Elizabeth Bishop: Nature Poet?

February 8, 2011

To think about Elizabeth Bishop, one is forced to think about geography. Her friend and fellow poet, Richard Wilbur, speaks of her, “When she looked in her poetry for ultimate answers, she generally expressed the search in the key of geography, of travel.” But Bishop did not content herself to looking for answers only in geography. She was free to look in other places as well. In her poems, “The Moose” and “The Fish,” Bishop has an encounter with the natural world. It is in these creatures that Elizabeth comes closest to discovering an “ultimate answer” for the struggles she bears in each particular poem. Though each poem is very different in structure and style, each has similar themes. In both, there is an interaction of some kind between man and the natural world. Bishop describes each creature with a sense of respect and honor. Each creature comes to represent something deeper than itself to her. Through each experience Bishop learns that there are things in life that are bigger than she, yet that doesn’t serve to diminish her worth, rather each experience helps her to grow.

“The Moose” was published a good twenty years after “The Fish.” However, there are manuscripts that indicate she began the poem much earlier. Also, knowing a bit about Bishop’s biography indicates that “The Moose” is probably about an experience Bishop had as a child, while “The Fish” can be assumed to be about an experience she had as an adult. For this reason, I’ll begin with exploring what was going on with young Elizabeth, as Bishop reflects on her encounter with “The Moose” and then move on to explore her encounter with “The Fish.”

“The Moose” is dedicated to Grace Bulmer Bowers, Bishop’s maternal aunt. When Bishop was a child her father passed away and her mother had to be institutionalized. She was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia until her paternal grandparents intervened and took her to live back in Massachusetts, her father’s origins. On the surface, “The Moose“ is a narrative poem about a bus ride in which the passengers encounter one of nature’s creatures in the middle of the road; however, a closer reading reveals that the moose standing in the road blocking the vehicle‘s path becomes the representation of all that young Elizabeth holds dear. “The Moose” is a poem about leaving home. It is Bishop’s journey away from safety and away from security; away from the sacred.

The length of the poem resembles the length of the journey. We know by Bishop’s vivid description that in the beginning of the poem we are in her hometown in Nova Scotia along the Bay of Fundy. As the poem progresses, Bishop casually names the places in Canada where the bus stops to receive and let go of passengers. As night darkens, an older woman enters and we find that she, and presumably Bishop, will take the bus “all the way to Boston.” Finally after four pages of this five page poem the bus encounters a moose. The poem is broken up in to six-line stanzas, each line roughly about six meters. There is no set rhyme scheme; some stanzas have very regular end rhyme, while others have no rhyme at all, and still others have only one or two rhymes which may occur in various places. Yet the feel of the poem is not at all choppy, rather the poem itself has a physical feel of a bus ride, sometimes speeding up with regular rhyming, sometimes slowing down, while the steady meter keeps us moving along with Bishop.

From the start Bishop sets the tone of leaving home with her description of the bay. She imagines the bus riding through her hometown towards her house and past the bay that was so familiar to her. In the first stanza we see how “the bay leaves the sea…and takes the herring on long rides,” and later in the second stanza the bay is “not at home.” By the third stanza the bay becomes “a red sea” and Bishop begins to mix the imagery of home with the imagery of the sacred. She imagines the bus traveling towards her “past clapboard farmhouses / and neat, clapboard churches.” By the sixth stanza Bishop enters the bus and says goodbye to her family, her dog, her farm, her woods. In short: her home. She continues the mixing of the sacred and secular as “the fog…comes closing in…on the…lupins like apostles.”

Over the next few stanzas the imagery becomes very lonely. The landscape the bus passes by becomes “A pale flickering. Gone…” and later, “An iron bridge trembles…A dog gives one bark.” Until they enter the New Brunswick woods. Bishop hears “Grandparents’ voices…talking in Eternity.” They talk about misfortune and conclude that “’Life’s like that. We know it (also death).’” These grandparents remind Bishop of her own; they talk “the way they [Bishop’s maternal grandparents] talked.” They talked in “Eternity” where Bishop feels safe. Children exist in Eternity, they don’t think about anything but their current situation, their home is eternal, and their home is sacred. Bishop had already lost so much in her young life. She was probably very familiar with the “half groan, half acceptance / that means ‘Life’s like that…’” as loved ones took pity on her. And with thoughts of home she began to feel safe; “Now, it’s all right now / even to fall asleep.” But the bus “–Suddenly…stops with a jolt” and we finally meet the moose.

The image of the moose embodies everything Bishop feels that she is losing by leaving home. It comes out of “the impenetrable wood.” It comes from a place of mystery, a place that is eternal. It comes out of the natural world and confronts man as it “looms…in the middle of the road.” It is something that happens to the passive onlookers in the bus. Bishop describes the moose as “high as a church, / homely as a house / (or, safe as houses).” This moose becomes for Bishop her last connection to her childhood place of safety, the place that is “’Perfectly harmless…’” The place where the sacred and the secular are one, the place where home is an eternity. The moose is revealed to be “a she;” she becomes maternal, and yet she is still “otherworldly.” Bishop asks herself “why do we feel,” and she adds, “(we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy?” The world of nature has a spiritual quality to it, “otherworldly,” and man’s encounter with a rarity of nature causes him to reflect on, perhaps even connect to, his sense of eternity. But the bus must move on, and Bishop is left with only a moment to look back upon her fading connection to home. The poem ends with Elizabeth being left with “a dim / smell of moose, an acrid / smell of gasoline.” The word “acrid” leaves a sense of overwhelming discomfort. As the moose represents Bishop’s home that she is leaving, the bus is the only image she has for the place she is going to. As the smell of home fades in the background, the “acrid smell” of her future overwhelms her. The poem ends with Bishop feeling overwhelming pain from leaving her home with her maternal grandparents.

In Bishop’s poem “The Fish” we once again have an incident of man’s interaction with a natural creature, only this time under very different circumstances, resulting in a different type of poem with different conclusions. This poem is a story of Bishop out fishing one day when she “caught a tremendous fish.” In “The Moose” the creature for whom the poem is titled doesn’t show up till the end, yet almost the whole of this poem is focused on her description of the fish she caught. This poem begins very much like a “fish story” in which the facts are exaggerated or simply not true. This is something common among fisherman and it suggests that Bishop may never have had an encounter with this fish, perhaps she simply dreamed him up one day while she was waiting for a bite. But whether or not he is real or imagined, what he represents for Bishop and what she comes to realize through him is a genuine experience of revelation and growth.

“The Fish” is a free verse poem with bits of alliteration scattered about. Bishop emphasizes important points in the poem by incorporating the use of repetition. The first of which is; “He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all.” Bishop is intruding into the fish’s world with her bait and hook. As the fish is caught, this time, he remains passive, he gives in to her. It is interesting to note that it was Bishop’s moose who walked out of his habitat and interrupted man’s world while the passengers on the bus remained passive onlookers. Here there is no “sweet sensation of joy” among a group of people, no feeling of the spiritual world mingling with the natural. This time it is only Bishop and the fish alone together. Yet as she looks upon this fish, she begins to describe him with a developing sense of respect and awe. In this poem Bishop is not being forced to leave the image of her home behind, rather she is in control. She holds the passive creature in her hands and begins to understand and relate to him in new ways.

At first Bishop begins to see the fish through her own terms and describes him in a familiar sense of home. She says “He hung a grunting weight, / battered and venerable / and homely.” She continues to use images that are like a home; “his brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper, / and its pattern of darker brown / was like wallpaper: / shapes like full-blown roses…the course white flesh / packed in like feathers.” Bishop continues to describe areas of the fish that would not be very pleasant to look at with the pleasant images of a home. Right in the middle of this type of analysis, she describes his gills; “–the frightening gills, / fresh and crisp with blood, / that can cut so badly–” She is trying to relate to the fish in terms she understands, in terms of a home, yet it is also as if she is saying that the home is not such an ideal place anymore. It is not as safe, perhaps, as a child may perceive it to be. The “frightening gills” are what a fish uses to breath, this fish is now drowning in air, and yet they “can cut so badly.” The need for a home is almost as great as the need to breathe, yet there are times a home can hurt you and make you bleed.

As Bishop looks “into his eyes” she begins to see the fish in a new way. The fish’s eyes “shifted a little, but not / to return [her] stare.” The fish is unresponsive to her. He is not intimidated by her; he is not concerned with her presence at all. He no longer seems as a passive victim; rather, he becomes patient, awaiting the next move. Bishop describes the fish’s eyes shifting as “more like the tipping / of an object toward the light.” The word “light” here could also carry the meaning of understanding. Bishop now begins to understand this fish on his own terms as she begins to describe him with masculine terms; she “admires his sullen face, / the mechanism of his jaw.” She begins to see him as a warrior; his lip, “if you could call it a lip,” becomes “grim, wet, and weaponlike.” The fish still has five hooks lodged into his mouth. All five hooks are still bearing the strings attached which the fish broke and snapped in previous struggles. We see that the fish is not so passive. That he has war wounds which he bears from past struggles to survive. To Bishop these hooks become “medals with their ribbons / frayed and wavering;” the fish is not only a warrior, he is a hero. He has survived the fight and shown himself worthy. She describes the strings as “a five-haired beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw,” and the fish becomes an elder, an old wise man who commands respect and honor, who still feels an ache from his wounds. This fish, who has battled through life and survived, becomes the image of life itself to Bishop. We are not to be passive onlookers, waiting for our homes and spiritual peace to come to us; rather, we should be active partakers in life, gaining wisdom and understanding through our struggles as we bear the medals of each wound we survive. We cannot force life into a pattern that is safe for us, we must let life be what it may be, and learn to let go of what we cannot control.

At this revelation the poem dramatically moves from a concentrated focus on the fish to the larger picture. Bishop “stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little rented boat.” The victory is her new understanding of life she has received, or caught if you will, which is the dignity that the fish possesses. In “The Moose” the “acrid smell of gasoline” overwhelms the young Bishop; however, this time some spilled oil mixed in the bilge becomes a symbol of beauty as it makes a rainbow. The elderly “know it,” that “Life’s like that…(also death).” It is through our trials that we gain wisdom. The wounds we bear and survive, the pain that we face, ironically can add beauty to our life and dignity to our character. We need to find the wisdom to choose the right battles to fight and the wisdom to know when to let go with dignity. As Bishop expands her focus away from the fish, she continues to describe “the little rented boat,” and  Bishop’s revelation comes together as this free verse poem pulls together with the last four lines ending in rhyme:

     from the pool of bilge
     where oil had spread a rainbow
     around the rusted engine
     to the bailer rusted orange,
     the sun-cracked thwarts,
     the oarlocks on their strings,
     the gunnels–until everything
     was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
     And I let the fish go.

Bishop realizes that she can’t go back to making home a completely safe place anymore, that there are some parts of life that she must learn to accept on their own terms; she must learn their language. As she lets go of the fish, she lets go of her need for control and deep safety, and she is able to see the beauty of life despite its pain and struggle.

In each of these poems we see how an encounter with nature gave revelation to Elizabeth Bishop, and she was able to find answers to her heart‘s search. In “The Moose,” Bishop was a child taken by members of her father’s family from the home she knew and felt safe at. It is a testament to how sacred the home is to a child. Elizabeth shows through the imagery of this poem, through her image of the moose, how important it is to provide a place of safety and security to our children. Yet in “The Fish,” the adult Elizabeth comes to realize that life really isn’t a safe place, but neither is it an entirely bad place. As we grow up and learn from our mistakes, we find that we can embrace life for what it’s worth. We are able to gain wisdom and dignity through the trials we bear. When we accept life on its own terms, we learn when to take control and when to let go, and our eyes are free to open up and see the rainbows.

Peter L Richardson
20th Century Poets
October, 2003

The Moose
For Grace Bulmer Bowers

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,

through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;

down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient, while
a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.

Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.
The bus starts. The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.

A pale flickering. Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn’t give way.

On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:
a ship’s port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
illuminated, solemn.
A dog gives one bark.

A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
“A grand night. Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston.”
She regards us amicably.

Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.

The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
–not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices

talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

“Yes . . .” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes . . .”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know it (also death).”

Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.

Now, it’s all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
–Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless. . . .”

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,

by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.

Elizabeth Bishop

The Fish

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly–
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
–It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels–until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Elizabeth Bishop


4 Responses to “Elizabeth Bishop: Nature Poet?”

  1. […] The imagery of the poem, both as a whole and particularly of the final scene, emphasizes the human longing to identify with nature over-against the inevitable separateness of our lives from the natural world.  (For further consideration of this poem, I recommend an article by Peter L. Richardson, February 8, 2011, “Elizabeth Bishop, Nature Poet?”  https://peterrock12.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/elizabeth-bishop-nature-poet/.) […]

  2. silvia Says:

    Beautiful, in-depth analysis of these two poems by Bishop. It helped me better understand them. Thanks!

  3. ljfyffe Says:

    It came as rather a shock to me that a Norton Anthology on women poets footnoted that Five Houses, Five Islands, etc.are New England place names when I’ve driven by them in Nova Scotia having travelled the same route Bishop does in ‘The Moose’ a number of times.

  4. […] also: Elizabeth Bishop: Nature Poet? . We will be reading and discussing Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry on September 28. See the SCHEDULE […]

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