“I have never been homesick but just at present I feel awfly campsick,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, the summer she was fourteen. She had just finished a month at the sailing camp on Cape Cod where she spent her teenage summers, a camp where she found respite from the families engaged in a tug-of-war over her upbringing (it would be too much to say her affections), her father’s in Worcester, Massachusetts, and her mother’s in Revere and farther away in Great Village, Nova Scotia. For much of her childhood, this shy and sickly girl had been carted from one set of relatives to another like a piece of luggage.
Bishop was born in Worcester in 1911. When she was still a baby, her father, William Bishop, died of Bright’s disease (the term a century ago for acute or chronic nephritis). After his death, her mother’s grief slowly hardened into suicidal despair, and she tried to take her life by leaping from a hospital window. At last, having for five years dressed in mourning clothes, Gertrude Bishop became delusional, afflicted with imagined illnesses, convinced that she was being “watched as a criminal.” In 1916, she was permanently confined to a mental hospital. Her doctors must have felt there was no hope of recovery, because her little daughter was “taught to think of her as dead,” according to the poet Frank Bidart. Having been dragged about by her nervous and overwrought mother, now to Boston, now back to Nova Scotia, Elizabeth found a home with her mother’s family in Great Village, where she was enrolled in the village primary school. When her father’s parents visited a year and a half later, they were shocked to find the barefoot six-year-old racing wild through the village lanes.
Her Bishop grandparents “kidnapped” her—at least it felt that way, she later said—and carried her off by overnight train. Her father’s father was a wealthy New England contractor, the founder of J. W. Bishop Company, which built mills, stores, churches, hospitals, gymnasiums at both Brown and Harvard, the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, and numerous mansions for private clients. The firm, which had been in business since the 1870s, was a nineteenth-century example of vertical integration, owning quarries as well as a woodwork and ornamental-iron mill.
The Bishops were already elderly (her grandfather seventy-one, her grandmother sixty-eight) when Elizabeth was spirited away to Worcester. Most of their nine children were already dead. Her grandparents lived outside the city in a dark, spraddling farmhouse behind a white picket fence, one block before the end of the trolley line, though John W. Bishop Sr. was driven to work each morning by a chauffeur. The Bishops never mingled in Worcester society. Though distant, austere presences to this frail young girl, they were apparently kind and thoughtful. Her grandfather, who showed off numerous gold teeth when he laughed, once carted home, all the way from his company’s Providence office, three Golden Bantams— pets for his little granddaughter.
Bishop found life in her home country difficult. Separated from her mother’s parents, whom she adored, she “didn’t want to be an American.” (As she told a critic, “I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander.”) According to her memoir “The Country Mouse,” saluting the American flag made her feel “like a traitor”—in the Great Village school, she had been taught to sing “God Save the King” and “The Maple Leaf Forever.” Her grandmother in Worcester, whose most violent oaths were “Pshaw” and “Drat,” tried to make her memorize “The Star-Spangled Banner,” every verse.
Often severely ill with bronchitis, asthma, and eczema, Elizabeth spent nine miserable months with the Bishops. After that disastrous winter, she was dispatched, no doubt by chauffeur, to a drab neighborhood in working-class Revere to live with her mother’s eldest sister, Maude (always spelled “Maud” by Bishop). The girl spent the rest of her childhood with Maude and her husband in their dingy second-floor apartment, frequently missing school because of her illnesses. She later said that during those years, “I was always a sort of a guest.”
Bishop may have felt close to Aunt Maude at first; later, when she was in prep school, she tried to avoid staying in Revere during the holidays. Her favorite aunt, Grace Boomer, another of her mother’s sisters, shared the apartment but moved back to Nova Scotia in 1923, when Bishop was twelve. That same fall, her Bishop grandparents died, first her grandmother and then, five days later, her grandfather. Their son Jack, who became head of the family firm, took charge of her schooling. Whatever Uncle Jack’s failings as a businessman (under his management, J. W. Bishop Company soon fell on hard times), as her guardian he sought an education for her beyond that available in public schools—or perhaps he was just shooing her out of the way. Though Bishop felt no fondness for him, he seems to have responded to his young ward. He knew that in Revere she had few friends.
Her cousin Kay claimed that the move to Revere was suggested by Bishop’s doctors, who thought her asthma would improve if she lived by the sea, a common prescription of the day. Perhaps the “saltwater camp” on Cape Cod was chosen to get her to the shore, the fees no doubt paid by her guardian—they would have been beyond the means of Maude and her husband. The July after her grandparents died, Bishop was packed off to summer camp for the first time. She returned every summer for the next five years.
Camp Chequesset overlooked the shellfishing fleet in Wellfleet Harbor, in the 1920s still the main source of the town’s economy. The camp stood across the bay from the town pier, on some forty acres of ground once inhabited by Chequesset Indians, whose shell heaps could still be found along the beach. There were two main camp-buildings. Big Chief Hall contained the dining hall, a wardroom, and craft shops. On the mantel above its massive open fireplace stood a ship’s clock and a pilot wheel, the symbol of the camp. There were more craft shops in the Bungalow, which also had a library of some five hundred books and rooms for visiting former campers—”Old Chequesset girls,” as they were called. Though a fair amount of swimming and sailing was required, the camp offered archery, tennis, baseball, dramatics, and dancing, interrupted by walks to the Cape’s backshore or a clambake on Jeremy Point. The camp navy consisted of a clutch of sailboats and canoes, a few rowboats and dories, and a forty-foot sedan-cabin cruiser, the Mouette, with her famously unreliable engine. The name was French for “seagull.”
The campers’ “lodges” were scattered in the pines, each with room for three or four girls and a counselor (a “skipper,” in the camp’s nautical slang). These cabins, screened on all sides, with shutters for bad weather, had been given whimsical names like the Look-Out, the Hopp-Inn, the Kennel, and the Nursery. An early photograph in Cape Cod Magazine shows a “cosy dormitory corner” with simple cots covered in what even in black-and-white look like colorful blankets. The Mary Louise, the cabin where Bishop berthed for the summer of 1926, was a forty-seven-foot sloop marooned in a cradle nearby. Forty girls, the youngest twelve years old, spent July and August at this “Nautical Camp for Girls.”
Summer camps were once common in the northeast, many christened with Indian place names or the names of tribes long vanished (among Chequesset’s rivals were Cowasset, Wahtonah, Nobscusset, and Winnecowaissa). Such camps have long been in decline, victims of rising staff-salaries, helicopter parents, and, especially on the Cape, the value of the land. Parents now too nervous to let their children walk alone to school would bewilder their grandparents and great-grandparents, who happily shipped off their youngsters for a summer among strangers, with scarcely more than a trunk of clothing and no more proof of life during those months beyond the occasional scrawled letter. Bishop must have found it a relief to be out of the stifling summers in Revere and away from her relatives (and the place itself—she once wrote, “Where I live is so ugly”). Sometimes she visited her beloved Boomer grandparents in Nova Scotia before school started in September. At fifteen, she wrote a fellow camper from Great Village (the occasional misspellings here and elsewhere in the letters are Bishop’s),
I haven’t any family whatever—excepting a few aunts and uncles who are all trying to bring me up a different way and its glorious not to feel you’ll have to turn out well or you’ll break someones’ heart. One set of uncles and aunts would merely remark, “Her mother’s coming out in her,” the other “I always knew she’d turn out poorly—look at her father,” and they’d peacfully let me slide to my doom!
So as soon as I get enough knowledge crammed into me I’m off—to India and Ireland—and oh! wherever its strange and there’s a little romance left.
Camp Chequesset had been founded in 1914, more or less by accident, by William Gould Vinal, a teacher of nature lore at Rhode Island Normal School (now Rhode Island College). Vinal was thirty-two when he came to summer at Wellfleet. The article in Cape Cod Magazine two years later reported that “he had no idea of starting a girls’ camp. During the season three or four girls were invited to the camp for a few days, and they liked the location so well that they wanted to come again the next year.”
Perhaps Vinal started the camp as a teaching laboratory (he also founded a nautical camp for boys down the cape at South Dennis). The college professor who liked to be called Cap’n Bill became one of the great promoters of teaching children “nature lore,” the term he preferred to the more academic “nature study.” (Nature study was a subject to which much thinking was devoted—a journal by that name was first issued in 1900, succeeded by the Nature-Study Review in 1905.) Vinal wanted to drag children out of the cities and back into the woods or onto the beaches. As he put it in the preface to his most influential work, Nature Recreation,
The study of nature has been constant, but the objectives of nature study have been continuously growing and changing. Nature lore originated with the pioneer who loved his woodsy home. … From rail splitter to horse trader, nature practice met and solved social needs. It was the way of Thoreau and the training school for Lincoln. … With the development of industrialism and the concentration of population in cities, there disappeared both the need and the place for daily intimacy with the out-of-doors.
Published in 1940, the book remained in print for decades—he signed it William “Cap’n Bill” Gould Vinal and came to be known as the Father of Nature Recreation. To restore that lost love for the minutiae of nature, the curriculum of Camp Chequesset offered the campers “lore” that had not “degenerated into an ambitious accumulation of facts chained to the pickled and desiccated biology of the past”— they learned not dry facts but directed observation, or the art of spying alfresco. Like the Boy Scouts and the Woodcraft Indians, Chequesset and similar camps otherwise touted the healthy vanities of outdoor life, providing a sort of mens sana in corpore sano for the middle classes.
If Thoreau might be called the philosopher of nature lore, of the gains in spirit found in contemplation of weeds and warblers (perhaps the American version of the sublime), then Teddy Roosevelt was the practical sage of robust outdoor living, convinced he had cured his asthma by a regimen of vigorous exercise. Thoreau and Roosevelt were the tutelary figures of the camp movement. Even in the 1920s, summer camps like Chequesset took advantage of America’s lingering suspicion, not just of city ways, but of cities far more diseased and polluted than now.
What could a new camper at Chequesset expect? According to the Camp Chequesset Log, the small stapled newsletter (and fairly transparent sales organ) issued quarterly through the winter months, the new girls, after a bath, were sent in search of the “Tree of Life”—probably an improving moral illustration of the sort once found in religious texts. This chart or scroll was found lying atop one of the Chequesset shell heaps, where the girls ate a box supper. Afterward they were led to the outdoor theater for a solemn ceremony of welcome. While some of the seasoned campers held pine branches, others played the forest spirits representing the camp virtues: Health, Happiness, Comradeship, Honor, Loyalty, Service, Consideration.
It was without irony that these virtues were often pursued through competition. The girls were divided into four crews: the White Caps, the Pirates, the Sea Gulls, and the Yohos, Bishop’s crew, of which she eventually rose to be cox’n. Each summer the best crew was awarded a model ship, which joined the flotilla of such models in drydock in the dining hall. The Yohos were the top crew in 1924, Bishop’s first summer at camp, and 1929, her last. A camp photograph shows the ten Yohos of 1925, each dressed in white middy and dark bloomers (probably forest green, the camp color), gathered around a shadow box holding the model of the Mayflower won by the previous year’s crew.
Girls at this saltwater camp were expected to excel in swimming and sailing—the counselors kept detailed records of their progress. One of the swimming charts is preserved at the Wellfleet Historical Society. Probably from the summer of 1929, it lists fifty-eight requirements, from Breathing to 440 Yd. Swim. Bishop (her name misspelled “Biship”) had fulfilled all but five, including the essay and that quarter- mile swim. Completing the full roster was considered a formidable accomplishment. A camp log of 1925 congratulated three girls on this feat, which in the history of Camp Chequesset had been achieved by only one girl before.
The Chequesset Log did what it could to make mastery of such subjects enticing: “Perhaps, if you were only a Snail this year, you will be a Sea-Arrow next, or perhaps you will change your rank from Landlubber to Captain; and if you can be a Crawler what satisfaction will be yours.” The tone of the log, like that perhaps of the staff, was fatiguingly hearty, a mixture of high-mindedness and juvenile humor, with a sales pitch on almost every page, including pleas for the names of potential campers—it once offered a template letter, addressed from Ann Ole Veteran to Willa Tarbe (Will a Tar Be), for girls who wanted to invite their friends aboard. When camp was over, each girl and her parents were sent a copy of her swimming and boating charts. No doubt the hearts of some girls sank at thought of a summer report card, but the camp log, in its wholesome way, justified this by invoking Melville. “Your daughter’s summer at camp is not complete unless you take account of stock,” it thundered, with at least half the righteousness of Ahab. “Moby Dick calls it stowing down and clearing up.”
Campers would not have returned summer after summer just for the report cards. Vinal explained some of his didactic method in a 1921 article in the Nature-Study Review. The previous summer, before the girls arrived, he had held the first Nature-Lore School for Camp Councilors. This article and a companion piece, “Counsel for Councillors,” was illustrated by snapshots of Camp Chequesset girls sketching a sea cliff and studying an ancient tree trunk uncovered at low tide. Apart from pages of practical information about where to obtain topographic maps, cloud charts, and stereopticon lanterns, Vinal gave homely advice about turning fruit jars into aquaria, framing a piece of linoleum to make a blackboard, and tacking mosquito netting over bird cages to make insect breeding cages.
Vinal also recommended that campers buy a small looseleaf “camp notebook” for their field notes, “to be carried in a pocket or attached to a belt.” He put some thought into this notebook, which needed to have pages for “accounts, music, and photos,” as well as “firm, smooth covers,” printed with the camp name, useful as writing desk or drawing board.
Bishop possessed just such a looseleaf notebook, its lined pages 3.5” × 6”. She wrote a letter to a camp friend on a pair of torn-out pages, using others to draft some of her earliest poems. (The book itself, which probably met Vinal’s other requirements, has disappeared.) Bishop kept it handy even when she wasn’t at Wellfleet. “Auntie found my little black notebook hidden under a chair seat,” she wrote her friend. “I think she wanted me to show it to her but I wouldn’t. … It lies hidden behind the fairy tales in the bookcase now.”
Vinal’s campers were set various tasks: to scout trees by checking a page of tree leaves, or to follow the overgrown King’s Highway, using map and compass, wagon ruts, and “hub bruises or blazes on tree trunks.” These exercises were often cast as games (“tree cribbage” was one), with prizes for the winning team—old coins discovered on nearby Billingsgate Island, for instance. Vinal emphasized that each girl would respond differently to what she saw and that the campers’ notes and essays—after a social call on the town hermit, say—were not to be treated as school lessons. “Let it be emphasized,” he wrote, “that nature councilors are not to trespass on this private property with a red eye or a red pencil for spelling, split infinitives, or vertical twists to the penmanship. The number of poets and writers killed off by this method will never be revealed but let us not kill the spirit in camps.” The best of the girls’ sketches, poems, and stories were tacked to the camp bulletin board.
William Vinal’s notions of nature lore were highly local. Like Thoreau, he believed in studying whatever the nearby fields and beaches had to offer. (The year after Bishop left camp, the girls were taken to visit Thoreau’s Cape house, which still stands by Williams Pond between Wellfleet and Truro.) This ethos was quite different from that of the Boy Scouts, which tried to instill a practical body of knowledge about camping that could be used anywhere (there perhaps betraying its military origins). The upper cape offered mute examples of ecological change, so campers could be trained to see that a dark line crossing a sea cliff revealed the shape of the original hill. Glacial deposits, retreating dunes, the shift of a long pond to a round one—all could be read by the practiced eye.
Camp Chequesset was less a camp founded on a grand design than a somewhat makeshift and jury-rigged enterprise using whatever came to hand. The daily plan was a slave to serendipity (“It was very informal,” recalled a camper from the 1930s). The girls might sail to Billingsgate Island to dig clams, or take a day trip on the Mouette to Plymouth or Provincetown (where at fourteen Bishop discovered a book of George Herbert’s poems), or a three-day cruise through the Cape Cod Canal to Buzzards’ Bay and Nantucket. On the way, the girls might visit the Charles W. Morgan, the old whaleship retired to a cofferdam on the South Dartmouth estate of Colonel Edward R. H. Green—now at Mystic Seaport, she was the last remaining American whaler. The colonel not only renovated her but moved to his grounds an entire shipsmith’s shop from New Bedford and built life-sized models of a tryworks, a cooperage, and a counting house. Chequesset possessed a certain charming haplessness—if the captain and his crew sailed off to a camp meet with neighboring camps, they might spend a long morning looking for the right cove.
Visits from old salts formed part of the Chequesset curriculum: a Captain Small entertained the girls with yarns of wrecks along the Atlantic shore and one Captain Kelley, who built the model awarded each year to the best crew, revealed the secrets of his finicky craft. One day the latter brought his friend Captain Sears, who seems to have been admirably taciturn. “We tried to get him to tell of his experiences at sea,” reported the camp log, “but he said that Cap’n Kelley was the speechmaker, and he couldn’t say anything. One unsuspecting conversationalist asked him how many ships he had sailed on, but was corrected, to her chagrin, when he answered that he didn’t go on ships much,—he had usually sailed on schooners and brigs.” It is perhaps Captain Kelley in one camp photograph, sitting in a rocker on the porch of the Bungalow, a model ship in his hands and Elizabeth Bishop at his feet.
The girls suffered the common camp tithe of physical exercise. They made the usual moccasins and leather purses and turned the usual copper sheets into the usual paper knives and bookmarks. They wove rugs and scarves probably no one wanted or needed. The evenings included sing-alongs, the camp songbook heavy on peppy camp-tunes and old standards clumsily rewritten for Chequesset. More diverting, perhaps, were the rousing sailor songs and sea chanteys (“Haul the Bowline,” “Paddy Doyle,” “Blow the Man Down”), their lyrics enough to make a temperance meeting blanch. Bishop was good enough to make the Chantey Team in 1927.
Cap’n Bill and his successors kept the girls occupied with a boisterous and extravagant inventiveness. A camp play in 1927 was introduced by “singing, a balloon dance, a fencing exhibition, a poem, and chanteys sung by the camp.” Two summers later, the Kitchen Kabinet Orchestra played a symphony: “Frying pans, clothes baskets, and stove pipes were turned into violins, cellos and French horns. … The touching story of Robin Adair and his Sweet Adeline was told in music. Oh sweet kazoos!” The summer after Bishop left, camp events included the family reunion of “Mr. Chequessetti” (requiring an Italian dinner), a Topsy-Turvy day (with reveille at midnight), and the Rum Runners Rendezvous: “The dining-hall was transformed into a wharf den with a few lanterns, many cork floats, and a net or two. … The Cookies [cooks] as the toughest of ’longshoremen threw slum gully on to our plates or slammed down a bottle by our elbow with as much savoir faire as if it were their life occupation.” Out in nature, too, Vinal delighted in keeping the girls off balance: “What one should do on a particular occasion cannot be forecast. It is not preparing prescriptions nor is it dealing out patent medicines. It is furnishing opportunities for the love of the beautiful and timely suggestions for companionship with out door life.”
Vinal’s writing on nature lore can perhaps be forgiven its whiff of evangelical brimstone. He wanted to show the natural world as a living thing, not something to be dissected in a laboratory. “A resolution was made at Chequesset,” he remarked in the Nature-Study article, “that no study of plant or animal life should be made except it be alive and in its native haunt.”
Last June we knew that the barn swallow was feeding her young on the bungalow porch; that the chickaree had rented the mailbox in the pines; that a chippy, a robin, and a pine warbler were within 30 feet of the dining room door; that Bufo the toad was beneath the steps; that the blue-birds were rearing their second families in the boxes; that red perch would be caught at Gull Pond; that the squid, and the skate, and the hermit crab would be seen on the shore; that the swamp azalea would scent the ponds and arethusa dot the meadows.
Such a philosophy, if that is what it amounted to, explains the extraordinary emphasis at Chequesset, not just on conventional crafts and homemaking arts (“the directors realize that perhaps some day the girls will be married,” wrote the reporter for the Cape Cod Magazine), but on vivid writing and unruly imagination—and especially on teaching the campers to observe the nature surrounding them.
In that letter from Nova Scotia late in the summer of 1925, there is perhaps a hint that Bishop had already begun to school her eye.
I have been swimming several times in the lovely red sandstone rockhole. It is so pretty for little yellow leaves float all over the top and make little brown and gold shadows on the bottom.
Even when her poems were still mired in a twenties version of the poetic, her literary intelligence had begun to emerge in letters. Bishop’s letters at fourteen and fifteen don’t linger over description but occasionally create a scene or an atmosphere that rises, often too “poetically,” above the details: “The bay turns to moon-silver and across it the lights of Nahant glimmer like a bracelet of worn old jewels,” “Its raining now—all dingy colored rain—and the leaves are falling like bits of sodden gilt,” “Asthma gives me an unpleasantly whalish feeling. I wallow in pillows and puff like an old grampus.” It would be tempting to say the close invention of details, since similes and metaphors are made, not born. The best natural description consists of the particular transformed—the poet’s eye is metaphorical, not scientific.
Chequesset girls were of course not supposed to memorize the dry terms of biology and anatomy—Vinal wanted the campers to write down only what they saw. Bishop’s teenage descriptions are not distant in kind, only in sophistication, from the lines she later wrote in “The End of March” (“The sky was darker than the water / —it was the color of mutton-fat jade) or “Love Lies Sleeping” (“Along the street below / the water-wagon comes // throwing its hissing, snowy fan across / peelings and newspapers). When Bishop learned to master her eye, the invention became description.
Through this intense study of the nature at one’s feet, Vinal hoped to develop in the girls what he called a “broader intelligence.” He seems enlightened in refusing to direct their attention too rigidly, like some martinet of the marsh—if this girl was fascinated by the pine warbler, that one might prefer the barn swallow. In the preface to Nature Recreation, he invoked the ghost of Louis Agassiz, who “aroused a new enthusiasm for living material and strove to emphasize the importance of firsthand contact with nature.” This was the Agassiz who built a house on a glacier to learn about glaciers, the Agassiz who forced his anatomy students to study a dead fish over and over, without microscope or scalpel, until they learned something about it. Though Vinal sold the camp in 1925 to a former camper and counselor, it’s clear from his continued visits and the evidence of the camp logs that the culture of Chequesset endured.
Chequesset also fostered another kind of companionship. “In so small a camp … ,” as the camp handbook put it in 1930, “it is essential that each girl be one whom both campers and parents will welcome as a delightful comrade. Chequesset reserves the right to dismiss any girl who does not fit into the group.” Little was known about Bishop’s private life during those camp years until a cache of letters to a fellow camper, including the letters already quoted here, was bequeathed in 2004 to Indiana University.
Elizabeth Bishop met Louise Bradley in 1924 at South Station in Boston, where they were waiting for the train to Chequesset. Bishop recalled the moment a couple of years later:
Louise, Louise, you’re just the same aren’t you? You haven’t grown up—and left me behind? I remember the first time I saw you—In the dirty station. You were very excited over seeing all the campers again—and when you came to me you said “I don’t know you but I’ll kiss you, too.”
- Louise Bradley on the beach in Wellfleet (left) and as a college student (courtesy Wylie House Museum, a department of the Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, IN)
Though Bradley was three years older, from the beginning their friendship seems to have been one of equals. Bishop had at last found in her a confidante and a kindred spirit. Louise Bradley has been a missing person in Bishop’s life. She appears neither in Brett C. Millier’s biography, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (1993), nor in the memories collected from the poet’s friends and family by Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau in Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography (1994). Though twice mentioned in the volume of Bishop’s selected letters, One Art (1994), she’s confused with a different Louise.
The earliest letter in One Art dates from New Year’s Eve, 1928, written to Bishop’s friend Frani Blough. There are only three letters from the years before the poet entered Vassar, and fewer than a dozen before she graduated from college in 1934, almost all addressed to Frani. The addition of some sixty early letters, dating back to 1925, gives an intimate view of the teenage Bishop’s emotional and imaginative life.
The normal camp term was July and August, but Bishop spent only a month at Chequesset in 1925, because on August 5 she wrote the letter to Louise from Nova Scotia.
I am at my grandmothers, having arrived safely after many mishaps. … A man, passing in the street threw something at our taxi driver. We immediately stopped dead in the middle of Bostons traffic jam, the driver went tearing down the street after the man, and trucks on each side shouted at us to “Move on!” Finaly a policeman arrived on the scene and peace and order were restored. … I feel imnensly better already for writing does make one feel better, and I do hope you aren’t feeling bored.
The Bishop who emerges from these letters is often bored, unhappy, frustrated with family, with school, with her life. She was a mediocre student who didn’t see the point of education, though she could be furiously funny about it. That fall, she attended Saugus High School for ninth grade.
School has commenced and is just terrible! I do hate it so. The teacher raves at me and says I don’t pay attention. … I am fairely well acquainted with several of the girls in school now. They are awful as far as I know for they argue. I can stand a lot but argueing never.
With an admirable disdain for school rules, Bishop was already in trouble her first semester:
The Latin teacher sees me through and through, I fear. She sent me to the office but I lied so convincingly to the principal … that I’m not expelled—for a while anyway. I have a good mind but I will not use it—I am lazy and indifferent—I look out the window and dream—etc.
Despite her remark about possessing a good mind, Bishop usually had a low opinion of her intelligence (“I may be very sweet but I certainly am not very brainy”), no doubt made worse because at Saugus she faced, not for the last time, her nemesis, algebra: “Here I am, just a poor freshman and famous for nothing but a terrible dumbness in Algebra. Louise, I got C in deportment, for ‘inattention’!” At fourteen, she wrote plaintively, and a touch poetically, “This is a lovely, beautiful world in spite of school and algebra.” She even composed a poem titled “To Algebra,” on a page ripped from her camp notebook (“And still sometimes I think I see above the board / Where your names are placed in chalky, disordered rows, / The face of all order and all law”). She noted, “This was written when I received the remarkable mark of 37 in an algebra test!”
Things were little better when she transferred the next fall to North Shore Country Day School in Swampscott, about half-a-dozen miles from her home in Revere. Uncle Jack had attempted to enroll her at Walnut Hill, a boarding school in Natick, midway between Revere and Worcester, but her doctor refused to give her the necessary vaccination until she was in better health. She was forced to repeat the ninth grade.
You realize what a weak little thing I am! I’m now going to a private school down on the North Shore. It is a perfect Hades with modern improvements. However, I guess I can struggle along until camp time next year—its my one refuge and even its not so wonderful minus you.
Bishop might have been held back because of her grades, but some private schools, feeling that public school did not adequately prepare students for a more advanced curriculum, asked new students to repeat a grade. Algebra was again her enemy— and not just algebra: “Today I even forgot how to multiply and my mind hurts— really—when I try to figure it all out.” The next day, she wrote again: “So far my marks are—Latin 40—Algebra 20—French 75—English grammar 60—!!! However I head the class in English comp.”
If algebra was a horror, there was something perhaps even worse.
Have you ever had logarithms? And aren’t they terrible! I have a beautiful, slim brown book and on the inside [of] it are just rows and rows and rows of num- bers! I could weep—it looks almost like poetry from the outside.
Years later, in her poem “Manuelzinho,” Bishop wrote of a poor farmer who kept accounts in “old copybooks”:
You’ve left out the decimal points.
Your columns stagger,
honeycombed with zeros.
You whisper conspiratorially;
the numbers mount to millions.
Account books? They are Dream Books.
Bishop couldn’t decide whether to buckle down and be miserable or enjoy herself while failing (but writing poetry, she said). “Every bit of my knowledge that makes me interesting or valuable,” she exclaimed in despair, “was learned out-side school.” As so often later, she was able to turn the most trivial disaster into screwball comedy:
Horrors!! I have just discovered six blots on the wall behind me—the largest almost an inch across! Pray for me! Auntie just talked to me yesterday because I got ink on my hair, blouse, rug, furniture—now the wall!! I shudder.
Bishop made things worse the following fall—and therefore perhaps more bearable—by being cheerfully delinquent when she was at last enrolled at Walnut Hill, where she faced algebra for the third time. She called herself a “dreamer and a useless rebel,” considered at school a “sort of intellectual monstrosity.” One semester her junior year, she was restricted to the grounds for all but a single weekend because of her behavior. Though she had almost been expelled, as she confided in Louise, most of her shenanigans showed little more than high spirits. Probably in her junior or senior year, she wrote,
I do such crazy things. I dressed up in an awful costume for fire-drill the other night, and I’m fire assistant, too, so you can imagine how it upset the drill. And I threw a snow-ball at a girl in study hall and I swore at another one in class, and oh I was in a disgusting affair last week. It was so funny—two teachers cried over me!
After a similar escapade, Bishop’s junior year, the principal of Walnut Hill consulted a psychotherapist, fearing that this intellectual monstrosity might be displaying signs of her mother’s insanity. The doctor’s opinion was reported to Bishop’s uncle: “Elizabeth shows many evidences of the fact that she thinks, for some reason or other, she is different.” The therapist believed that the cure would be to make this most unlikely student “feel that she is like other girls.”
The Bishops, no doubt with good intentions, had hushed up the scandal of their troubled daughter-in-law, Bishop’s mother, unsurprisingly at a time when even doctors believed madness could be inherited. Bishop was aware that some people knew her history, but many must have assumed she was an orphan. In “The Country Mouse,” she recalls telling a childhood friend that her mother abandoned her and then died, and at Vassar she noted on her student information card that both her parents were dead. Though she was more forthcoming to close friends, the lie would save many humiliating questions but not avoid the reaction she so resented. As she wrote Louise in 1926,
I have given up caring what people think about me—at home anyway. That’s what I like about camp. They rather expect me to do queer things and everyone is so nice to me—too nice sometimes—I feel as if they were pitying me.
Bishop was an only child, which must also have made her unusual, and she may have been embarrassed that—despite her wealthy relatives, despite summer camp and private school among privileged girls—she lived in a dreary town with her working-class aunt and uncle. Her tendency to rebel might have been in response to the pity (a child who feels different sometimes wants to make that difference felt). Bishop often used the word “crazy” of herself, maybe with a small twitch of irony—by 1927, it was also slang for “exciting.”
Bishop’s hijinks were no doubt high crimes at boarding school, but they reveal a girl desperate to relieve her frustrations—and perhaps anxious to deflect the wrong kind of attention. This girl who was almost always miserable could pour out her unhappiness perhaps only to Louise. However low her spirits, her moments of wildness might have been a declaration of self. “I enjoy being me so much,” she wrote the spring of her junior year.
Bishop had devoted teachers at Walnut Hill, though they may have held her back as much as they pushed her forward. Eleanor Prentiss, her English teacher junior year, taught writing passionately but apparently developed crushes on her students. (“She would sigh over things, write sentimental notes, that kind of thing,” recalled Frani Blough. Prentiss also wore false teeth, which made her a figure of comedy to the girls.) She wrote Bishop a maudlin letter that Christmas:
There are fairy colors in the driftwood blaze in my fire. I picked up the stick down in the rock cave at low tide; and now it is dry it flames a tale in emerald and turquoise and copper-red. I think you would understand it. … Shall I tell you things that can only be told here—ah well, someday when you come!
Bishop passed the note to Frani with a scribble that called it “too sweet for words.” The poet could not have learned much about style, beyond the perfumy sort, from Miss Prentiss. Still, years later, prompted by Frani, Bishop “would groan and say, ‘Oh, well, that’s right. I guess I do owe her something.’“
Bishop contributed to the literary magazines at her private schools, the Owl at North Shore Country Day School and the Blue Pencil at Walnut Hill (where she became editor-in-chief, preceded by Frani). Later, in college, she appeared in the Vassar Review, but, fed up with the conservative editors, she and two friends founded their own avant-garde magazine, Con Spirito.
Bishop’s prep-school career ended in an inspired denunciation of her final exams.
I am so damned sick of chemical equations and diminished seventh chords— this expresses it somewhat. [An arrow leads toward a staff with three notes and a rest.] Now please harmonize for a string quintet, supplying a melodious tenor with embellishments and enough oxygen at 62° C and 790mm and a second periphrastic. Multiply by 22.4 modulate up a minor third and—the result will be your own age.
Having repeated a grade, Bishop was old for a high-school senior—she turned nineteen the semester she graduated. She was apparently uncertain whether she should even go to college. In an undated letter, probably written just weeks before the start of the Vassar term, she asked Louise, “Am I a social outcast or a Vassar girl? It must be decided. … I have to flip a penny about college pretty soon, I suppose.”
Among the mysteries the Bradley correspondence solves is what Bishop was doing that summer before Vassar. She wrote Louise from Walnut Hill, probably in February 1930,
I’m going to sell books all summer in a bookstore in Hyannis. Half of its’ a toy store but I’m not in that half—I’d much rather be. They sell awfully nice things for dolls’ houses—tiny electric toasters and even hair-dryers and vacuum cleaners.
The Chequesset Log for that spring mentions that Bishop “is all signed on for whatever is going to happen the week after camp, although she does not know what it is.” This was apparently a weeklong cruise along the coast on the Mouette, but Bishop’s long camp summers were over. Writing Louise from Hyannis that July, though the job goes unmentioned, she noted proudly that she was reading three books a day: “think of most of James Joyce, Anna Karenina, the Bible, Norman Douglas,—and so on.” She ended, in her usual fashion, “Please won’t you write to me some more. I am extremely miserable and absolutely alone. I want to have you tell me that you have confidence in me, or something flattering like that.”
Vassar proved a terrible disappointment.
College has betrayed me hopelessly and finally. It is a big fraud and I want to get out of it as quickly as I can. I suppose that won’t be until my twenty-first birthday next year, though. The work is worthless and I don’t think I want to be a student, anyway. … I always am a detestable flop at things like this.
The next summer she only reluctantly decided to return.
Whatever the shortcomings of Bishop’s many schools, to find a kindred spirit at fourteen—a girl almost in college, a girl who also wanted to be a writer—must have seemed impossibly lucky to that shy ninth-grader, living with her somewhat put-upon aunt and uncle. “Auntie just gave me a little ‘talk,’” Bishop reported to Louise in 1926. “I am very stuck on myself apparantly. And I have a vastly ‘superior’ look.” Aunt Maude apparently delighted in these lectures (a few months later, Bishop wrote, “Auntie ‘talked’ to me and said I was becoming as ‘cold as a fish’”). The earliest letters to her new friend had begun with “Dear Louise,” then “Dearest Louise,” but within months became “Dearest of all dear Kindred Spirits,” “Louise—dearest,” and “Dearest, dearest.” Later letters were slightly less effusive in address, but not in feeling.
Bishop’s Uncle Jack was a shrewder uncle than he was a businessman. When he tried to register her at Walnut Hill in 1926, he had written on the application that she was a “lonely little girl.” That loneliness drove Bishop to pathetic—or merely droll— fantasies; in Louise she finally had someone to entertain. In Nova Scotia again for the Christmas holidays of 1925, she invented an imaginary family for herself:
I have made some lovely friends in my new home, a little mussy old library, a dear little brook almost beside my house, a delightful family of eight pine trees and best of all, the cliff. The Cliff is a real one, very high, and just a little beyond the brook. It gives one an awfully farseeing feeling to stand there and look way off at the islands and lighthouses and little ships.
The heartbreaking scene in “Sestina,” first published in The New Yorker three decades later, seems an echo of that forlorn Nova Scotia holiday:
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.
The child who felt she was a guest everywhere had to draw her own houses, or make them up. (The poem ends, “The child draws another inscrutable house.”) Bishop closed the letter, “Please write to me though as I am so awfully lonely.”
Apart from camp, Nova Scotia remained Bishop’s only retreat, and even that was not always welcoming. (It’s a sign of her alienation from her Massachusetts relatives that in the Vassar yearbook of 1934—of which Bishop was the editor—she listed her home as Great Village, Nova Scotia.) In an undated letter, probably written about 1927, she wrote in her characteristic tone of burlesque misery:
I have been absolutely alone and I have read and walked and played the piano and shaved my grandfather, who is blind, and fixed his rum and hot water, and shivered all night for fear of the ghosts. I feel like a compound of Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Brontë, and the hysterical end of a Russian novel. I’m writing this by the light of an oil lamp in a big cold bedroom with sloping walls. Everyone else has gone to bed,—my grandmother sighs, the puppy whom the house- keeper takes to bed with her, I verily believe, squeals; and I chew spruce gum.
Almost from the start of these letters, however, Bishop had a plan:
Louise—is it right for a young woman to trail off to the ends of the earth—Norway—India—alone? and live in strange places and do strange things—or two young women [—] you come with me. … Lets, and then retire to Irland and raise bees—and live by the ocean in a stone cottage—and write poetry for a living. Oh!! will you!
This fantasy of a life together, a life anywhere that was elsewhere (preferably a Romantic elsewhere), became a constant: “Oh Louise come with me! And then we’ll have the white cottage—don’t you think Ireland’s a nice place?—and—a sailboat. And we’ll do all sorts of crazy—delightful—things—We live but once And I’m going to live!”
For years Ireland continued as a potential destination, but Cape Cod and the South Seas also served her dream itinerary: “Let’s live on a South Sea island like Stevenson, Louise!” Bishop wrote in 1926. “One can live entirely on cocoanuts.” Months later, she elaborated this dream of escape:
But someday—this is true—I’m going to live in Tahti [Tahiti] or one of those islands—with a piano and stacks of books. … So you must come with me and bring the Irish harp and we’ll play together—not just music. Wouldn’t you like to live on a South Sea Island—and forget calendars, and church, and subways, and doctors, and Logarithms?
And once more, the year after:
There is an article in this month’s Atlantic, Louise, about a man who lives on a little South Sea Island. We simply must—we could get a job as traders for some steamship company, I know, and then we could live in a grass-roofed hut with palm trees and sun on top and the ocean all around and write and read and dream and write some more. … I’m going to be a quohog fisherman and a truck-driver and a farmer; and we’re going to live in the South Seas.
More than forty years later, in one of her most moving poems, “Crusoe in Eng- land,” Bishop at last found a place for that old dream of the South Seas. She gave it back to Defoe.
Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it
another minute longer, Friday came.
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
If only he had been a woman!
One would be tempted to dismiss as mere daydreams Bishop’s imagined homes, had she not spent much of her adult life abroad, setting up house in Brazil with her lover Lota de Macedo Soares—three houses, really, or four, because apart from the penthouse apartment they shared in Rio they had an isolated mountain home (where Bishop built a studio, just the inscrutable house a child without homes might design), and finally, as their relation grew strained, a house the poet bought for herself in the mining town of Ouro Prêto. She saw very early that she had to make a family, not just inherit one. Probably the spring before she went Vassar, Bishop had written Louise,
You really are my family, you know. I belong to you and I’ll do whatever you tell me—honestly. It’s a sort of fairy relationship—I suspect you will surprise me any minute and turn into a bird or lock me up in a small brown house until I behave.
“For C.W.B.”, one of the poems Bishop published in the Walnut Hill Blue Pencil, closes with the lines:
Let us live where the twilight lives after the dark,
In the deep, drowsy blue, let us make us a home.
Let us meet in the cool evening grass, with a stork
And a whistle of willow, played by a gnome.
Half-asleep, half-awake, we shall hear, we shall know
The soft “Miserere” the wood-swallow tolls.
We will wander away where wild raspberries grow
And eat them for tea from two lily-white bowls.
Earlier lines have a delightful Carrollian whimsy: “We will live upon wedding-cake frosted with sleet. / We will build us a house from two red tablecloths, / And wear scarlet mittens on both hands and feet” (in the next stanza, they will “dine upon honey and small shiny fish”).
Scholars have made various guesses about the identity of C.W.B. In the Library of America edition of Bishop’s work, Lloyd Schwartz states that it is Wallace Car- men Bowers, Bishop’s first cousin, while Brett Millier, in her biography, believes that it’s Bishop’s grandfather, William Brown Boomer—but they possess the wrong initials. The poem is so highly romantic and personal, it seems more likely that Bishop addressed it to someone deeply loved, someone with whom she wanted to steal away to a home apart.
Is it possible that the editors of the Blue Pencil mistranscribed Bishop’s handwriting? (W. H. Auden appeared in Oxford Poetry as W. H. Arden, and T. S. Eliot in an early issue of Poetry as T. R. Eliot.) Frani Blough was editor-in-chief that year, however, Bishop an assistant editor—and in any case the capital “L” and “C” in Bishop’s eighteen-year-old hand would have been almost impossible to confuse. Perhaps she wanted to conceal from Frani, who probably already knew Louise (Bishop’s letter to the older girl the previous fall suggests the possibility), the subject of a poem so intimate. Louise Bradley’s middle name was Wylie: L.W.B.
The dream of writing poetry was also part of Bishop’s domestic fantasy, for both girls had literary ambitions. Camp Chequesset aspired to be more than a nautical camp, encouraging the girls to write essays or nature notes, skits or plays, poems or whatever they fancied. One of the campers later remembered that Bishop composed a weekly log in verse for her crew. In the summer of 1925, the camp held a poetry contest. Bishop’s entry, printed that fall in the Camp Chequesset Log, is her first published poem.
The streets are tramped and muddy
With the feet of the hurrying crowd,
And over the tall, dark buildings
The smoke hangs like a cloud.
But the wind, as it blows through the foggy streets,
Has a taint of the tangy spray;
And the odor, though faint, seems to my heart,
To come straight from Wellfleet Bay.
I see the seagull dip and swoop,
Where the fisherman casts his net
And over the calm of the opal sea
The sun casts a golden fret.
I can hear the wind as it whispers by
And makes laughter amid the trees,
And the silvery echoes of Taps ring out
On the fragrant summer breeze.
And so through just a little breeze
That carried a tang from the sea,
My heart is set all alonging again,
For that dearest old camp C. C.
The poem is signed “Bishie,” as Bishop was known at Chequesset (until she started college, Bishop signed almost all her letters to Louise that way). The humdrum tick of meter and rubbed-over conventional thought, with dulled images straight from the shelf of adolescent verse, show no sign of the poet she would become. The poem received second prize. The first-prize winner had entered a poem about God and the moon and the stars.
Perhaps the occasion was at fault—Bishop may have tried to appeal to the taste of the judges. In an early letter to Louise (probably from 1926, when the poet was at North Shore—she mentions being placed in an advanced algebra class, but the handwriting and spelling seem more childish than in her Walnut Hill letters), she recorded her thoughts on a subject that roused her:
One Argument against “Higher Education”
I think I would not be so weak
If I knew more of books.
I would not mind your fingers then,
Nor yet your quiet looks.
My heart would quiet be within.
All beauty I could name.
But magic would be lost, I fear;
And you—not quite the same.
The fingers are presumable scolding fingers. Bishop had obviously been reading Emily Dickinson, having borrowed her meter, her rhyme scheme, the old-fashioned inversions (“would quiet be within,” “All beauty I could name”), and even the elided grammar after one of Dickinson’s characteristic dashes. More telling, Bishop has perfected the Amherst poet’s timid but slightly flirtatious voice (if there was ever a poet shyer than Dickinson, it was Elizabeth Bishop). In a letter to Anne Stevenson in 1964, the poet remarked, “I never really liked Emily Dickinson much, except a few nature poems, until that complete edition came out a few years ago. … This is snobbery—but I don’t like the humorless, Martha-Graham kind of person who does like Emily Dickinson.” Still, it’s hard to imagine where else Bishop could have found this manner. “Some more sophisticated girls” at camp, she recalled in an interview, already knew the poet in white. Dickinson began half-a-dozen poems with “I think.”
Bishop’s poem, scrawled in pencil on Vinal-approved camp-notebook paper while her family thought her asleep, is startlingly accomplished for a girl of fourteen or fifteen. At the end, the gain becomes a loss, knowledge estranging the speaker from someone she loves. That sense of cruel transformation, of books destroying the magic of things, is worthy of the modest poet from whom Bishop took inspiration. The thought might have been some comfort to a girl always at odds with school.
This is perhaps the first time in Bishop’s poetry where she captures a feeling, not too subtle to be caught, but subtle enough to be interesting when caught. She contributed other poems to the camp log, a 1927 banquet toast to the head skipper (“Where the blue sea slants up to touch the sky, / Held back by a thin finger of purple land, / Her eyes still dream”), and a 1928 Christmas toast to the camp that began:
In some still port to-night, the quiet dark,
Where water whispers on taut anchor lines,
Will feel a silent motion, and see signs
Of rigging on the sky, and idlers hark
To voices floating out across the night.
For a time, Chequesset held a small reunion in Boston just after Christmas, which Bishop had attended that year (this was another way the camp owners tried to promote camp spirit and encourage the girls to enroll once more—or, in camp slang, send in their passport for the next summer’s “cruise”). Written when Bishop was seventeen, almost two years before she entered Vassar, the toast shows a much stronger command of poetic image. However shopworn the scene and sentiment, those voices drift off hauntingly upon the waters, like tiny ships themselves.
There are perhaps other adolescent poems in camp logs that have not survived (Bishop may also have written a few of the anonymous poems and songs). The poems dashed off for camp look forward only in scattered lines to her later work, but these were occasional poems meant to serve no more than occasion. At seventeen, writing from Chequesset, she could make fun of her ambitions. “I’m quite drugged and doped and tied up like an ox,” she informed Louise, “with not a thought in my head except rage. … Just to prove to you that I can write beautiful poetry—here is my only brain-child in a month:
There was a young woman named Russle
Who wore an enormious bustle.
On a gay buggy ride
A snake dropped inside—
How Miss Russle’s bustle did hustle!”
“Russle” may be Bishop’s amused eye-rhyme or simply her bad spelling, which had nevertheless much improved since her first letters a few years before. But “enormious” is no mistake—it’s a clever way to meet the demands of the meter.
Bishop wanted more than a confidante—she wanted a literary critic. In the spring of 1926, when she was fifteen, she had enclosed two poems to Louise, including “To Algebra.” “I do hope you won’t mind my laying those burdens on you,” she wrote, “but remember, almost three years ago you told me I could. No one else knows of my ambitions and if they did would regard it as a huge joke. Please be very critical.” (The “almost three years” is confusing. Chequesset awarded Bishop “veteran” status in 1927, earned at the end of a camper’s fourth summer—her first year was therefore 1924, less than two years before the letter was written. Math was never her metier.)
That summer, while Bradley was preparing for her freshman year at Indiana University (now Indiana University, Bloomington), she sent Bishop a poem. In the reply addressed “Dear Kindred Spirit,” Bishop burst out in despair, “Your poem is lovely. … Oh Louise, Louise, you are a true poet—I never shall be one.” Bishop was still at camp, lodged in the Mary Louise. A mist had come in off the harbor one night and she had written a poem, “Mist Song,” again on the narrow camp-notebook paper (unlined now):
Over the austere flats,
Bending down the eel-grass
Flattening in silken shivers. …
Holding old boats with pale fingers
Trailing fragile grey garments.
The crude personification is all too reminiscent of Carl Sandburg’s “Fog,” but the barren flats and eel grass show that the younger poet was quietly observing her surroundings. Poetry promised an independence from all she disliked, a private world that could be altered and controlled—it was the more depressing that, to Bishop’s critical eye, she still wrote so poorly. She regretted writing the poem, but only because, she said, “I forgot & left my notebook out. Brownie [a fellow camper] investigated—not the mist one but some others—and when I came in she told me I was crazy—‘No rhyme—Bishie what do you write such stuff for?’”
The other campers were not the only ones who lacked a poetic soul:
Last night the moon was just a tiny bow—so delicate. … I wished over my right shoulder. You probably can guess my wish. And the sunset—and Cap. Bill talked about—foot habits—clean teeth! If it wasn’t for sailing—oh camp could be so beautiful.
You’d hardly know that a year later, at the final camp banquet in 1927, Bishop would receive, not just a Red Cross Life-Saving certificate and her name engraved on the veterans’ plaque, but the camp letters for excellence in sailing—or that almost forty years afterward she would recall that at Chequesset she “became passionately fond of sailing.” This perhaps made the more mortifying an incident in the summer of 1929, at the annual S.O.S reunion, which took place after the camp’s regular season closed. She had taken Louise out in one of the camp sailboats, the Kut Up, when a strong wind drove them toward shore. The mainsail caught on a saltwater apple tree and the boat capsized. The girls ended up wet and muddy.
Bishop desperately wanted to know the faults of her poems: “Oh Louise will you tell me what is wrong with them? Little things like rythm & the wrong words and if they are realy poetry after all. You are the only one that ever saw them.” (Bishop’s self-doubt continued a long while. In 1938, she wrote Marianne Moore, who supplanted Louise as Bishop’s main critic, about her poems, “I wish sometimes you would tell me quite frankly if you think there is any use—any real use—in my continuing with them.”) Though Bishop felt she could hardly write a letter with girls like the nosy Brownie around (“I fear I am crazy to even think of being a poet”), by the end of the summer of 1926 things had improved: “I did succeed in finding several people who could appreciate the moon without telling me all about it. But no one as perfect as you—you’ve spoilt me I fear.”
That fall, while Bishop was starting her second year of ninth grade, now at North Shore (“I am flunking in every subject but English comp—partly on purpose”), she wrote Louise, looking once more for the consolations of criticism: “Do you mind if I send you another piece of something meant to be poetry? I wish you would tell me all the bad points. I could never show it to any one else and I do want to know if I am improving.”
When you have a literary friend, at last you can share your enthusiasms—or squabble about them. At fourteen, Bishop was excited by little but her reading: “I have just made a wonderful discovery! Walt Whitman! … His poems make one feel like singing and shouting, I think.” Some months after, she sneered at a fellow student who thought Tennyson marvelous. “He is all right but a little sugary,” Bishop remarked drily. Shelley was different:
I am reading everything about him that I can and his ideas on politics etc. just fit mine. I’m going to be a socialist—a Bolshevist perhaps—It seems such a shame to let hair like mine go to waste. … But Shelley—oh Louise—I’m sure I’ll never be able to write—anything—his poems make me feel half like an angle worm and half like a god.
Bishop was by then barely sixteen—and loathed her frizzy hair (she’d written the previous year, “I comb it straight back now and look something like a lady Pa- derewski in a very bad temper”). We get little sense in the letters of Louise’s tastes, whether contrary or compatible (“Do you like Edna St. Vincent Millay?” Bishop wrote her. “I pray so”), but the poet so rarely confessed pleasure in anything that her solace in reading is the more affecting. As she recalled her childhood, “I lay around wheezing and reading for years.” Yet even reading could go from delight to damnation, if the books were required:
Do you like George Eliot? I could stand her when I was in a very quiet mood but I have been receiving a lecture on her value every day for a week, now, in English and I fear that I can never stand her again.
Bishop continued with remarks about Henry James (“He analyzes everything ter- ribly but it makes me think awfully hard and I like to feel my brain work—along that line”) and Carlyle (“I like his idea of combining absolute idiocy with the truth—just in the right porportions”).
Louise Bradley was having a wretchedly unhappy freshman year at Indiana. She transferred to Radcliffe the following fall, and toward the end of the school year Bishop sent a group of poems from Walnut Hill, where she was then a sophomore.
Thank you for saying such nice things about those filthy sonnets. … But oh Louise—they’re no good. I struggle so hard to get out such terrible things and then they’re never what’s in me, after all! And I can’t do a thing decently except iambic pentameter! … At least you’re not “naive”—that’s what one of the teachers at school said I was!
Two of these poems, the more conventional (one begins “I am in need of music that would flow / Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips”) were published that June in the Walnut Hill Blue Pencil, of which Bishop and Frani Blough were assistant editors. The unpublished poems, however, are stranger and slightly terrifying.
And then the great gate softly slipped ajar
And I was safe within, where lilies blow
And where, upon the dim, blue hills afar,
Archangels and the Saints troop to and fro
With wondrous words and silver-folded wings.
Trembling and small, I crept beside the pool
Where God’s face lies reflected, and where sings
Forever the white stream of Life. Poor fool!
For I but dipped my fingers in the Light—
Only my finger-tips!—When I heard calls
And followed those who beat upon the walls
And fled from out the Day into the Night.
The fire in my fingers will not cease.
My restless hands will never give me peace.
This suffers from the plaster-cast imagery and period diction, the period being 1850 (“the dim, blue hills afar,” the “wondrous words and silver-folded wings”); yet the boldness of beginning five lines with “And,” the vision of religion denied (Bishop never fully shared the Baptist faith of her mother’s parents, though at Saugus she had joined a church choir), and the disturbing emotion of the final couplet displays her gathering maturity. Bishop had turned seventeen that February.
The untitled second poem, the only one in the group not a sonnet, delights in its showy technical demands.
The world will creep away and leave me there
When I have heard
Once more that easily forgotten word
From olden fields and dim familiar air
Moved delicately by a bird,
Or where my guardian Angel’s wings have lately stirred.
Centuries or more I may turn back the pages
That now defeat me
To where those wings entreat me.
Where twilit years unheeded, little ages
Half lost, will gently greet me.
And in the rain my guardian Angel waits to meet me.
The complicated rhyme scheme and varying line length, as well as the theme, suggest that this uses a bold variation on the stanza in George Herbert’s “Affliction (IV)”—the poem that years later provided a phrase for “Wading at Wellfleet.”
Whatever Bishop loses in the occasional whiff of the Victorian parlor, she more than gains back in the “dim familiar air” stirred to life by the angel’s passing wings, and in the solace, the troubled solace, of death foreshadowed. (The “dim familiar air” is a quiet phrase that bristles.) Drawing out the final line—the alexandrine much longer than the three-beat line preceding—increases the tension of that long-awaited meeting. The poem ends not quite resolved, a highflown Metaphysical turn drenched in the humid melancholy and feminine rhymes of Edwin Arlington Robinson. Those feminine rhymes on “me” are like tolling bells, the dying fall of “entreat me” and “defeat me” giving way to the notes of hope in “greet me” and “meet me.”
This is Bishop’s one religiose poem; yet “Affliction (IV),” whose speaker wants to die to reach his beloved (in Herbert’s case, the Lord) may have given Bishop more than the stanza. Perhaps the guardian angel was Louise—her intellectual and emotional guardian, the woman she longed to meet in a Paradise of books in Ireland, or Cape Cod, or the South Seas. In Metaphysical poems, religious passion and romantic love can be metaphorically identical. In the same 1928 letter, Bishop remarked,
I’ve given up trying to find people who suit me. You were my only success! School is filled with dull fools and I’m considered a big freak there but I have some friends—mostly because I like their looks or the way they talk.
When Bishop wrote from camp the month after, she was suffering the bane of all writers: “I writhe and nothing comes—not an idea—I have nothing in my head but a sort of battle of the ants. And I have an unpleasant conviction that I never shall write again—not that I ever did in the way I would.”
Bishop’s final summer at Chequesset, there was a famous poet in camp, the now forgotten Hilda Conkling, who had published three books before she was fifteen, the first with a foreword by Amy Lowell. The child-poet’s brief career was over by the time she came to Wellfleet. Bishop limited herself to a single remark: “She is a pudding sort of person who lisps and reads Kathleen Norris all the time.” (A popular romance novelist of the day, Norris was married to the brother of Frank Norris.)
There are no letters from Louise Bradley in the Bishop archive at Vassar, but one from February 1934 can be found amid Bishop’s letters at Indiana, one Louise apparently never finished, though she started it twice. Bishop was a senior at Vassar by then, and her letter a month later, scolding Louise for failing to write, suggests that the unfinished letter was also unsent. It reveals more than the sort of criticism Louise offered. Bishop must have enclosed some poems.
I like all your sonnets very much. Will you send me more? I am not always sure that I understand these completely; sometimes they seem to flash perfectly clear for an instant, but I think that one needs to read a great deal of anyone’s work to appreciate it fully. Your poetry is strangely rich; I suppose that the satisfaction and dissatisfaction it leaves me with is one proof of its authenticity. I wish that I were sure enough of myself to say something very discerning about them, but I am perfectly sure of you, which is more important.
Among the letters at Indiana are two loose sheets with typed copies of “Some Dreams They Forgot” and “The Map.” These are perhaps the poems Bishop sent— though only the first is a sonnet, the latter, because it is twenty-eight lines, might have seemed a double sonnet. They are of the right date.
Bishop also enclosed a story, apparently unsigned, that has vanished. Louise responded:
The story, which I am sure you wrote, though you didn’t say so, is very clever. Darling, I wish that death didn’t bother you so much: you’re so much alive and have so much to do. Possibly it is better to write about it, work it through, you may know. It is not the value of your writing which concerns me; perhaps I have no right to speak of it, but your happiness matters so much to me.
Bishop may often have felt such morbid thoughts. In 1928, the fall of her junior year at Walnut Hill, she had written Louise, “Death is the rotten core of everything I guess—Oh tell me it’s all right—tell me you love me, Louise,—I don’t know what to do.” And, probably the next fall, she wrote, “You know, Louise, I think I want to die. Perhaps it’s an awfully young thought—but I’m all out of time and place in this world and I’m not made to be happy. (Ah me!)”
Was Bishop in love with Louise Bradley? Of course. Partly it was her looks— if we can’t see them now, that doesn’t mean they were invisible to Bishop. While others at camp were watching nature, she was watching them:
Happy [another camper]. … looks like a myth and a Valentine and a faery tale. … Don’t you like people’s looks? I do—excepting that they frighten me. Why does everything agreeable frighten me so? I’m a fool, I guess—but no one ever knows how terrible lamp light at vespers is—or people in swimming. … Things are troubling me here this year. I’m not grown up enough to stop laughing but I am grown up enough to wonder why I do it, and sometimes I want to kick them all into the bay and let the wind blow things clean and sometimes I want to hold on to someone’s finger. Well—this is all very confused and unpleasant.
This was written the summer Bishop was seventeen, bewildered by her response to trivial things like lamplight. However nervous her laughter, her desires were overwhelming: “There is one beautiful girl here—only one, and I look at her. … The beautiful girl looks so nice on her knees with a rosary.” Bishop had gone to the Catholic church perhaps in part to see her lovely classmate. This is longing without knowing what the longing means. The letter is undated, but was probably written in Bishop’s junior year at Walnut Hill.
Chequesset had trained Bishop to look at things intently, almost religiously. However much she stared wistfully (or hungrily) at others, it was Louise whose looks possessed her: “More than any beautiful stranger, I want to watch you and I want to see your rather rippled nose and hear you laugh.” Whenever the two of them met—and it was far more rarely than Bishop pined for—the younger girl was tongue-tied. After Louise had given her a ride to Walnut Hill, Bishop admitted seeming “miles and miles away”: “This isn’t saying anything—anyway I rather doubt if we could ever say anything. I guess I love you too damned much to talk to you.” In another letter: “If you were here with me I’d be dumb, though, and just look at you and watch the corners of your mouth—I do like the way they move—like little wings.” When Bishop saw her own face in the mirror, however, it was with irritation and disappointment—her hair was so infamous, in the Walnut Hill class poem she was referred to as “Bishop of the barbarous hair.”
Bishop was unnerved by feelings she little understood and felt no power to control. There’s a poignancy, if also a hint of panic, in her declarations of love to Louise, at first merely in her closings, as if she were kissing the letter shut (“With ever so much love,” “With lots and lots of love,” and, before long, “With love and more love” and “I love you more than anyone in the world”). She ends one letter in the fall of 1926 with what seems like shocked recognition: “I love you so much that my throat aches when I think of it.” A couple of years later, she says simply, “Oh I want you.”
It’s easy to forget how confusing adolescent homosexuality would have been in 1925—it’s confusing now, and in ways different from adolescent heterosexuality. Bishop struggled to figure out who she was, but even as an adult she wasn’t wholly sure. She often dreamed of Louise, relating the dreams with a sort of detached fascination, as if they were unruly poems her unconscious had called forth (such dreams lost their innocence after Freud, both in the telling and in the having, but Bishop seems happily pre-Freudian).
I had a very strange dream about you the other night. You and another girl and I were walking about in a very rainy country atmosphere, looking for a Ligget[t] drugstore. We found a beautiful antique inn, all red brick, but with an immense Lig[g]ett sign on front and went in. The front room was very, very small and crowded with bottles and a tan marble soda fountain and a young man in a white jacket and oily black hair. We sat on wire chairs around a little table and ate great dishes of bright orange sherbet. But the funniest thing of all was the way you and the girl were dressed. She had on a gown like those the Wellesley seniors wear, only bright blue, with a net and herringbone collar about the gills and an immense mortar-board on top; and you wore a complete sort of suffraget costume in an awful pea green color—you know, tweed and very “mannish!” with a nice hard collar and striped necktie and a terrible fedora on your yellow hair. … I shudder!
Some recipients of such a letter might have been slightly horrified, yet there’s no sign Louise was troubled by Bishop’s intense feelings.
The poet’s curious sensitivity to people’s clothes is also evident in the dream she reported from Vassar her freshman year.
Last night I dreamed about you. … It was a very cold, dark blue winter night and I was walking along a country road. It was terribly cold. I was walking fast but I didn’t know where I was going. Suddenly you came up from behind me on the right. You were dressed in a long blue coat—very Russian—and a little grey astrakhan cap, with your hair all curling around the edges. You kept pulling my arm and saying “There’s the house.” I wouldn’t look for a long time. Then I did and away off in the sky, it seemed, I could see a little square lighted window pane. You were astonishingly beautiful.
Bishop’s yearning for a life apart, a life with Louise, represented somewhere deep in the imagination the rescue the dream embodies within a world of terrifying cold. She kept a picture of Louise on her bureau at home in Revere, but apparently took it with her when traveling—on an overnight visit, such devotion made another girl jealous.
Bishop was not the least shy about her passion for her kindred spirit—perhaps the risk entertained and the pleasure derived were those of a girl who had never felt that sort of love. Her first love was one rarely visited on people, at least people from happy families.
I never could like anyone the way you know I like you. And that sounds awful. … Why, what else is there besides the fact (what an awful word for it) that I love you? It seems so clear to me when I love a person—but then I’m crazy, I know. … Oh Louise—my heart is sick and I need you so.
Though undated, this letter seems to come from Bishop’s later years at Walnut Hill. Since Louise’s correspondence has been lost, it’s not entirely certain how far she returned these affections. For Bishop to say at fifteen, “Oh I’m so thankful I found you—I can stand almost everything because I know that you would feel the same way about it,” might seem a girlish crush. To continue to say the same things to the same young woman at eighteen or nineteen, things so easy to desire and so difficult to need, suggests that her love had been reciprocated, not merely tolerated.
The one letter of Louise’s we have was meant as a birthday greeting and, more importantly, a Valentine’s Day card (Bishop’s birthday was February 8):
Not being able to decide among the Western Union Valentine sentiments, I shall write you a birthday letter instead. Wouldn’t you like to receive (by uniformed messenger) “At miles between us we can laugh, our hearts entwined by telegraph”, or “To my Valentine: you’ve put my heart in such a flutter, I wire the love my lips would utter”. The first has a slight flavor of Donne, I think, so you might prefer it. Of course I might compose one myself to go with a letter, as “Like the horse who made this postage glue, I’d gladly give my life for you.”
The casual intimacy here—the leap from Western Union’s inadequacies as a Cupid to thought of John Donne as a copy writer—displays the bewitching charm of Louise Bradley. She continued by transcribing an absurd ad for a fruit stand. Her brisk, confident intelligence and the joking familiarity of her valentine doggerel have a thrilling immediacy compared to Bishop’s awkwardness in matters of the heart. How could the poet not fall in love with the girl who could write, “I’m making a wonderful collection of Americana for posterity. How, for instance, would you like ice cream moulded into a sitting hen or kissing doves?”
What sort of advice did Louise give? Mostly, it seems, reassurance and encouragement. We can infer something from a few of Bishop’s letters, one probably written during her last semester at Walnut Hill:
You make such beautiful remarks about LIFE, all capitals, that you almost fool me, dear Louise. You are the only person I’d ever take it from, you know—and I enjoy it, too. But nothing can do me any good—I’m evil, hopeless, stupid and mediocre and God knows thats the truth.
And again, when Bishop was about to start her sophomore year at Vassar:
I wish I could write letters like that. … If you will only do it again—keep it up at intervals during the winter months—ah—I’ll be a ΦBK in my junior year, a friend to all, and a really delightful character, besides.
Bishop often felt entirely alone. She wrote a few weeks after the Walnut Hill letter, “Did you ever think—no matter how many friends you have—no one can really reach you? I feel sometimes like a person on another planet—watching someone on this world.”
Bishop frequently used a receding perspective in her poems, as if turning bin- oculars the wrong way round, which might be called an economy of scale (some- times she also turned the binoculars the right way)—observing the conquistadores in “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” for instance (“the Christians, hard as nails, / tiny as nails, and glinting”) or the palm trees in “Little Exercise” (“all stuck in rows, suddenly revealed / as fistfuls of limp fish-skeletons”). The view from another planet perhaps prefigures her creation of that Kafkaesque figure in “The Man-Moth” (suggested by a newspaper misprint for “mammoth”), who, thinking the moon a silvery hole in the sky, climbs up the buildings to force his head through. Bishop’s letter reveals a psychological detachment that might be explained by a childhood so severely unhappy she suffered long periods of emotional numbness, a dissociation from which only her felt connection to Louise could save her.
Louise was never the steady correspondent Bishop begged for, and the poet’s letters are full of lover’s pleas and mock threats (“I tried to forget you all year—but it was rather impossible when I didn’t even have strength of mind enough to take your picture from my bureau”). From the summer after North Shore:
Won’t you send me a postcard with only “Louise” on the back—or perhaps “With, love, Louise,” just so I know you haven’t forgotten me. I think of you so much.
From Walnut Hill:
I know if I write to you or think about you for very long I shall begin to get mad— yes, mad, my friend—and want to throw things at you and pull your nice hair.
And from Vassar, a few months before Bishop graduated: “I can never quite decide, in the period of your silences, whether it’s just because you’re busy or whether my effusiveness has disgusted you.”
Their infrequent meetings weren’t always satisfactory. When they saw each other in Boston at Christmas 1926, it was the first time since camp the summer a year before. Bishop was taken aback. She recognized, perhaps for the first time, the disparity in their ages:
You have changed, after all, Louise, but I didn’t realize it till I came home and looked at your picture. You have changed and I am still a child, a child who wears woolen stockings and thinks so much that her neck aches.
Despite Bishop’s fear that the older girl was merely indulging her (“I sometimes have a horrible feeling that you take a motherly interest in me”), despite the uneasy meetings and laggardly correspondence, Louise Bradley remained Bishop’s intimate confidante. Until the poet graduated from college, Louise was perhaps the only person who knew the depths of the poet’s misery, or the depths of her love. Only in the poet’s last years at Vassar did her feelings grow more measured than those of the fifteen-year-old in the ninth grade, when Louise was having that awful freshman year at Indiana:
As if I could ever be disgusted with you! Oh Louise, what can I do for you? I can just imagine what it all is like. Oh Why, why, why, is the world this way? If it wasn’t for you, one person who understands—I could jump off the bridge. Don’t go back there—ever. I can not write anything comforting—but it breaks my heart to have you unhappy.
It is possible to read too much into schoolgirl crushes, even when they have long graduated to passion. Easy to read too much, and easier to read too little. What should we make of Bishop’s remark, after she had come into possession of Louise’s silk tie, left behind at camp (“I will send it to you but I would like to keep it to feel. It feels exactly like you”)? Should we infer anything when Bishop writes, “I want to hold on to someone’s finger”? There is no convincing sign of physical intimacy—it’s not even clear how much sexual experience Bishop enjoyed before graduating from college. Love is hard enough, no matter feelings not just unnamed but unnameable to the adolescent who suffers them or takes solace in them. At Walnut Hill, Bishop was suspected of an romantic friendship with another girl, Barbara Chesney, though Chesney denied it.
Perhaps her homosexual longings were obscure even to Bishop. She dated at least two men in college, one of whom, Richard Seaver, proposed. The couple made trips alone, spending nights together at inns on Nantucket and Cuttyhunk at a time when that would have been a scandal. Bishop turned him down, or at least made clear her lack of interest. Some months later, he shot himself, but not before sending her a postcard that read, “Go to hell, Elizabeth.” In the late sixties, Bishop told Charlee Wilbur, Richard Wilbur’s wife, “I did all the wrong things in my life. … I should have married. And what I miss more than anything on earth is not having a child.” Despite the misdirections of her life, Bishop’s feelings for Louise seem the earliest hint of her adult affections. It was certainly a love of uncommon intensity.
What trace remains of Camp Chequesset in Bishop’s work? There are poems she could have written had she never gone to camp, though perhaps not in the same way. Bishop had grown up in a Nova Scotia fishing village, and her father’s family owned a house in Harwich Port on the lower Cape. She lived near the sea most of her life—in Great Village, in Revere, in New York, in Key West, and then in Rio, where her apartment with Lota overlooked Copacabana Beach. Bishop’s last home was a condo at Lewis Wharf on Boston Harbor. Even her fantasies of keeping house with Louise always kept the sea somewhere near. The summers at Camp Chequesset were part of that long life by the Atlantic—after her camp days were over, Bishop for some years returned to Wellfleet and the Cape.
Even if the idea of the nautical camp had not been her own, it became part of a seaward yearning already established. (She once said cryptically to her friend Barbara Chesney, “If anything ever happens to me, take me to the ocean.”) One of Bishop’s strongest memories of the Cape was of the night walk she had taken alone after her freshman year at Vassar. She started on the back shore at Nauset Light and walked along the sands the twenty miles or more to Provincetown, stopping to swim now and then. Bishop carried a “little tin lunch box containing a thermos bottle of black tea, a ham sandwich, a tooth brush & comb & a mouthorgan.”
“The Map,” written that last semester at Vassar or soon after, became the opening poem in her first book, North & South (1946).
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
—the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
It’s not entirely fanciful to see the lines as unconsciously charting a life for the traveler Bishop longed to be and eventually became. The year after she wrote the poem, she sailed to Europe for the first time, by Nazi freighter.
The sea washes ashore throughout North & South: in “The Imaginary Iceberg” (“We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship, / although it meant the end of travel”); in “Casabianca,” Bishop’s comic turn on Felicia Hemans’s old warhorse, once a recitation piece that bedeviled young students; in “Florida,” and “Seascape” and “Little Exercise” and “The Unbeliever” and “Large Bad Picture”:
And high above them, over the tall cliffs’
are scribbled hundreds of fine black birds
hanging in n’s in banks.
One can hear their crying, crying,
the only sound there is
except for the occasional sighing
as a large aquatic animal breathes.
This was among the earliest poems by Bishop to appear in The New Yorker. Before accepting it, Harold Ross, the editor of the magazine, wanted to know which large aquatic animal she had in mind, hoping she would name it. Bishop politely fended off the query (she replied that the animal was imaginary), but the poet might have seen a stray whale on those camp cruises, or perhaps recalled the school of 105 blackfish, as Cape Codders called pilot whales, that had beached down the bay at East Brewster in 1925. The campers had made a special trip to see them.
Bishop’s command of sailing gear and nautical slang probably owes something to those months spent on the water. However she railed about them (recall her painful cry, “If it wasn’t for sailing—oh camp could be so beautiful”), her familiarity must have been acquired somewhere. Bishop’s memories of sailing rise into her description of the ships in “Large Bad Picture” (“square-rigged, sails furled, motionless, / their spars like burnt match-sticks”) or the rented boat in “The Fish”:
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 camp logs revel in the sailor’s vernacular, as if it were shared only by the initiated (“The canvass is spread, and you can hear the creak of the windlass as it starts to wind in the cables”). The passage from “The Fish” lacks the sentiment but supplies the poetic conviction missing from the lackluster lines in her 1928 Christmas toast (“the quiet dark, / Where water whispers on taut anchor lines, / Will feel a silent motion, and see signs / Of rigging on the sky”).
In Florida, Bishop became a devoted fisherman. Though “The Fish” was written after she caught a sixty-pound amberjack off Key West over the Christmas holidays of 1936, her introduction to fishing probably came at camp. Fishing expeditions, though not always successful ones, are mentioned in the logs from time to time— campers caught perch in one of Wellfleet’s freshwater ponds, and one summer the veterans were treated to a deep-sea fishing trip. The last of Bishop’s Camp Chequesset Log poems was titled “The Fisherman”:
“The dripping deck beneath him reels,
The flooded scuppers spout the brine.
He heeds them not, he only feels
The tugging of a tightened line.”
A fisherman without a fish,
A silent man, and melancholy,—
But he is all that we could wish,
Let us arise and drink to Jolly.
Laurence “Jolly” Rogers, who supervised the sailing and swimming at Chequesset, had something of a reputation with hook and line. The mild raillery of this toast precedes “The Fish” by most of a decade—but there already is the language of the sea, and there the fisherman without his fish.
Bishop’s whimsical inspection of animals in “The Fish,” “The Armadillo,” “Roosters,” “Sandpiper,” “Pink Dog,” and others is probably due more to the influence of Marianne Moore than to the didactic methods of William Vinal. Still, the immersion in nature at Chequesset, as well as the requirement that campers write in the natural language of observation, not the fossilated prose of a zoology textbook, perhaps prepared Bishop to be influenced. The habits formed at Chequesset, which may have begun to teach her how to observe animals through the microscope of the poetic, perhaps survive in the letter she wrote Marianne Moore some ten years after that last camp summer,
I should like to let myself go, Marianne, and give you masses and masses of Nature Description. … The spring runs into another square hole cut in the rock with a huge stone crock, brown and white, standing in it, to keep our milk and butter, etc., in. In this spring lives a bright pink salamander about six inches long, with black freckles. Red brought him up to the house one night and he crawled around on the table under the oil lamp—he is very clumsy. Then there are skinks that occasionally crawl down my bedroom wall. They are all black except for four white stripes down the back, and the tail is a brilliant iridescent purple-blue—like lightning.
Bishop once wrote Moore, “You and I see what others carelessly overlook.”
Like the other senses, the poet’s eye has to be trained—and even trained it has to find a language of expression. Perhaps more than any serious poet of the last century, Bishop used the pathetic fallacy without succumbing to its sentimental touch. Since this became one of the most sophisticated psychologies of her style, it’s surprising to find it in her letters at fourteen. She wrote Louise from Nova Scotia,
Great Village is a quaint little town something like Wellfleet. We live in a homely old white house that sticks its little snub nose directly into the middle of the village square. It is an inquisitive house.
And, earlier in the same letter: “Today has a very unsetteled disposition,—hasn’t quite made up its mind whether to laugh or cry. I wish it would hurry up and do one or the other.” Though it seems to reveal an innocent eye, the later faux-naïf manner was not a cynical reversion to childhood, merely a continuation of her writing in the ninth grade. Perhaps this was just the sort of colorful writing Vinal encouraged—it’s no great leap to her lines in “Sestina” (“the teakettle’s small hard tears / dance like mad on the hot black stove”) or “Twelfth Morning; or What You Will” (“the sandpipers’ / heart-broken cries”) or “The Bight” (“The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in / with the obliging air of retrievers”).
Such stray signs of her camp summers illustrate no more than tendencies, leaving a vague trail through Bishop’s poems—like the overgrown King’s Highway the Chequesset girls were expected to follow through the dunes of Cape Cod. The traces are as faint as the trail from a phrase in a scolding letter to Louise in 1931 (“I trust … you’ll tell me what you’re doing and where you’re going”) to the poem where it lodges years after, “Letter to N.Y.” dedicated to another Louise, Louise Crane— “nevertheless I’d like to know / what you are doing and where you are going.”
Two of Bishop’s poems, however, reveal much closer ties to Camp Chequesset. When she returned to Wellfleet in later years, she sometimes rented a cottage near the camp. In the summer of 1933, she pleaded with Louise to visit. “Wading at Wellfleet” was probably begun, if not then, then not too many months or years after.
In one of the Assyrian wars
a chariot first saw the light
that bore sharp blades around its wheels.
That chariot from Assyria
went rolling down mechanically
to take the warriors by the heels.
A thousand warriors in the sea
could not consider such a war
as that the sea itself contrives
but hasn’t put in action yet.
This morning’s glitterings reveal
the sea is “all a case of knives.”
Lying so close, they catch the sun,
the spokes directed at the shin.
The chariot front is blue and great.
The war rests wholly with the waves:
they try revolving, but the wheels
give way; they will not bear the weight.
This artificial danger, as if the wader might be mown down at the shins by the scythes of the chariot, recalls the real perils of the sea—the summer hurricanes and winter nor’easters, the rocky coasts with their warning lighthouses, the fierce undertow that can drag a casual bather to his death.
The source of an allusion is sometimes less interesting than the context. “All a case of knives” is a quotation from George Herbert, whose poetry Bishop had chanced on in that used bookshop in Provincetown. In “Affliction (IV),” the phrase is embedded in “My thoughts are all a case of knives, / Wounding my heart.” The speaker is a “thing forgot, / Once a poor creature, now a wonder, / A wonder tortured in the space / Betwixt this world and that of grace.” Of those scapel-like thoughts, the speaker laments, “Nothing their fury can control, / While they do wound and pink my soul” (“pink” means to stab). Though the poem is addressed to the Lord, it is not outlandish to suppose that “Wading at Wellfleet” might have had a different passion in mind, thoughts of a different wound to the heart, thrown up by the sharp glitter of the sea. Might have had, since “Affliction (IV)” was probably the model for Bishop’s accomplished high-school poem about her guardian angel.
In the final image, the breaking waves try to revolve, but time after time collapse, crushed by their own weight, as in Exodus 14:25 (“And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily”). The sea’s terrible intention is never fulfilled, overcome by the weight of the water, or is that the weight of such thoughts? This is a more troubling poem than has generally been realized—if the speaker identifies with the sea, the harm is directed toward others, or even toward herself. The violence is a plan the sea “hasn’t put in action yet”—but there could come times when the chariot was not defeated.
Images that seem fanciful or decorative in Bishop might sometimes be called a subjective correlative, revealing not the object but the shaping form of the viewer’s eye, and therefore the emotion concealed by observation. The defeated war machine recalls the legend of King Canute, who ordered the tide to halt, or Xerxes, who had the Hellespont whipped. Perhaps Bishop had read of the fall of Nineveh and the destruction of the Assyrian empire, but for many summers she had seen the waves at Wellfleet, where after a storm the violent waves along the back shore would have been worthy of the slashing wheels of the Assyrian chariot. The tone is matter of fact, but beneath lies the threat of the sea, ordinary but dangerous. Though suffused with the free-floating anxiety often present in Bishop’s work, the poem never attaches the futility of the waves to failed love or thwarted desire—yet an allusion can be what says nothing while telling everything.
The Chequesset Log of fall 1927 mentions that the previous summer Cap’n Bill, then no longer director of the camp, had taken the campers to “see the Hermit.” This meeting probably provided the germ of “Chemin de Fer”:
Alone on the railroad track
I walked with pounding heart.
The ties were too close together
or maybe too far apart.
The scenery was impoverished:
scrub-pine and oak; beyond
its mingled gray-green foliage
I saw the little pond
where the dirty hermit lives,
lie like an old tear
holding onto its injuries
lucidly year after year.
The hermit shot off his shot-gun
and the tree by his cabin shook.
Over the pond went a ripple.
The pet hen went chook-chook.
“Love should be put into action!”
screamed the old hermit.
Across the pond an echo
tried and tried to confirm it.
The typically ambivalent ending, its large explosion and empty consequence, the highminded, impractical (or merely desperate) philosophy unconfirmed in its own echo, displays the grace of belief frustrated in the world of practice, like the Christiani with ty Bishop often chafed at (she wrote at seventeen, “I’ve taken quite a Christian trend, lately—except when I go to church”). Part of the comic pleasure of the ending comes from the different ways the feminine rhyme is broken into syllables (FIRM it / HER mit)—even the rhyme is, in a sense, unconfirmed. The ending has an edge of sadness and futility, too, like “Wading at Wellfleet.” The saintlike sentiment (the hermit is a desert father—or a lunatic) is as difficult to confirm as a rumor.
A visit to the town hermit, as it happened, was one of Cap’n Bill’s favorite excur- sions, described in the 1921 article for Nature-Study Review:
Every bailiwick has its hermit. Ours is a grizzly sea-dog who has taken to land some two miles from the coast. He is a Thoreau-like individual reminding one considerably of that famous naturalist who walked the length of the Cape some three-quarters of a century ago. The present recluse has squatted on the site of his great grandsire’s claim and his tract reaches unto the shores of the same pond. From the cedar swamp in back he has lugged, dragged, and rolled in turn the logs for the framework of his hut. … Of the old days—naught remains to suggest ancestral fortitude or thrift but scraggly apple trees, decrepit, gnarled, and windblown, with a few belichened fence rails.
Vinal quotes from the field notebook of “Bumps” (the camp loved jolly nicknames), then the youngest girl in camp:
The lilac bushes and the fruit trees indicate the great age of the place. The Hermit has planted boughs on the north side of his corn to protect it from the cold. He also made a wheelbarrow with much patience and care. He has made a little bird house on the top of a stick driven into an old stump. … Back of his house he has made a chicken coop of pine boughs. He has placed boards on either side to weigh the boughs down and keep them together.
This is a good example of the writing at Chequesset. The “equipment” needed for the social call included a map, drawing paper, crayons, and an “eagerness to hear and understand a backwoods language,—a woodsy speech which has all but disappeared, and a desire to express the experience in writing and in sketch with an understanding heart.” The hermit’s name was Mr. Dyer. There is the pond and the chicken coop. What of the gun? In Vinal’s book Nature Guiding (1926), there is a picture of a Chequesset girl shooting the hermit’s gun, with the hermit standing alongside. “What greater wealth of material could one wish,” Vinal remarked, as if clairvoyant, “for a future school essay … or … the very joy of writing literature.”
The shotgun goes off in anger, or pain, or impotent rage. The hermit possesses the grand idea of love, but apparently is unable to do more than preach it (he’s a hermit, after all). One critic has connected the love to Bishop’s homosexuality, but it might derive more directly from a love time after time declared, echoed and re-echoed, but never consummated. The suggestions of violence or self-harm make this and “Wading at Wellfleet” much darker poems.
If the setting of “Chemin de Fer” was Cape Cod, the railroad would have been the old Cape Cod Railroad, which ran trains daily from South Station in Boston to Provincetown. Those railroad ties are slyly revealing—it’s not just the “pounding heart” that suggests the ties too close together or too far apart might also be ties of love or blood. The ambiguity lies buried just deeply enough to seem telling when you notice it, as if it hovered at the edge of the poet’s imagination, to be discovered belatedly, or not at all. The New Yorker disliked Bishop’s original title, “Fine Ex- amples,” which forced irony into the disparity between the grubby hermit and his Christlike philosophy. After some thought, she provided an alternative, the French for “railroad.”
Bishop and Louise remained loyal correspondents through Bishop’s years at Vassar. There was a flurry of letters in her senior year, after Louise had finally vis- ited her in Wellfleet. The letters petered out months after the poet graduated (by that last year at Vassar, according to her biographer, Bishop had become infatuated with her roommate, Margaret Miller). Then, after a gap of almost a year, Bishop wrote Louise apologetically from a fishing town in Brittany, the “heart and soul of the sardine industry.” Eight years passed before a Christmas note in 1943. The last letters were mailed in 1950, after the women had met briefly in New York while Bishop was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the ungainly title for what is now called the Poet Laureate.
Louise Bradley never married. At Radcliffe she was class historian and editor-in-chief of the Radcliffe Daily, graduating cum laude in English in 1930. She became Supervisor of Occupational Analysis at Raytheon, a manufacturer of rectifiers, electron tubes, and other early electronics, where after the war the microwave was invented. She lived in her childhood home in Arlington until she died in December 1979, two months after Bishop. It isn’t known if the poet visited during the years, at the end of her life, when she lived on Lewis Wharf in Boston, but there is no entry for Louise Bradley in Bishop’s address book.
Editor’s Note: The Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Bradley correspondence is printed courtesy of the Estate of Elizabeth Bishop and of the Wylie House Museum, a department of the Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, Indiana.