Research Paper: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

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[. . .] O." who "made my manic statements" ("Memories of West Street and Lepke"). "C.O." is of course "Conscientious Objector," one who resisted on moral or ethical grounds the military draft during World War Two. Lowell's original "C.O." status -- as might be hinted at in the term "fire-breathing" -- was occasioned by the Allied firebombings of Hamburg and other German cities. Hamilton reprints the "Declaration of Personal Responsibility" the young Lowell wrote when refusing to enter the army in the 1940s (before meeting Bishop), which refers to these firebombings: "Three weeks ago we read of the razing of Hamburg, where 200,000 non-combatants are reported dead, after an almost apocalyptic series of all-out air raids." (39). Costello notes that the imagery in Bishop's poem can be read as a metaphoric commentary, in some sense, on Lowell's own situation: as she notes, "Bishop's poem points directly to these fire bombings, which wreaked the same kind of horrifying destruction on a part of our universe that fire balloons wreak on the animals" (81). Yet what Costello does not note is the distinction that Bishop makes here between personal and public meanings. By naming Lowell as the dedicatee of the poem, Bishop indicates this secondary layer of meaning in which the poem is deliberately a commentary on Lowell's own autobiographical situation. But this is not available to the reader. Penelope Laurens usefully dissects the way in which Bishop uses this symbolism (and the reader's understanding of it) to maintain a kind of fundamental "reticence" in expression. Laurens writes of the conclusion to "The Armadillo" that "The whole quatrain, with its exclamations and enjambed lines, leads upward in intensity to the expression of helplessness in the face of such terror. But because this intensity has been preceded by so much reticence, the emotion here seems earned. There is no sense of false moralizing about this poem; in fact, no sense of moralizing at all, although the moral dimension of the poem is inescapably present" (Laurens 111). But Bishop is also keen to acknowledge that her picture here is aestheticized beyond recognition: It is "too pretty" and the way in which resembles the actual fury of aerial bombardment is deliberately abstract. The reader is invited to realize the meaning in an abstract way.

It is fascinating, then, to see that the introduction of Lowell's autobiographical material is what constitutes the bulk of "Skunk Hour," Lowell's response (of sorts) to "The Armadillo" dedicated to Bishop. Sandra Gilbert notes that it is not merely dedicated to her, but it also may include a pun on her name: "is it possible that 'Nautilus Island's hermit / heiress' (whose 'son's a bishop') may subtextually -- and no doubt quite unconsciously -- allude to Marianne Moore, the "hermit heiress" of American poetry whose "The Paper Nautilus" was an important precursor poem about female power and whose poetic "son" was the very Elizabeth Bishop to whom "Skunk Hour" is dedicated?." (Gilbert 77). In other words, Gilbert thinks Lowell is anxious about female writers "subtextually" and "unconsciously," and notes that Lowell's own recurrent mental instability seems to have frequently involved manic declarations of love or proposals of marriage to Bishop. A letter from 1957, at the time of the composition of "Skunk Hour," written by Lowell to Bishop confirms these facts: "All that is mercifully changed and all has come right since you found Lota [Bishop's female Brazilian lover]. But at the time everything, I guess (I don't want to overdramatize) our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept." (Words in Air, 225). In other words, Lowell's acceptance of Bishop's lesbianism had occurred not long before "Skunk Hour" was written, although Gilbert does not specifically posit lesbianism as the force animating the "unruly female figures" of the poem. But of course the "unruly female figure" that provides the central symbol for Lowell's poem is the mother skunk herself depicted at the conclusion: the skunk shrinks Lowell's most grandiose pretentions, in a way that "The Armadillo" may have inflated them.

Yet this already raises questions about the "confessional" procedure of Lowell's new style in 1959. Lowell would continue using autobiographical material in his verse, but by 1972 this became problematic when he separated from, and divorced, his then-wife (the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick) and then wrote a volume of poetry (The Dolphin) making liberal use of her letters to him, without getting permission, and frequently altering the text of what she said. Lowell would ask Bishop for her assessment of The Dolphin and for her it became a serious moral issue, in which she delicately tried to state that she thought Lowell was wrong:

One can use one's life as material -- one does, anyway -- but these letters -- aren't you violating a trust? IF you were given permission -- IF you hadn't changed them…etc. But art just isn't worth that much….I feel fairly sure that what I'm saying (so badly) won't influence you very much; you'll feel sad that I feel this way, but go on with your work & publication just the same. I also think that the thing could be done, somehow…But the letters, as you have used them, present fearful problems: what's true, what isn't; how one can bear to witness such suffering and yet not know how much of it one needn't suffer with, how much has been "made up," and so on. I don't give a damn what someone like Mailer writes about his wives & marriages / I just hate the level we seem to live and think and feel on at present -- but I DO give a damn what you write! (Or Dickey or Mary….!) They don't count, in the long run. This counts and I can't bear to have anything you write tell -- perhaps -- what we're really like in 1972…perhaps it's as simple as that. But are we? (Words in Air 708-9)

Lowell did not take the advice and published the poetry nevertheless. But it is clear that there was a disruption, for the following year Lowell writes to Bishop about a jacket-blurb she gave to a younger poet. The blurb included Bishop's reference to "the tedium of irony, confession, and cuteness of contemporary verse," and Lowell writes back to justify the very term which was applied to him by Rosenthal a decade and a half earlier:

I see in a blurb you've written you object to confession and irony. I suppose confession is the use or exploitation of painful experience that gets on one's conscience, that must out -- but must it? Irony is being amusing (or worse acid about) about what we can't understand. I guess one can't write much without possibly falling in with these both -- well they don't get one to heaven. (Words in Air, 757)

The tone here is wounded and, considering Bishop made the remarks on a jacket-blurb, also a little paranoid on the part of Lowell. Bishop is forced to reply "I see now that I shd. Have qualified both 'confession' and 'irony'…Of course I wasn't thinking of you for a minute!" (758). But it was clear that Bishop had experienced a distancing from the "confessional" mode based on Lowell's poems in The Dolphin.

Bishop's major poetry published after Lowell's death would seemingly focus on the same issues of how much autobiographical revelation would be too much. Bishop's elegy for Lowell, "North Haven," manages to trope the central change in Lowell's style from 1959 -- and the gradual pursuit of that style to a point where Bishop could no longer follow it -- as being that of mutability rather than greater exposition. Bishop would prefer to think of Lowell as constantly exploring something new, rather than pushing his aesthetic to an unjustifiable impasse in The Dolphin:

The goldfinches are back, or others like them, and the white-throated sparrow's five-note song, pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.

Nature repeats herself, or almost does:

repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise. ("North Haven")

In this formal elegy -- a genre in which a concern with the continuity of the poetic voice is often paramount -- Bishop manages to salvage Lowell from the sordid excesses of his last volumes, and it is Lowell's voice that she hears in the birdsong: "repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise." The concluding stanzas of North Haven then evoke Lowell in memory, stirring up old emotion:

Years ago, you told me it was here

(in 1932?) you first "discovered girls"

and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.

You had "such fun," you said, that classic summer.

("Fun" -- it always seemed to leave you at a loss...)… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.  (2011, April 24).  Retrieved June 15, 2019, from

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