Childhood & Early Years
Elizabeth Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father, William Thomas Bishop, a successful builder, was the scion of a well-to-do Massachusetts family. On the contrary, her mother, Gertrude May nee Bulmer came from Nova Scotia and was of a more humble lineage.
Elizabeth, her parents’ only child, must have experienced great love and warmth for the first eight months of her life. That her parents loved each other and also their tiny daughter is evident from a letter written by Thomas Bishop to Gertrude’s mother Elizabeth Hutchinson Bulmer, soon after his daughter’s birth.
In this letter, dated 12 February 1911, Thomas was found to be bubbling with happiness. But it did not last long. On October 8, 1911, he died of Bright's disease, leaving his wife devastated. She could never get over the shock and suffered a series of nervous breakdowns.
In 1915, after Gertrude had been hospitalized for a couple of times in the USA, the mother and daughter moved to Great Village, Nova Scotia, to live with Gertrude’s parents. Here too, she suffered a series of breakdowns.
Finally on June 20, 1916, Gertrude was admitted to a sanatorium across Halifax and remained there until her death on May 29, 1934. Elizabeth continued to live with her maternal grandparents in Great Village; she never saw her mother again.
However, she carried with her tender memories of her mother, who always wore black dresses since her husband’s death. Once the two of them went for a ride in a swan boat in the Boston Public Garden and a live swan bit her mother’s hand. She later remembered “the hole in the black glove and a drop of blood on it."
Elizabeth was quite happy with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, going to the village school and leading a more or less carefree life. But in October 1917, her paternal grandparents, the Bishops, worried about her unsophisticated and backward upbringing, gained her custody and brought her back to Worcester.
Till then the Bishops were just names and it almost seemed like a ‘kidnapping’ to six-year-old Elizabeth. Within a few months, she became desperately ill and realizing that she was not happy with them, the Bishops sent her to live with Gertrude’s older sister, Maude Boomer Shepherdson and her husband, George.
Thus from May 1918, Elizabeth began a new life with the Shepherdsons. Initially they lived in a tenement in Revere, an impoverished Massachusetts neighborhood; but later they moved to Cliftondale, which offered a better environment. The Bishops paid for her upkeep and education.
From childhood, Elizabeth suffered from asthma and therefore had very little formal education until she was enrolled at Saugus High School in her freshman year. Later in her sophomore year, she studied at North Shore Country Day School, located in Swampscott.
Thereafter in 1928, she moved to Walnut Hill School for the Arts, an exclusive boarding school, located in Natick, graduating from there in 1930. Here she studied music and also wrote poems, which were published in the school magazine.
Next in 1930, Elizabeth Bishop entered Vassar College, New York. Her initial ambition was to become a composer; later she gave it up to study English. Here she was introduced to poet Marianne Craig Moore, who became her lifelong friend and mentor.
In 1933, she co-founded a short-lived but influential literary journal called 'Con Spirito’ with Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark, and Margaret Miller. It was to be an alternative to the well-established ‘Vassar Review.’
In 1934, she graduated from Vassar and then for a short period enrolled at Cornell medical School. Maybe it was her mother’s death earlier in the same year, which induced in her an interest in medicine. However, Moore soon persuaded her to leave medicine and concentrate on writing.
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By now, Elizabeth Bishop had inherited her father’s estate. Although it was nothing huge, it made sure that she could live without earning for the time being. Therefore in 1935, she set out for Paris, where she lived for four year with Louise Crane, a friend from Vassar.
In between, she traveled extensively, visiting other parts of France as well as Spain, North Africa, Ireland, and Italy. What she saw in those places, she documented in her poetries, many of which remained unpublished.
In 1937, Bishop and Crain returned to the USA. In the following year, they bought a house in Key West, Florida. Here she lived until 1944, making trips to the north intermittently.
On one such occasion in the fall of 1940, she stopped at Brevard, a rustic mountain town in North Carolina to meet her friends Charlotte and Red Russell. She liked it so much that she spent two months at the place before starting on her way to New York, where she put up at a hotel in Murray Hill.
Living all alone by herself, she began drinking heavily. Her aunt’s death and quarrel with her friend and mentor Moore might have induced it. Therefore, she was very happy when it was time to go back to Key West. However, she wrote very little poetry during this period, but concentrated on short stories.
This was also the time she met Marjorie Carr Stevens and subsequently moved in with her in order o save money for her travels. However, she did not have any plans yet. She watched with unease as the town prepared for the Second World War.
Then in the fall of 1941, she and Marjorie traveled to Brevard, staying there for one month before moving to New York. Later in April 1942, they traveled to Mexico, ostensibly to learn Spanish. Traveling across the country they met many people and returned to New York on September 30.
There she stayed for a few months before moving back to Key West. The period was quite productive for Bishop on the literary front and the poems she wrote during this period were later published in her first collection of verse, ‘North & South’ (1946).
Bishop remained at Key West till May 1944, feeling lonely as Marjorie went out to work. She herself took up a job, but left it within five days. Soon she became convinced that it was time to move to New York and do something with her life.
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Birth of a Poet
Thereafter in May 1944, she returned to New York, where she tried to stay away from alcohol, lose weight and remain cheerful. On January 15, 1945, at the insistence of her mentor and friend Moore, she submitted the manuscript of ‘North & South’ for a poetry prize fellowship, organized by Houghton Mifflin.
It led to publication of her first book, ‘North & South’ in August 1946. In June, before the book was actually published, she left for Keene in New Hampshire and from there went to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Across the bay from Halifax, she could see the hospital, where her mother lived and died. Feeling miserable, she left for Great Village and other places before returning to New York.
Some time thereafter, Bishop met Robert Lowell, with whom she would eventually develop a close friendship. Although she had her inheritance to look after her daily needs it was not really very big. It was Lowell, who opened her eyes to the practical aspects like fellowships and awards.
In the meanwhile, her book earned good reviews. Many of her poems were also published in different well-known journals. By the fall of 1946, Bishop became well-known as a poet. Soon her financial worries too began to ease.
In December 1946, she applied for Guggenheim Fellowship, receiving a grant of $2,500 in April 1947. It was also the year when she received the first royalty payment of $174 and 50 cents from her publisher.
In the same year, she signed the first-read contract with New Yorker and from then onwards, all her poems were first published in the journal at a higher rate than usual. Soon, she started planning her next book.
However, she was a slow writer and it would be some time before her next poetry book would be published. Meanwhile, from 1949 to 1950, she served as a consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress.
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In 1950, Bishop received a $2,500 traveling fellowship from Bryn Mawr College. With it, she planned to circumnavigate the continent of South America by boat. But on arriving in Santos, Brazil, in November 1951, she abandoned her initial plan and instead lived there for fifteen years.
In Brazil, she met Lota de Macedo Soares, an architect by profession. Initially she put up in her apartment in Leme, but when in 1952, Lota’s other home in Petropolis was complete, they settled down in it. All these years, Bishop kept in touch with her friends in USA through correspondence.
In 1955, while living in Brazil, she had her ‘North & South’ reprinted as ‘North & South—A Cold Spring’. The book was also published by Houghton Mifflin and it contained all the poems of ‘North & South’ plus eighteen new poems.
Her next book, ‘Questions of Travel ‘was published ten years later in 1965. The first part of the book contained poems on her life in Brazil. The second part included poems on other locations in addition to a short story titled, ’In the Village’.
Back to USA
In 1966, Elizabeth Bishop returned to the USA. Her inheritance had started fizzling out and she needed a job. Problems had also cropped up between her and Lota. She now spent two semesters at the University of Washington, Seattle, as a writer-in-residence.
Later she returned to Brazil. There she became ill and had to be hospitalized. On getting discharged she returned to the USA. Lota came to see her on 19 September 1967, possibly to mend their relationship. Unfortunately on their first night together, Lota took an overdose of tranquilizers and died a few days later.
Although it is believed that Lota had committed suicide, her family blamed Bishop for it. For a time she was traumatized by her perceived guilt. Yet, she continued to work.
In 1969, Bishop had her next book, ‘The Complete Poems’ published. In the following year, she joined the Harvard University, where she taught until 1977. Although she did not feel comfortable as a teacher, her students believed otherwise and learned a lot from her.
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Some time now, she met Alice Methfessel, who became the source of her strength. Continuing to work, Elizabeth Bishop had her last collection of poems published in 1976. Titled, ‘Geography III’ it earned great reviews and also its share of awards.
Elizabeth Bishop was a slow writer, producing around a hundred poems in thirty-five years. Among them, ‘In the Waiting Room’, written in 1976, deserves special mention. It talks about the search for the identity of a seven-year-old girl living in Worcester during the First World War.
She had also written many short stories and prose. Among them, ‘In the Village’, published in her 1965 book, ‘Questions of Travel’ is another significant work. It talks in third person about the life she led in the Great Village, Nova Scotia, and things she had experienced therein.
Awards & Achievements
Elizabeth Bishop had received a number of awards and honors throughout her life. Among them, the most significant was the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, which she received in 1956 for ‘North & South—A Cold Spring’.
In 1970, she received the National Book Award for Poetry for her 1969 book, ‘Complete Poems’.
In 1976, she was awarded Neustadt International Prize for Literature, for her last book, ‘Geography III’.
In addition, she had received a number of fellowships such as Houghton Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship (1945), Guggenheim Fellowship (1947), Lucy Martin Donelly Fellowship (1951), and Academy of American Poets Fellowship (1968).
She was also a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Personal Life & Legacy
It is believed that Elizabeth Bishop realized her sexual orientation while studying at Vassar and subsequently developed a close relationship with Louise Crane, with whom she went on a trip to Europe. On returning to the USA, they bought a house in Key West, but the relationship did not last long.
Marjorie Carr Stevens was probably the next important woman in her life and they lived together until the middle of the 1940s. Thereafter in Brazil, she had a serious relationship with Lota (Maria Carlota) de Macedo Soares, living with her until the latter’s suicide in 1967.
In 1970, she met Alice Methfessel, who became her lover and also the source of her strength for the rest of her life. After Bishop’s death, Alice became her literary executor.
On October 6, 1979, Bishop died of a cerebral aneurysm in her apartment at Lewis Wharf, Boston. She was later buried in Hope Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts.
‘The Complete Poems: 1927–1979’, published posthumously in 1983, continues to carry her legacy. Some other posthumous publications are ‘Collected Prose’ (1984), 'Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop' (2006), and 'Poems, Prose and Letters by Elizabeth Bishop' (2008).
The Bulmer House, her childhood home in Great Village, Nava Scotia, is now known as Elizabeth Bishop House. It is now being used as an artists’ retreat.
‘Reaching for the Moon’ (Portuguese: Flores Raras), a 2013 biographical drama film directed by Bruno Barreto, is based on her life in Brazil. It dramatizes story of her love with Lota de Macedo Soares.