Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Mirrored Lives: Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Mirrored Lives: Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill

Article excerpt

  Life and the memory of it so compressed they turned into each
  other....
  --Elizabeth Bishop (Poems 177)

James Merrill admired the generation of poets that included Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell, but Bishop's poetry seemed to him the best model for a younger poet. He preferred Bishop's "lucid, intimate tone of voice" (Prose 155) to that of Lowell and Berryman, and the "human scale" (351) of her poetry to the "monumental" works of earlier modernists such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams. (1) Merrill wrote in his memoir A Different Person that Bishop was "someone my spirit could aspire to resemble" (141). Her poetry mirrored Merrill's own poetic efforts to explore his childhood, understand his sexuality, and cope with romantic losses. Bishop was famously the master of the "art of losing," and Merrill described his own poetry as "chronicles of love and loss." (2) The poet of The Changing Light at Sandover, with its spiritual revelations and supernatural protagonists, also saw in Bishop a contrasting poetic model: "there is no oracular amplification, she doesn't go about on stilts to make her vision wider" (Prose 53).

Although Merrill valued Bishop for her sanity and common sense, he knew these qualities emerged from a poet who was emotionally troubled and deeply unconventional. Merrill explored the complexities of Bishop's character in four poems. "The Victor Dog" (1972) was dedicated to her; the brief "Her Craft" (1977) was written in lieu of a requested essay about her poetry; "Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia" (1995) is Merrill's elegy to her; and an unpublished and untitled poem evidently written at the same time as "Overdue Pilgrimage" is, like the elegy, addressed directly to her. Beginning "Elizabeth, you should have / Seen me today," this last piece echoes the verse form and theme of personal crisis of Bishop's "In the Waiting Room." The four poems develop out of their close friendship from 1948 until Bishop's death in 1979. The story of their growing appreciation for each other's poetry helps us to appreciate the qualities they valued in a poem and the way Bishop influenced the development of Merrill's career.

Fifteen years her junior, Merrill met Bishop in 1948 at a poetry conference at Bard College, where he was teaching. He remembers seeing Bishop and Robert Lowell together: "Cal and Elizabeth (as I wouldn't have dared to call them at the time) were together at one of the parties, delightedly drinking each other in" (Prose 256). Merrill had been reading Bishop's North and South (1946) and was "just bowled over" by "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance" (Fountain and Braze 108). Soon after the Bard conference they met in New York for lunch and began a friendship based on the affinities Merrill notes in A Different Person: "Like her I had no graduate degree, didn't feel called upon to teach, preferred to New York's literary circus the camouflage of another culture" (141-42). As poets they both valued rhyme and formal structure, and both were strongly influenced by seventeenth-century English poetry. Poems such as Bishop's "The Weed" and Merrill's "Hourglass," for example, reveal George Herbert's influence on their early work. (3) Among modern poets, a major influence on both Bishop and Merrill was Wallace Stevens, the poet of changing light and perspectives. Another Bishop poem that impressed Merrill was "Exchanging Hats," which he saw in New World Writing, 1956. In its ingenious quatrains, the poem's aunts and uncles experiment with the "headgear of the other sex" as words such as "transvestite" and "anandrous" (Bishop, Poems 200) imply unconventional sexual identity. Merrill described it as "neatly rhymed, lighthearted" and revealing "depths so refreshing that I read it a second, a third, a tenth time" (Different Person 140). Merrill's own poetry at that time concealed any sign that his love poems concerned other men. …

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