The Lady and Gentleman of Shalott

The Early Poems of Elizabeth Bishop

in Critical Survey
Anne StevensonIndependent writer

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Wallace Stevens, in The Necessary Angel, gave it as his opinion that the purpose of poetry is to help people live their lives. Those of us who have made a study of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems would agree, I think, that they have helped a great many people live their lives. Yet, as David Kalstone remarked, Elizabeth Bishop has always been difficult to ‘place’. She found self-placement, both geographical and psychological, so difficult herself that we find two questions buried in most of her work: ‘Who I am?’ and ‘Where do I belong?’. I would like to suggest in this essay that Bishop did finally decide who she was and where she belonged. Like her own Prodigal, she made up her mind reluctantly, both before and after she went to live in Brazil, to go home to Nova Scotia. She could not live there, of course, since Nova Scotia was the landscape of the childhood that nourished her imagination; nor was that childhood an easy one to return to. But she knew she belonged in Great Village once she began to help herself to live her life by writing about it.

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