeit an overflow that never lasted long. Bishop declared, "--perfect! But--impossible." Bishop's outburst undercuts the lyric moment. A dramatic employment of punctuation, she cuts off her reverie with the dashes and subsequent pauses, ending in a fragment. It's in the brief but full moment of her phrasing, the caesura, that Bishop located emotion. She returned immediately to the natural world for consolation with her walk on the beach and then the image of the lion-sun batting the kite out of the sky.

Bishop informed hope with irony, play, and contemplation, creating a poem that reflects on the displacement of the numinous into the natural world. The natural world offers a form of consolation, and though that consolation is not pure due to the understanding that knowledge is a matter of perspective, knowing that it is not pure is where the consolation lies. This worldliness was with Bishop from the time she was a young woman copying notes at the New York Public Library soon after her graduation from Vassar. Quoting Soren Kierkegaard, she made this notebook entry: "Poetry is illusion before knowledge; religion is illusion after knowledge. Between poetry & religion the worldly wisdom of living plays its comedy. Every individual who does not live either poetically or religiously is a fool." (31) Bishop continued to examine the ideas set forth by Kierkegaard, and by the time she wrote "The End of March" her ideas are decidedly more earthly. Before she drafted "The End of March" she asked her students at Harvard to consider Kierkegaard's alternatives on one of her final exams. For one to live poetically was to live religiously as to live religiously was to live poetically. Bishop was not one to choose between alternatives. Instead, she places the worldly wisdom of living in the pause and turn of the mind.

Bishop chose the found object for her religious imagery and captured it in casual speech. Bishop was bound to romantic thinking, and her writing suggests the residual effects of the romantics' intense images. The kite is a natural extension of the butterflies and birds that inhabit Blake's heaven and hell and Dickinson's Amherst. In "Sandpiper" Bishop parodied Blakean attitudes toward spiritual redemption with the bird scurrying on the rose and amethyst beach that "hisses like fat": "He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward, / in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake." Though she rejected Blake's idea that one can know the divine by arranging one's own cosmology and Dickinson's idea that one can find the divine in its absence, the slant of light that oppresses like the heft of cathedral tunes, Bishop populated "The End of March" with suggestive symbols: the lion, the sky of mutton-fat jade, the kite string without the kite. Indeed, Bishop often found in toys a quality beyond their materiality, as with the dancer and horse in "Cirque d'Hiver." The image of a string going into the sky is one Bishop contemplated in a notebook soon after leaving college. In this notebook Bishop leaned, in one- and two-syllable words, towards the kind of poetry and prose she would come to write: "The blue, pale perfectly shaped & vaulted sky was like the inside of an egg shell. So clear I could see the small white cord at the top which attaches earth to it." (32) Bishop's sky is architectural, with clean, sculpted lines. Words like "vaulted" would eventually fall out of Bishop's poetic vocabulary as she came to regard simplicity and clarity of language as the expression of her moral vision. "Vaulted" would not "turn the world to glass," in Emerson's phrase; it would set too sharp a stain. Bishop attaches earth to heaven in her notebook, but in "The End of March" the cord is broken and finding one's way to the other end is difficult. Transcendence is nowhere in sight. For Bishop, to turn the world to glass was to turn its ambiguity into vision.

Bishop moved back and forth between literal and metaphorical worlds, testing the limits of both. At about the same time she copied the Kierkegaard into her notebook, she observed: "If we could only get through figurativeness: God is for in [illegible], image within image, metaphor of metaphor--Even from day to day I think the levels I take my own figures in change, back and forth. So far I have probably only used four or five--." (33) Bishop's self-assigned task was to get through that figurativeness in order to locate herself in her own self and in the world. "Name it 'friendship' if you want to--like names of cities printed on maps," she observed in the same notebook, "the word is much too big, it spreads out all over the place and tells nothing of the actual place it means to name." (34) Later Bishop embraced the situation of always trying to get through, her speakers finding themselves only in the figure of the poem. There's no need to declare: "Topography displays no favorites; North's as near as West. / More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors." Bishop questioned the role of language, the impossibility of a word corresponding to the thing that it names. Once she fused play with her own acceptance of ambiguity, she took advantage of the delicate balance that the caesura offered in order to express the weight of religious impulse.

Bishop's connection to and revision of her romantic thinking is most apparent in comparing "The End of March" to Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale." Both poems play a central role in our understanding their authors' poetry. Aside from obvious similarities--the walk in a natural setting, the unseen object of desire, the sensory images--both poems revise readers' attitudes towards the poets' oeuvre by highlighting the shadows. Both speakers observe the passing of time in their poems--Keats already infected with the tuberculosis that would kill him and Bishop aging, registering the changes taking place in her body--and both recognize the paradox of imagination, its powers and its failures. Despite the speakers' situations, both poems rely on hope as a path out of dissolution. Keats enforces the underlying irony with his lifting meter and dramatic punctuation. The colon, dash, and question mark of "Fled is that music:--Do I wake or sleep?" is not too far from "A light to read by--perfect! But--impossible." The punctuation allows both writers to emphasize and then reverse the metrics of the first halves of their lines in order to get the sound as close to the sense as they can.

Bishop was a great admirer of Keats and his letters. In fact she often remarked that she thought the letters were even better than the poems. "He makes almost every other poet seem stupid, don't you think his letters do, that is." (35) Following Eliot's cue, many writers of Bishop's generation held a similar view. She first reported reading Keats' letters in 1959 and found him to be "very entertaining." (36) During her 1964 trip to England, the one in which she visited Darwin's house, she also saw the Keats house in Hampstead, "so cleaned up there's not much to say--except the outside is rather pretty." (37) Bishop even joked about comparisons between herself and Keats. When the manuscript for one of her poems was on view at the Institute of Arts and Letters in New York, Muser told Bishop she felt she were "writing to Keats." "I'm glad to say I'm alive and have already lived twice as long as Keats, even if I have so much less to show for it." (38)

It is possible that Bishop knew the story of the ode's composition. As Charles Brown liked to tell it, Keats sat down one morning soon after writing "Ode to Psyche," taking his chair from the breakfast table and sitting under the plum tree, which we can assume was blossoming, and composed the poem in a flurry. Though the story is too good to be true, there is something to be said about the image of a writer away from his, or her, desk. Bishop told James Merrill a few months before she died, "Alice & I are staying in John's house for a week or ten days. I find it much easier to work away from home than 'at home' for some reason. In fact, when I think about it, it seems to me I've rarely written anything of value at the desk or in the room where I was supposed to be doing it--it's always in someone else's house, or in a bar, or standing up in the kitchen in the middle of the night." (39) Both Keats and Bishop were at home when they were imagining such a venue in their poems. On May 1, 1819, Keats wrote his sister Fanny a letter from the Browns' home that sounds something like Bishop's wish list for her artichoke of a house:
    O there is nothing like fine weather, and health,
   and Books, and a fine country, and a contented
   Mind, and Diligent-habit of reading and thinking,
   and an amulet against the ennui--and
   please heaven, a little claret-wine cool out of a
   cellar a mile deep--with a few or a good many
   ratiafia cakes--a rocky basin to bathe in, a
   strawberry bed to say your prayer to Flora in, a
   pad nag to go your ten miles Or so; two or three
   sensible people to chat with; two or th[r]ee spiteful
   folkes to spar with; two or three odd fishes
   to laugh at and two or three numskulls to argue
   with--instead of using dumb bells on a
   rainy day-- 

He goes on to write a poem in a bouncing trimeter that concludes: "Two or three -pegs / For two or three bonnets / Two or three dove's eggs / To hatch into sonnets--." (40) The play in Keats' letter is irresistible and, as Bishop might say, delightful. She had marked the letter in her book stored at the Houghton Library. What is striking about this letter as compared to his poem, both of which were written at approximately the same time, is the difference in tone. The sense of loss that pervades "Nightingale" is nowhere to be found in the letter. Bishop had written her own wish list letter years before. She said she "always had a daydream of being a lighthouse keeper, absolutely alone, with no one to interrupt my reading or just sitting--and although such dreams are sternly dismissed at 16 or so, they always haunt one a bit, I suppose." She imagined "a cold rocky shore in the Falklands" or "a house in Nova Scotia on the bay, exactly like my grandmother's--idiotic as it is, and unbearable as the reality would be [...] Perhaps it is a recurrent need." (41) Yet Bishop did not compose as Keats did. Her letter prefigured the poem instead of the letter pushing against the despair. Bishop needed the distillation of experience. Bishop revised Keats' poem and letter-poem by bringing the sense of loss and play into one piece.

In her playfulness, however, Bishop refutes many of Keats' assumptions. Though one can say that "The End of March" is an exercise in negative capability, Bishop's willing suspense is much more self-conscious than Keats'. Where they differ is in their experience of the moment. Keats' attitude toward the moment brims with sincerity. Bishop's attitude towards the moment keeps sincerity from running over the edge. Understanding the movement these feelings make, she undercuts them with her parenthetical remarks, the joking voice to one side, and steps outside the narrative frame. In implying that the emotion could run over the edge but that she chooses not to let it, Bishop achieves effects similar to Keats'. Whereas "A Cold Spring" embraced the movement of romantic poems--from meditation to crisis to resolution, "The End of March" offers a reassessment of her earlier poetics. In "The End of March" the play is in motion straightaway, when she informs us that it was "scarcely the day" for a walk on the beach. She eschews any epiphany in the later poem; it ends because the walk is over. Her romanticism is informed by irony, the consciousness that she is writing poetry, and the idea that getting back to that spontaneous moment in tranquility is impossible. Keats' sincerity is found in the artful richness of his images, the lushness of his language, and the melody of his rhymes. Bishop's sincerity is found in the artfulness of the random objects she finds tossed up on shore, the exposure expressed in everyday speech, and the working of the mind.

When Lowell apologized to Bishop for the changes he had suggested for "The End of March," he reflected on revision. "I think a lot about getting things right, when I haven't enough to make it matter--and often there is a scrawl that cannot be arranged. We seem to be near our finish, so near the final, the perfect, etc. is forbidden us, not even in the game." (42) Both Bishop and Lowell would continue to envision and re-envision Atlantic coastal scenes, the Cape and the Maine shore with its numerous islands, for the rest of their writing lives. As Bishop would come to say in "North Haven", "repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise [...] The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot Change." In a letter from the first years of his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, Lowell told Bishop about his move back to Boston and his desire to have a child at their new home in Duxbury:
    1740, red cedar shingled, 1950 oil furnace, eight
   rooms, kitchen, garage, three acres, stream, flagpole,
   ten miles from Plymouth, forty from Boston,
   ten thousand dollars mortgage owing--its
   ours! [...] You must come then and we'll build
   a replica of your Brazilian house, and you can
   swing through the years back and forth from
   one to the other like a pendulum. (43) 

Duxbury, in its queer luxurious way, reverberates through both of their writing lives.

Indeed, "The End of March" is a kind of elegy for the person Bishop once was, for the person she hoped to become as the poem swings through the years. Bishop included in her Provincetown notebook a description for flying a kite that sounds like something in a manual: "When there is a wind it is out of your hand & up in the air almost before you have it out of the house. It stands in the air steadily--moving very lightly from side to side once in a while." It sounds like she is telling us that writing a poem is like letting the kite move in the sky. "A properly balanced kite, with a light string flies almost directly overhead--sometimes even in back, going with the wind." At the end of her career she made the process of experience the subject of her poems. She declared in "Five Flights Up": "--Yesterday brought to today so lightly!/(A Yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)" Who knows if the speaker was up all night or if the chirping bird and yapping dog woke her, but by the end of the poem the sun is suddenly there. It's not "still dark." "The older you are the less time you have in a day," Bishop reflected during that summer in Provincetown. "As a child one accomplished the work of a life-time in a morning or an afternoon. Later it gets to be i2 o'clock before you know it, you pick up a book & it is time--nothing gets written but a few letters." (44) "The End of March" is a culmination of all of Bishop's earlier poetics and processes. In writing the poem Bishop called on all of her previous writing processes, from the notebooks and letters to the prose and paintings, and utilized materials that spanned her entire writing career. By blurring the techniques of poetry and prose and calling on a variety of media, Bishop revised romantic and modern traditions by creating a clear tension between lyric and narrative in her work.


Grateful acknowledgment to Jonathan Galassi, literary executor of the estate of Elizabeth Bishop, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Conde Nast for permission to publish from Elizabeth Bishop's and The New Yorker magazine's unpublished papers and to the following libraries for permission to use their collections: Special Collections Department, Mariam Coffin Canady Library, Bryn Mawr College; The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature and the New Yorker Records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations; the University of Delaware Library, Newark, Delaware; Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the University of Texas at Austin; and the Department of Special Collections, Vassar College Library.


(1.) Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore, 10 September 1938, One Art: Letters, by Elizabeth Bishop, edited by Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994): 77.

(2.) Bishop to Howard Moss, 30 September 1974, The New Yorker Archives, The New York Public Library.

(3.) Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969): 6 and 17.

(4.) Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, ed. George Monteiro (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996): 43,

(5.) Bishop to Robert Lowell, 3 September 1974, Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009): 767.

(6.) Lowell to Bishop, 6 October 1974, Words in Air: 786.

(7.) Bishop to John Malcolm Brinnin, 26 May 1975, University of Delaware.

(8.) Lowell to Bishop, 9 June 1948, Words in Air: 38.

(9.) Notebook, Vassar College.

(10.) Bishop to Moore, 29 March 1939, The Rosenbach Museum and Library.

(11.) Bishop to Loren MacIver, 20 August 1961, Vassar College.

(12.) Notebook, April 1953, Vassar College.

(13.) Bishop to Frani Blough Muser, 7 July 1973, Vassar College.

(14.) Bishop to Muser, 8 June 1975, Vassar College, and Bishop to MacIver, 4 July 1974, Vassar College.

(15.) Bishop to Muser, 8 June 1975, Vassar College.

(16.) Bishop to Moss, 18 July 1974, The Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

(17.) Unpublished manuscript, Vassar College.

(18.) Bishop to Jerome Mazarro, 27 April 1978, One Art: 621.

(19.) Unpublished manuscript, Vassar College.

(20.) Unpublished manuscript, Vassar College.

(21.) Unpublished manuscript, Vassar College.

(22.) Bishop to Donald Stanford, 21 January 1934, One Art: 16.

(23.) Moss to Bishop, 24 September 1974, The New Yorker Archives, New York Public Library.

(24.) Bishop to Moss, 30 September 1974, The New Yorker Archives, New York Public Library.

(25.) Bishop to Katharine White, 28 February 1947, The New Yorker Archives, New York Public Library.

(26.) Lowell to Bishop, 6 October 1974, Words in Air: 769.

(27.) Bishop to Moss, 22 October 1974, The Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

(28.) Moss to Bishop 24 October 1974, The New Yorker Archives, New York Public Library.

(29.) Lowell to Bishop, 18 December 1974, Words in Air: 776.

(30.) Bishop to White, 14 April 1975, Bryn Mawr College.

(31.) Notebook, Vassar College.

(32.) Notebook, Vassar College.

(33.) Notebook, Vassar College.

(34.) Notebook, Vassar College.

(35.) Bishop to Moss, 14 December n.d., The Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

(36.) Bishop to Lowell, 30 March 1959, Harry Ransom Research Center; Bishop to Florence Bishop, 3o March 1959, Vassar College.

(37.) Bishop to Joseph and U. T. Summers, 26 July 1964, Vassar College.

(38.) Bishop to Florence Bishop [n.d., 1966], Vassar College.

(39.) Bishop to James Merrill, 23 January 1979, Vassar College.

(40.) John Keats to Franny Keats, 1 May 1819, Letters of John Keats, ed. Robert Gittings (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 209-210.

(41.) Bishop to Lowell, 27 July 1960, One Art, 388.

(42.) Lowell to Bishop, 18 December 1974, Words in Air: 776.

(43.) Lowell to Bishop, 29 November 1953, Words in Air: 145.

(44.) Notebook, Vassar College.

JOELLE BIELE is the author of White Summer, part of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry from Southern Illinois University Press. She is also the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October 2010.
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Author:Biele, Joelle
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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