Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Natural History and Epiphany: Elizabeth Bishop's Darwin Letter

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Natural History and Epiphany: Elizabeth Bishop's Darwin Letter

Article excerpt

Writing in his Autobiography about the joys of beetle collecting and, particularly, the pleasure of discovering a new species, Charles Darwin makes an interesting comparison:

     No poet ever felt more delighted at seeing his first poem published
     than I did at seeing, in Stephens' Illustrations of British
     Insects, the magic words, "captured by C. Darwin, Esq." (21)

Here Darwin compares the simplest of his accomplishments--the capture of a new beetle--to the publication of a poem. Taking my cue from this remark, I would like to compare the pattern underpinning Darwin's work to Elizabeth Bishop's characteristic process of epiphany. The idea is originally Bishop's and was first put forward as part of a correspondence between Bishop and Anne Stevenson that took place in the 1960s, while Stevenson was working on what was to be the first full-length study of Bishop's poetry. In a letter of 28 October 1963, Stevenson sent Bishop a working outline of the book, the second chapter of which was to deal with the relationship between Bishop and "the surrealists and the symbolists too," particularly "Klee and Ernst." Stevenson perceived in all three an interest in "hallucinatory and dream material" and a shared belief that "there is no split personality, but rather a sensitivity that extends equally into the subconscious and the conscious world." In her reply Bishop agrees about the lack of a "split" between the conscious and the unconscious but is less enthusiastic about surrealism. Instead, she changes the topic to Darwin:

     Yes, I agree with you. I think that's what I was trying to say in
     the speech above. There is no "split." Dreams, works of art (some),
     glimpses of the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life,
     unexpected moments of empathy (is it?), catch a peripheral vision
     of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems
     enormously important. I can't believe we are wholly irrational-and
     I do admire Darwin! But reading Darwin, one admires the beautiful
     and solid case being built up out of his endless heroic
     observations, almost unconscious or automatic--and then comes a
     sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels the
     strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eyes
     fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off
     into the unknown. What one seems to want in art, in experiencing
     it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-
     forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. (Letter 8-20 Jan. 1964;
     hereafter Jan. letter)

There is much to be said about this passage, but what I am interested in here is the somewhat surprising shift from surrealism to Darwin. Though Bishop flirted with surrealism in her youth, she later took pains to distance herself from it: "I [...] am not a surrealist" she wrote to her publisher with uncharacteristic firmness in 1946, worried about what might appear on the back of her first collection of poetry (One Art 135). And yet, confronted with Stevenson's attempt to link her to Ernst, whom she calls "a dreadful painter" (Jan. letter), Bishop, ever polite, does not correct Stevenson so much as simply change the subject. When Stevenson raises the question of surrealism and the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious, Bishop agrees, and then talks about Darwin.

The link here is Ernst's Histoire naturelle, a book that Bishop owned as a young woman, and which she mentions to Stevenson as one of the few of Ernst's works that she "liked" (Jan. letter). In a letter to Hallie Tompkins, written when she first got the book, she describes it as an attempt to "mak[e] fun of Darwin" (qtd. in Millier 89). But though the train of thought that leads Bishop from surrealism to Ernst's Histoire naturelle to Darwin is clear, the use to which she then puts Darwin is considerably more complicated. …

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