Themes by Means of Unique Style- Bishop

Categories: Elizabeth Bishop
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Elizabeth Bishop is known for using the same recurring themes throughout her thought-provoking poetry. Some of these themes include childhood experiences, travel, the natural world, loneliness, detachment and the art of writing itself. Each of these themes has introduced themselves to her by means of personal experiences throughout her life.

In her poetry, she shares these particular issues with the reader by means of different styles. Some of her poems offer hints of certain themes, but are not obviously prominent on the first read, While many of her other poems are based solely on a particular issue throughout the whole poem.

These elements of theme and style make her poetry a very interesting read. In my essay, I am going to discuss the themes and style throughout six of Bishop’s poems; “The Fish”, “The Prodigal”, “Questions of Travel”, “Sestina”, “First Death in Nova Scotia” and “Filling Station”. Elizabeth Bishop was once quoted to have said “I like painting probably better than I like poetry.

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” “The Fish” is certainly a very visual poem. I believe one of the predominant themes in this poem is the natural world. Her love of the natural world and its creatures is evident throughout as she describes the fish.

Bishop catches this fish but does not carry out the norm of what any other person would do with the intent of catching a fish and succeeding to do so. Instead, she studies the fish. She looks and it, and looks closer until she can come up with some kind of conclusion about the animal.

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She uses clear visual detail to describe the fish and paint a vivid picture in the reader’s head of what this fish looks like and what it has been through. “Here and there his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper, and its pattern of darker brown was like wallpaper.

” “He was speckled with barnacles, fine rosettes of lime, and infested with tiny White Sea lice, and underneath two or three rags of green weed hung down. ” Another theme that I noticed throughout this poem is the admiration for a survivor of life’s battles. Bishop personifies the fish in many ways throughout the poem, portraying it to have human-like traits and characteristics and that it is like a human in its ability to suffer and learn from that suffering. “A five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw”.

The word wisdom makes me think that fish has been through many ordeals throughout its life and has become wise from having learnt how to deal with the suffering it has endured. Bishop makes the fish look honourable. She appreciates this fish and looks up to it for surviving life’s battles. “Like medals with their ribbons’. She is referring to the old pieces of fishing line hooked onto the fish as rewards and proof that this fish had the strength to deal with the terror it had been through. I also noticed an element of helplessness and defeat throughout the poem.

The fish seemed helpless, like it had given up fighting for its freedom, the evidence shown by the hooks in its mouth and its lack of struggle when it was caught. It was as if the fish had accepted defeat once and for all. It had fought as hard as it could throughout its life for its freedom, but there seemed to be no fight left in him. “He didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all. ” Bishop seemed to be helpless in the sense that she could do nothing for this fish. As she sat there, examining every inch of it, realising his experiences and unravelling his pain, there was not much she could do to help him.

She had effectively taken away his freedom. Fortunately, Bishop, as helpless as she was, discovered that letting the fish go was the best decision to make. She did not want to make this fish suffer anymore. “Until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! And I let the fish go. ” “The Prodigal” is a poem based on a person who was forced to live among the pigs he looked after. The overall themes throughout the poem are alcoholism and depression. This may well have been written by Bishop to portray her past experiences as she battled with the same mental issues.

In many ways, this poem could represent the inner turmoil she may have experienced when dealing with these illnesses. The main character in the poem is considering his surroundings through a drunken state of mind. Bishop uses detailed descriptions to describe the disgusting surroundings the alcoholic has to endure day to day. In many ways, the messy and dirty surroundings could be a reference to how an alcoholics mind is organised. “The floor was rotten; the sty was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung. ” In this poem, the alcoholic seems to have companionship with the pigs.

They are his only friends, as disgusting and foul smelling as they are. One of the pigs in particular, the sow that ate her young, seems to be a very close friend of the alcoholic. These pigs could be seen to represent the alcohol in this person’s life. They are false friends. They represent short term happiness, short term companions, but in the end they are no benefit to this mans life whatsoever. Instead, they seem to be encouraging him. “The pig’s eyes followed him, a cheerful stare- Even to the sow that always ate her young”.

The character in this poem seems to be marginalised, like Bishop was throughout her struggle with depression and alcoholism. He is unnoticed by society. Nobody wants to help him. Instead, everybody prefers to leave him wallowing in his own pigsty of a life, leaving him to do as he pleases. This could be similar to how Bishop felt when going through the same issues. She is portraying her struggle through this filthy man, who leads a filthy life. Another theme that I noticed in the poem is hope. This man has ruined his life and well-being for the sake of drink.

He lives a dark depressed life, his only companion’s alcohol and pigs. However, nearer to the end of the poem, hope springs as this man re-evaluates his life and decides to make a change for the better. He is going to face his pride, go home and sort himself out and repair his relationships. “But it took him a long time finally to make his mind up to go home. ” “Questions of Travel” is a poem that asks questions about traveling. Why do we journey to the ends of the earth? Can we learn just as much when we’re in front of the TV watching the Discovery Channel?

Bishop is seen to be considering the pros and con’s of travel, weighing them up in her mind and coming to a conclusion. And the interesting thing is that she never fully answers any of her questions about exploring the world. The dominant themes in this poem are travel and exploration, but the poem also includes hints of different themes, such as nature and culture. Bishop introduces the poem by describing the foreign Brazilian landscape around her. The prevailing theme in the first stanza of the poem is nature. She uses detailed description to paint a picture of the area around her.

She uses colour, texture and interesting comparison to describe the landscape. “But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling, the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships, slime-hung and barnacled. ” The reader learns quickly that this landscape is not what Bishop is used to. She feels out of her comfort zone in this area. Perhaps she had high expectations of travelling and she was fiercely disappointed, resulting in her questioning as to why people bother travelling. “There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams hurry too rapidly down to the sea”.

After describing the scenery, Bishop introduces the theme of travelling through a variety of rhetorical questions that she asks herself. She questions why we should travel to the ends of the earth just to see basic day to day normalities in different cultures that we can’t see in our own countries. It seems as if she is disappointed with what she has seen since she has been on her journey, and this is why she is questioning her decision to leave her country. “What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life in our bodies, we are determined to rush to see the sun the other way around?

” After she finishes questioning why people travel, she starts to question why they shouldn’t. Again, she uses rhetorical questions to present her theme of travel. Although she seems disappointed in what she has travelled across the world for and seen, she begins to think that it would have been a pity not to have experienced what she did on her travels, even if they weren’t as she expected. “But surely it would have been a pity not to have seen the trees along this road, really exaggerated in their beauty, not to have seen them gesturing like noble pantomimists, robed in pink. ”

The finale of this poem comes down to her making her conclusion about travel. Although she does not directly answer her own questions, the reader gets the impression that the strength of her questions as to why we should travel seem to override the questions as to why we shouldn’t. She ends her poem with a snippet of writing which she describes as a traveller writing in his notebook. This particular part of them poem shows the reader that the con’s of travelling have won over the pros. “Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be? ” Sestina is a poem about time, secrecy and loss.

The dominant theme throughout the poem seems to be loss and grief. However, there are many other themes throughout the poem such as weather, secrecy and family. The poem opens with an autumn theme and also talks about the weather, setting the scene and mood for the rest of the poem. A grandmother sits in a kitchen and Bishop also tells us that the light is falling, already making the poem dark and cold and giving the reader the impression that it is not going to be an upbeat poem. She uses household object to bring the theme of family into the first stanza.

“The old grandmother sits in the kitchen with the child beside the Little Marvel Stove, reading the jokes from the almanac”. Secrecy and hidden things are also included as themes throughout the poem, shown in the first stanza as we are told that the grandmother laughs and jokes with the child to hide her true emotions. These sad feelings are at odds with the cheerfulness of the grandmother laughing and joking with the child and the day to day homely objects.

The new theme of time enters the poem, with the mention of the grandmother’s sadness by the almanac. “She thinks that her equinoctial tears and the rain that beats on the roof of the house were both foretold by the almanac”.

The theme of weather is mentioned again as Bishop describes the rain on the house as “dancing” helps to maintain the overall dreary mood of the poem. Bishop also compares the rain to the soft tears of steam on the kettle, keeping the theme of sorrow ingoing throughout. “But the child is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears dance like mad on the hot black stove, the way the rain must dance on the house. ” The poem concludes with the personification of the almanac which is portrayed as being all-knowing.

The themes of loss and grief are dominant as Bishop describes how the child shows her drawing to the grandmother and the grandmother smiles but continues to cry. “But secretly, while the grandmother busies herself about the stove the little moons fall down like tears”. “First Death in Nova Scotia” is a poem referring to the death of a young child and how a family are dealing with his death. It is based in the removal of the dead child and Bishop herself narrates as a child. It may be referring to memory in her childhood. The dominant themes in this poem are death, loss of innocence and childishness.

Stanza 1 sets the scene in the parlour where the corpse is “laid out”. The atmosphere is cold as there is repetition of the word “cold”. The theme of childhood is brought into the poem as Bishop, as a young child, is describing her surroundings in a very childish way. Death is immediately prominent in the poem as she childishly tries to understand the loon. She attempts to describe the eerie stuffed bird. It is silent and Bishop does not understand why. “He hadn’t said a word”. The child does not seem to understand death which is why she cannot understand why the bird is quiet.

The stuffed loon acts as a distraction from her dead cousin, Arthur. The image of the loon is sinister and cold. She seems to be haunted by its presence. The cold atmosphere is introduced again as the loon watches over Arthur. “And the red-eyed loon eyed it from his white, frozen lake. ” Childishness is reintroduced when bishop uses the metaphor of a cake to describe Arthur’s coffin. It seems as if it is the only comparison she can make as she does not understand the reality of the situation. “Arthur’s coffin was A little frosted cake. ” Finally, in stanza four, the speaker focuses on Arthur’s corpse.

Her descriptions of him are childlike and innocent as she compares him to a doll. She also relates the death to Jack Frost, highlighting the theme of childishness as she attempts to deal with Arthur’s death. “Jack Frost had dropped the brush and left him white, forever. ” The poem ends with Bishops childish panic. She does not understand why they are sending Arthur so far away in the deep snow. “But how could Arthur go, clutching his tiny lily, with his eyes shut up so tight and the roads deep in snow? ” “Filling Station” is a poem about Bishops experience stopping at a remote filling station and examining it as she waits.

The themes in this poem are family and mockery. The poem opens with Bishop describing the station with distaste. She sets the tone as she describes the dirt of the filling station and the old, oil covered objects that she can see. “Oh, but it is dirty! This little filling station, oil-soaked, oil-permeated to a disturbing, over-all black translucency. ” Bishop the goes on to describe the people she can see at this filling station, incorporating the theme of family into the poem through description. She describes one fat man which she assumes is the father and owner of the station, and also describes his sons.

The description she gives to the sons makes them appear as quite cheeky, which is the stereotypical view of young boys. She mocks the lazy, laid back attitude of males due to the absence of a female figure. “Father wears a dirty, oil-soaked monkey suit that cuts him under the arms, and several quick and saucy and greasy sons assist him. ” Bishop then begins to question whether these people live in the filling station, once again incorporating the theme of family into the poem as she notices certain family elements in the station.

She mocks the fact that everything seems to be greasy and dirty in the filling station. “And on it a set of crushed and grease- impregnated wickerwork; on the wicker sofa a dirty dog, quite comfy. ” Bishop then begins to notice the female presence in the poem, re-introducing the theme of family into the poem and maintaining its importance. Although she does not experience the female, she can see that there is a mother’s love and touch somewhere in the background of this dirty little filling station.

The poem shows that even in filth and disorder a trace of love is still evident. “Why the extraneous plant? Why the taboret? Why, oh why, the doily? ” To conclude the poem, Bishop experiences a moment of epiphany. She realizes although she may mock this filthy little filling station, there is more to it than oil permeated wickerwork and grease. She realises this is a family filling station, and through the day to day work that goes on here, there is a mother figure in the background.

She realises the minute details of the decorated crochet and the extraneous plant is all due to a mother’s love. “Somebody loves us all. ” To conclude my essay, I would agree that Bishop does explore a variety of different themes throughout her poems; however these themes are recurring throughout her poetry and may be in more than one poem. She uses interesting styles to introduce these themes to the reader, such as rhetorical questioning, personification, detailed imagery and also speaking from somebody else’s point of view.

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Themes by Means of Unique Style- Bishop. (2016, Sep 10). Retrieved from

Themes by Means of Unique Style- Bishop

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