"Controlled Panic": Mastering the Terrors of Dissolution and Isolation in Elizabeth Bishop's Epiphanies

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"The concept of literary epiphany has received surprisingly little theoretical attention in recent years," writes Ashton Nichols. "Privileged moments of secular revelation have become a literary commonplace in poems and prose narratives, but only a handful of scholars have considered the wider implications of the technique derived from William Wordsworth's 'spots of time' and first called 'epiphany' by James Joyce" (Nichols 467; the very recent collection of essays edited by Tigges may be a harbinger of welcome change in this regard). This oversight may be an aftereffect of New Criticism, whose stress on "organic unity" made it seem heretical for the critic to study an epiphany apart from its context in the tightly unified work one hoped to find. The mysterious or nonrational effect produced by epiphanies may also have discouraged theorists from thinking of a given writer's epiphanic moments as a class of constructed objects amenable to systematic study. But if we have a multifarious depth psychology to help u s grasp the puzzling logic of dream constructions, we need a complementary epiphanology to reveal the less-than-obvious logic of epiphany patterns. Each epiphany maker establishes a uniquely individual recurrent pattern that correlates with a personal configuration of psychological concerns, fears, and desires. In creating epiphanies, as the example of Elizabeth Bishop testifies, one becomes most intensely who one is.

No attempt has yet been made to analyze the distinctive pattern of Bishop's powerful verse epiphanies. In two brief, overlapping essays, Sybil Estess finds certain of Bishop's lyrics epiphanic because they are "meditative," show rich "powers of association," offer descriptions in "minute detail," and are "tentative" while expressing the "spirit of wonder" ("Shelters" 53, 55, 59; "Toward the Interior" uses similar phrasing). [1] But these remarks barely begin to distinguish Bishop's epiphanies from her lyric utterances generally, much less to define what makes her epiphanies different from those of other poets. In the following analysis of the most complete and strongest epiphanies in the poetic work of Elizabeth Bishop, I will apply a method worked out in my Patterns of Epiphany (1997) and further tested in recent papers on Philip Larkin (1999) and J. D. Salinger (2000). Here, as in those studies, I begin by using three criteria to define a literary epiphany. (1) It is a moment that affects us as exceptionall y intense in feeling. (2) It is expansive in meaning, appearing to signify more than such a brief experience would have any right to mean. (3) And it is mysterious in effect because its intensity and expansiveness are unaccountable by any rational explanation in the writer's text. [2]

My technique for study of epiphany borrows from French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard a threefold focus on (1) elements, namely earth, water, air, fire--along with elementally related imagery such as rainbows; (2) motions--vertical or horizontal, rapid or gentle, sudden or gradual; and (3) shapes--often geometric, such as circles or spheres. My methodology differs from the techniques of close analysis used by New Critics and offers advantages for psychological analysis as well. New Critical study of imagery tended to ignore such components of the epiphanies because these components are semi-abstract, not obviously picturelike. In my method, the motion pattern is sought regardless of what moves, the geometric shape identified independently of what fills it, the element studied whatever the variety of its endless shapes or chaotic defiances of form. The semiabstract nature of these components of epiphanies may actually take us deeper than New Critical analysis into structures of an individual's mental functi oning. At the same time, however, the components of the patterns of epiphany that I study are far less generalized than, say, the images of cyclicity (lunar, diurnal, seasonal) systematized by Northrop Frye (158-62). …