Pound, Bishop and Prospero in Buzzards Bay

A Excerpt from “Sixteen Handshakes to Shakespeare: From Bishop to the Bard.”

Note: The following is the first chapter of a work-in-progress, “Sixteen Handshakes to Shakespeare: From Bishop to the Bard.” Proceeding backwards in time, it will consist of accounts of sixteen meetings over four centuries between literary figures, English and American, famous and obscure, all sharing an intense interest in the work and life of Shakespeare. The first chapter is devoted to Elizabeth Bishop and Ezra Pound.

Elizabeth Bishop writing at her desk in the Library’s Poetry Office, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, circa 1949–1950. Source: Library of Congress

When Elizabeth Bishop visited Robert Lowell in early May of 1948, he took her to see Ezra Pound, who had been incarcerated since late 1945 in St. Elizabeths Hospital, a government psychiatric facility in Washington, D.C. Lowell, then 31, was the most important and ambitious young poet in the country, having won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1946 — edging out Bishop’s first book, North & South — and named the following year as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (a title later changed to poet laureate). Bishop, 37, unmarried, unstable and still uncertain of her sexuality, had met Lowell a year earlier, and was smitten by this tall, rumpled Yankee who she found to be handsome in “an almost old-fashioned poetic way.” He was the first person she had ever met who really spoke with her about how to write poetry — “like exchanging recipes for making a cake,” as she put it. For the next thirty years they enjoyed a warm and complex, but not intimate, relationship.

As poet laureate, Lowell had an unofficial responsibility to visit Pound in the “bughouse,” as the elder poet called it. Both he and Bishop were in awe of Pound, the brilliant editor who had acted as midwife to The Waste Land, the masterpiece of his friend T. S. Eliot, who dedicated the poem to Pound as il miglior fabbro (the better craftsman). Pound had long been an innovative and generous supporter of many writers — William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Hilda Doolittle, Ernest Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, to name the most prominent — but he was also tendentiously opinionated and surpassingly narcissistic, and perhaps worse, at least in the opinion of a quartet of psychiatrists from St. Elizabeths, led by its superintendent, Dr. Winfred Overholser. They examined him to see if he was sufficiently sane to be tried for making treasonous, anti-Semitic broadcasts, over 300 of them from 1941-45, against the Allies on Italian government radio in Rome. In early 1946 Pound was declared by a federal court to be “a sensitive, eccentric, cynical person” now in “a paranoiac state of psychotic proportions which renders him unfit for trial,” and ordered confined to the derelict ward at St. Elizabeths.

He could not be released unless tried and acquitted, but could not be tried unless judged sane, and if found sane he could have been convicted and executed. Two other traitors who made broadcasts for the Axis were hanged in England a few weeks before Pound was judged non compos mentis. When Pound’s daughter Mary asked about getting her father released, a State Department official commented that “she was lucky he had not ended up in the electric chair.” Prudently, Pound went along with the diagnosis, admitting that he was of “unsound mind.” At times cogent, he could glissade into incoherence, for example, announcing after his arrest his plan to visit Tiflis where he could learn Georgian in order to discuss his economic theories with Stalin. He remained in St. Elizabeths for over 12 years. Over time, his situation became a cause célèbre with supporters and detractors engaging in heated public debate. The only thing his friends and foes could agree on was the statement of one supporter, Samuel Hynes: “It is only prudent that we Americans from time to time remind ourselves that one room at St. Elizabeths is a closet which contains a national skeleton.”

Bishop likely first encountered Pound in Harriet Monroe’s anthology The New Poetry (1923 edition), which she received as a gift at age 13. At Vassar, where she majored in English literature and took a number of music courses, she began to read the moderns, including Eliot and W. H. Auden. Later, she recalled that she knew the 1931 edition of Wallace Stevens’s collection, Harmonium, “almost by heart.” She took courses in Shakespeare, admiring the “beautiful, slightly sad lilt” of his sonnets, and the poets of the English renaissance, singling out George Herbert and Ben Jonson as inspirations. For many years, she carried an edition of Herbert’s The Temple when she traveled, and always listed him, along with Charles Baudelaire, as her favorite poets. Known, because of her aloofness, as “The Bishop,” she was named “Class Aesthete.” “We all knew with no doubt whatsoever that she was a genius,” said her college friend Frani Blough Muser.

Her interest in the moderns may have surged at the end of her junior year, when she was chosen to interview Eliot during his campus visit. There is no record of whether they discussed Pound, although she knew of his ties with Eliot. He first appears in her correspondence in 1935, the year after she graduated, when she wrote to Muser about Pound’s essays on Arnold Dolmetsch, the French craftsman who helped revive the use of Elizabethan instruments. Following Pound’s example, she ordered a new clavichord from Dolmetsch, and then went to Paris to take possession. She took lessons on it, spoke of it “with great tenderness,” and transported it with her during the following decades of travel to Brazil and elsewhere. Explaining her purchase, she quoted a line from Pound: “The further poetry departs from music, the more decadent it gets.” According to William Carlos Williams, Pound, although tone deaf, had “the most acute ear for metrical sequences, to the point of genius, that we have ever known.” Williams added that his college friend was also “the biggest damn fool and faker in the business.” Pound had gifts for exasperating his admirers, as Bishop was to learn.

In early 1948, Lowell, along with Williams, Eliot, Léonie Adams and several others had been appointed to a Library of Congress Committee to select the winner of a new annual poetry prize given by the Bollingen Foundation. Pound’s The Pisan Cantos was the controversial winner, leading Congress to disavow the prize, which went then to Yale University to be administered. These 11 cantos became the sixth book of his masterwork, The Cantos. They were begun in pencil on toilet paper in the outdoor “gorilla cage” in Pisa where Pound was jailed for several weeks immediately after the war ended in early May 1945, and completed in the adjacent medical office of the army’s Detention Training Center, where he was held until mid-November before being flown back to the U.S. Given her association with Lowell, it is likely that Bishop read The Pisan Cantos around the time of her first visit to Pound, and if so was surely impressed with the following lines in which Pound turns an accusatory gaze on himself, often called one of the finest lyrics of the twentieth century:

Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity, Pull down thy vanity,
I say pull down.

Superb lines like these are bright spots in the massive, discontinuous tessellation of quips and quotations, Homer to Henry James, that comprise The Cantos. Bishop wrote to Lowell two months before their first visit to St. Elizabeths that she was “pretty mystified by most of Pound’s message to the world.” There is no narrative line to speak of in The Cantos, no discernible structure, only a cacophony of voices, some memorable, many muddled. Yeats’s comment is instructive: “I have often found there brightly printed kings, queens, knaves, but have never discovered why all the suits could not be dealt out in some different order.” Pound told Yeats that Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Dante’s Divine Comedy were his models, but exactly how they were employed is not obvious. Bishop may have appreciated the early Cantos, but overall she found the diffuseness of much of his poetry to be “exhausting,” adding that it would “be vastly improved if one could lean on a sense of system.”

A year passed before she visited St. Elizabeths again, this time as poet laureate (she succeeded Léonie Adams in September 1949). In the interim, she traveled, wrote a little and drank a lot, three activities that took up much of her adult life. As she wrote to a friend, “I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry by not writing it, and now this Library [of Congress] business makes me really feel like the ‘poet’ by default.” Both she and Lowell were regularly treated in hospitals and clinics and rest homes; she for alcoholism, he for manic-depression. Bishop’s sympathy for Pound may have been affected to a degree by her knowledge of Lowell’s condition, but it was certainly affected by the insanity of her mother, who became unbalanced after the death of her husband seven months after Elizabeth’s birth, and was permanently committed to an asylum in 1916 when her daughter was five. An asthmatic shunted between the homes of relatives in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, Bishop told Lowell that she was “the loneliest person who ever lived.” She displayed great empathy for odd, alienated and disturbed individuals in her life and work. According to one friend, “Elizabeth was absolutely, pathologically terrified that she would go insane,” and was always talking about the crazy people in her life, specifically, her mother, Lowell and Pound. Her poem, “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” grew out of her painful but regular calls on him.

Her attitude toward the “maniacal old man,” as she described Pound, was anything but simple. She admired his early poems, and his stature as the person most responsible for the modernist revolution in poetry, but when she taught at Harvard, her dismay at understanding The Cantos made her feel “terrified” about having to “say anything about Ezra Pound’s poetry.” Yet their poetics have much in common. The diffuseness of The Cantos notwithstanding, Pound valued and wrote much poetry that was spare, secret and spirited. Bishop wrote: “The three qualities I admire in the poetry I like best are: Accuracy, Spontaneity and Mystery.” Both also prized clarity and conciseness (“gists and piths,” as Pound said), avoided abstractions, despised the forced rhymes, rhetoric and ornamentation of the late Romantics, and relished unnoticed, telling details. Both wrote largely in conversational tones, and Bishop would have agreed with what Pound told Harriet Monroe about poetic language: “No Tennysonianness of speech — nothing, nothing, that you couldn’t in some circumstance, in some stress of emotion, actually say.” But while she and Pound are more than a little alike in tactics, they had markedly different ideas of the poet’s role. As James Merrill put it, Pound wanted “to write like a God. [Wallace] Stevens and Miss Bishop merely write like angels.”

In appearance and social intercourse, Bishop and Pound were separated by an abyss. Pianist Arthur Gold, who knew Bishop during the 1940s, gave this description of her:

There was something physically graceful and very elegant about Elizabeth. She had what I call genius hair (vibrant, very alive hair); a delightful smile, when she was familiar with you; and a very warm, rather sad, half-shy and half loving air. She was very, very soigné, always going to the hairdresser, always looking terribly neat, extremely well put together, and her clothes were very, very, thought out. Elizabeth loved clothes. They weren’t distinguished clothes, but always suggested a tiny bit of British elegance — not American jazzy elegance.

Pound, on the other hand, no longer dressed like the dandy in a velvet jacket (Yeats gave him one) he was during his London years. His biographer Humphrey Carpenter described him during his time in St. Elizabeths:

“Grampaw” was the persona he invariably adopted in the presence of visitors. He had developed a special costume for the role. The summer version consisted of “floppy sandals, walking shorts several sizes too large gathered at the waist with a belt, his shirt thrown off to take in more sun.” Another visitor describes “tan shorts too big for him, tennis shoes and a loose plaid shirt.” On less warm days he might be found in “a loose sweatshirt, an old GI overcoat, baggy trousers, heavy white socks, bedroom slippers, long underwear showing at his ankles.”

Loud, garrulous, utterly unceremonious, and a born meddler, Pound was full of screwball schemes, and wrote thousands of letters to supporters, including many racists, while incarcerated. Bishop, a wicked wit in private, was shy and circumspect in public, which made some of her trips to St. Elizabeths a subtle form of torture. She said that she “suffered visiting Pound because he lived in a room with no doors. He had no privacy whatsoever, so whatever illness he had was exacerbated by this condition.” When the dutiful Bishop (he called her “Liz Bish”) began coming, he gave her a series of tasks, including the microfilming of various items in the Library of Congress. Accompanying her on one visit was the poet, Weldon Kees, who said that visiting Pound was “certainly not an experience to have missed. He ‘receives’ at the end of a corridor in the hospital, which is a pretty gloomy affair, with catatonics and dementia praecox cases slithering about; but he certainly keeps up a spirit. Very lively and brisk, and his eyes go through you like knives.” Kees said he didn’t think Bishop liked Pound much, “regarding him as a pretty dangerous character.”

Those who wished to see Pound wrote to Dr. Overholser, and he checked with Pound, admitting anyone he approved. On warm afternoons, Pound would carry out deck chairs, books, paper and pencils, string, insecticide, and snacks, including a bag of peanuts he shared with the squirrels that scampered about. A visitor described the scene:

Talking all the while about Henry James or Hemingway, he tied the string round the waist of an unshelled peanut, and dangled it in sight of a patrolling squirrel. It hopped closer and closer with nervous flicks and darts, grabbed the bait, and was quickly hauled kicking into the poet’s lap (“Come on, you little devil!”). He briefly caressed the black “oak-cat,” untied the peanut, let the squirrel scramble off with it. He then re-baited the string for another squirrel. There had once been an Empress in China, he remembered, who could call down birds from the trees [. . .] With his triple-pointed beard he might have been impersonating a Chou dynasty Emperor. The Emperor talking to squirrels.

Numerous poets came to pay homage, including Williams, Eliot, MacLeish, E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, and Charles Olson, who was quite faithful; as did academics and writers — H. L. Mencken, Edith Hamilton (who came in a chauffeured limousine), Katherine Anne Porter, and Marshall McLuhan, driving from Canada. He introduced Pound to the young scholar, Hugh Kenner, who a few years later published his provocative study, The Poetry of Ezra Pound. Kenner said, “I suddenly knew I was in the presence of the center of modernism.” James Laughlin, Pound’s long-time publisher, was a regular, and Alice Longworth Roosevelt, the oldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, also visited. Pound’s wife Dorothy Shakespear, who spoke with Bishop on the telephone about her husband, came almost every day.

When Eliot visited his old comrade in the hospital’s Chestnut Ward, he tracked in some dirt, and a slippered inmate with a cleanliness fetish followed him about with a sweeper. Eliot, dressed in striped trousers and wearing a gold watch chain, sat with his feet off the floor for half his visit as the inmate worked his obsession. Bishop had an eye like a pair of tweezers, and observed the menagerie around Pound. “During the day,” she wrote, “Pound was in an open ward, and so one’s visits to him were often interrupted. One boy used to show us his watch, another patted the floor,” details that she would use later in her poem about Pound. As her biographer, Brett C. Millier, explained, “Elizabeth did not write her poem about these meetings with Pound until 1956. But it is clear that in 1949–1950 she had already begun to form the complex sentiment at the heart of ‘Visits to St. Elizabeths.’ ”

During the summer of 1938, Bishop read “Mother Goose,” and in a letter to Marianne Moore mentions the venerable nursery rhyme, “The House that Jack Built.” Twelve years later, after meeting Pound several times, she adapted the rhyme’s aggregating or cumulative technique for “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” increasing the length of each stanza until there are twelve, two more than in the Jack poem. Another difference is that she varies the lines — irregularly, noticeably, deftly — to hint at his bizarre history and personality. A friend who accompanied her to St. Elizabeths said that she was not “comfortable in Ezra’s presence. I think she looked upon him as a sort of naughty old grandfather whose habits are somewhat questionable, but who, after all, is one’s ancestor.” Her poem presents the spectrum of her paradoxical feelings about “Grampaw.” Following is the final stanza of “Visits to St Elizabeths”:

This is the soldier home from the war.
These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is round or flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances carefully down the ward,
walking the plank of a coffin board
with the crazy sailor
that shows his watch
that tells the time
of the wretched man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

Contending with Shakespeare

Both Bishop and Pound were familiar with and opinionated about Shakespeare’s work. Pound called The Bard “the world’s greatest dramatist, along with Ibsen and Aeschylus,” adding that a reader “can look for real speech in Shakespeare and find it in plenty IF he knows what to look for.” But Chaucer, he believed, “had a deeper knowledge of life than Shakespeare.” Chaucer “wrote while England was still a part of Europe.” By Shakespeare’s time, “England is already narrowing.” Shakespeare knew and drew on Italian tales and legends, but “they are already an EXOTIC.” The reason that Shakespeare was England’s great poet, he said, was not merely because of his lyric mastery; it was also because “English opinion has been bamboozled for centuries by a love of the stage, the glamour of the theatre, the love of bombastic rhetoric and of sentimentalizing over actors and actresses.”

Writing to Robert Duncan in 1939, Pound said, “Hunks of Shxpr bore me; I just can’t read’ em. Despite my admiration for other hunks.” He had little feeling for the great set pieces in the tragedies, namely, the soliloquies of Hamlet, Shylock, Iago and Lear made famous by generations of British thespians. Pound preferred the history plays, admiring the gritty eloquence of Falstaff and his crew of cutpurses. He particularly esteemed the histories because they asked the same questions about royal power and the death of young men in unnecessary wars that Pound did in his long, autobiographical poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, where he excoriated the butchery of World War I:

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

Dante also lamented the slaughter of war, and for this reason, Pound said, he “is the best guide to or illuminator of Shakespeare,” although there is no evidence that Shakespeare knew much if anything about the work of the author of The Divine Comedy, who Pound revered. Dante condemned usury in his great poem, and Pound followed his lead unwaveringly. When asked by a visitor to St. Elizabeths why a poet should be so preoccupied with economics and money, Pound replied, “A poet writes what he has to write. All the great poets — Homer, Shakespeare, Dante — all made history a part of their poetry.” Usury became his great Satan, an idée fixe walled off from all objections and criticism. Disastrously, it led him to his admiration for Mussolini’s fascism, which in turn prompted his anti-American broadcasts, resulting in his long incarceration.

Bishop too admired Shakespeare’s history plays, stating that The Bard, like Baudelaire, demonstrated that “poetry is as much a part of the brothel and the slaughterhouse as of the rose garden and the glade.” For “North Haven,” her memorial poem for Lowell, who died in 1977, she borrowed a line from the song, “When daisies pied and violets blue,” in Love’s Labor’s Lost, about how the flowers have “returned to paint the meadows with delight.” In her poetry classes at Harvard, she sometimes sang her students the concluding couplets of his sonnets to teach them iambic pentameter, and “the importance and finality of final lines.” She also admired his late romance, Cymbeline, and enthused in a letter about the splendid funeral song in the play:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task has done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.
Golden girls and lads all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust. (IV.ii.258–263)

Unlike Pound, Bishop made no sweeping judgments about Shakespeare, but she cut him no slack on accuracy. She criticized, for example, his description of a deer’s death in As You Like It, finding the animal’s groans and heaving chest, and “the big round tears/ [that] cours’d one another down his innocent nose/ In piteous chase” (II.i.38–40) to be “full of preconceived notions and over-sentimental.” Anne Stevenson, who wrote the first study of her friend’s work, said, “Elizabeth saved herself by keeping her eyes on grains of quartz and amethyst while the world pounded around her.” Millier notes that although Bishop was “fearlessly observant,” she also drank heavily “to escape from the tyranny of that observing consciousness.” She groused in letters about what Lowell called her “famous eye.” She could also be funny about it. In 1969, when Lowell introduced her as “the famous eye,” she stood up and said, “The famous eye will now put on her glasses.”

One of Bishop’s shrewdest critics, David Kalstone, said this about the keen discernments in her poems: “One finds it all there without any fuss: the most precise psychological connections made between the needs of exact observation and the frail nightmares of the observer, between the strangeness of what is seen and the strangeness of the person seeing it.” Epiphanies born of pain and disaster are the stuff of her poems, moments such as the ending of her most famous poem, “The Fish,” which comes after she hauls a huge, “battered and venerable,” dying Jewfish into her boat, and delineates the five fish hooks firmly seated in his mouth, and the attached lines

Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.

Cuttyhunk and The Tempest

The most curious and compelling instance of Bishop’s interest in Shakespeare arose from a visit to Cuttyhunk that she made with her boyfriend Robert Seaver, shortly after her graduation from Vassar. He left after a few days; she remained on the island for eighteen days, and said she never wanted to leave. They continued to see each other, and two years later he proposed to her. When she declined, he killed himself. Three days later a post card arrived in her mailbox, mailed by Seaver just before he put a gun to his head. It read: “Go to hell, Elizabeth.” His death was a heavy blow, but not as tragic or debilitating as the 1967 suicide of her long-time partner, Lota Macedo Soares, with whom she had lived with in Brazil for 15 years. Lota took an overdose before Elizabeth’s eyes and died several days later. Bishop was devastated, took to drink (bourbon was her favorite), and fell and broke her arm and shoulder, one of many such “accidents” resulting from intemperance.

After graduation from Vassar in 1934, Bishop moved to Manhattan with a vague plan to become a writer. But after setting up an apartment in Greenwich Village, she rendezvoused with Seaver in August for the trip to Cuttyhunk. She probably learned of the small, beautiful island in Buzzards Bay from her college friend Rhoda Wheeler Sheehan, whose family still lives in Westport on the south coast of Massachusetts, about six miles north of the island. Bishop wrote parts of “One Art,” one of her finest poems, in a small fishing shack on Sheehan’s property. On a clear day you can see Cuttyhunk from its windows. While on the island, Bishop learned that Shakespeare may have used it as the model for Prospero’s magical isle in The Tempest.

Cuttyhunk is the westernmost of the sixteen Elizabeth Islands, a twenty-mile chain running southwest from the ocean side of Cape Cod. Shaped like a lobster with one claw missing, the island is two and a half miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide. It was claimed for England in 1602 by Bartholomew Gosnold on a voyage financed by Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron, and the dedicatee of his early narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Two of Gosnold’s crew, Gabriel Archer and John Brereton, wrote separate accounts of the voyage and their 22 days on the island, where they met the indigenous Wampanoags. Brereton described them as being “of a blacke swart complexion, their eie-browes painted white . . . their women . . . lowe of stature . . . fat, and very well favored, and much delighted in our company.” The Wampanoags (literally “people of the dawn”) fed Gosnold’s men and in return the English “gave them such meats as we had readie dressed, whereof they misliked nothing but our mustard, whereat they made many a sowre face.” The colonists ate the plentiful cod, dogfish, mussels, crabs, cockles, oysters, scallops and wilks (quahogs), but passed on snake, “which the Indians eat for daintie meat, the skinnes whereof they use for girdles.” They traded knives and trinkets for the furs of deer, luzernes (lynxes), beavers, otters and wildcats, and cut down cedar and sassafras trees, the latter’s bark then prized in England as a cure for gonorrhea and syphilis.

Gosnold named the island, using a shortened form of the Indian word Poocutohhunkunnof, which may mean “land’s end.” Gosnold also named Cape Cod, giving it a practical English name reflecting the abundance of this fish, and overwriting the more poetic name — Cap Pallavisino — given in 1524 by the Italian explorer, Giovanni da Verrazano. Bishop visited the island a few times over the years, and loved it the way she did all the places she lived or visited near the ocean, including Nova Scotia, Key West, San Francisco and Westport. Her last home was on the Boston waterfront. She died there October 6, 1979.

A few scholars have argued that Shakespeare plucked details from the account by Brereton, printed in late 1602, and perhaps Archer’s, which was not published until 1625, but may have circulated earlier in manuscript, a common practice in that period. Bishop’s belief in Cuttyhunk most probably came, first or secondhand, from Edward Everett Hale (author of “The Man without a Country”), who proposed the island in a 1902 lecture. In 1919 his lecture was published as Prospero’s Island, with an introduction by historian and U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

Lodge mentions three other islands as possible models for Shakespeare: Lampedusa and Pantalaria near Sicily, and Bermuda, 640 miles east of Cape Hatteras. The first two were proposed because they lie near the route King Alonso’s shipwrecked wedding party would have taken returning to Naples from Tunis. Prospero, deposed as Duke of Milan by Alonso’s bother Antonio, could have landed there after being set adrift in “a rotten carcass of a butt” (II.i.46) with his daughter Miranda. But Lampedusa gets more attention because it was known by mariners as the “Enchanted Island.” Bermuda was advanced as the location because the playwright seems to have relied on an eyewitness account of how the Sea Venture, flagship of Admiral Sir George Somers, ran aground on Bermuda after a July 1609 storm separated it from the expedition, bound for Virginia. Somers survived, arriving ten months later in Virginia aboard two small pinnaces, amazing the other Virginia Company colonists, in part because Bermuda was known as the Isle of Devils and was avoided by mariners. (Caliban, it will be remembered, was “got by the devil himself” (I.ii.319–20) upon Sycorax, a blue-eyed witch from Argier, near Tunis, who “did litter” (I.ii.282) him on the island.) The report of the shipwreck by William Strachey, the expedition’s secretary-general, was not published until 1625 (in the same volume as Brereton’s), but Edmond Malone, the eighteenth-century Shakespeare scholar who first dated the order of plays, believed that Shakespeare read it in manuscript prior to the first known production of the play on November 1, 1611.

Shakespeare, without doubt, heard of the Bermuda shipwreck. News of it reached London in 1610, and was much discussed. His description of the terrible storm that destroyed Somers’s flagship is the likely basis for the opening scene of The Tempest, and Caliban’s refusal to build more fish dams for Prospero (II.ii.180) almost certainly comes from Strachey’s description of how the Indians at the Virginia colony destroyed the traps they had previously built for the colonists. The “flam’d amazement” [I.ii.198] created by Ariel’s spooky illumination of the masts and spars of Alonso’s doomed ship does resemble Strachey’s comments on St. Elmo’s fire, but a similar description of the phenomenon appears in a 1600 account that Shakespeare knew, Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations. Gosnold’s Concord also ran into gale winds upon arrival in America, and the weather on Cuttyhunk in early June 1602, described by Brereton, was just as temperate as Bermuda’s in late July 1609. The companies of both ships, Somers’s Sea Venture and Gosnold’s Concord, felt the same emotions — relief, exhilaration and apprehension — after reaching their respective islands: for the former, Bermuda, an unpopulated, arid, sandy, semi-tropical island two hundred square miles in extent; and for the latter, the tiny (600 acres), forested Cuttyhunk, which offered a harbor nook, plentiful food, water from numerous springs, and commerce with the Indian inhabitants. Bermuda has many palm trees, but no oaks, in one of which Prospero threatened to imprison Ariel. (Brereton: “This island is full of high-timbered oaks.”) The fresh springs that Caliban offers to show Stephano are non-existent on Bermuda, where the only natural source of potable water is rain.

In Prospero’s Island, Senator Lodge points out what many others have, namely, that while we might not know the identity of Prospero’s island, it was certainly not Bermuda. For as Ariel explains, “Safely in harbor | Is the king’s ship, in the deep nook, where once | Thou call’dst me up at midnight to fetch dew | From the still-vexed Bermoothes, there she’s hid” (I.ii.227–29). Lugging dew from Bermuda to Bermuda, even for Ariel, is too heavy a lift. Bishop may have known about Lodge’s point from her freshman Shakespeare class with Professor Barbara Swain, who recalled that Bishop “was an enormously cagey girl who looked at authorities with a suspicious eye.” But it is more likely that it was the details about Cuttyhunk noted by Edward Everett Hale in Prospero’s Island, and how they matched those in the play, that prompted Bishop to tell Marianne Moore in a 1937 letter that she was upset about Bermuda being considered the playwright’s model, “and not Cuttyhunk, as I dearly believe.”

Following Lodge’s introduction, Hale lays out his case based on the contemporaneous accounts of Gosnold’s voyage. First, the matter of logs. Brereton tells of the strenuous effort needed to cut down the medicinal sassafras and the aromatic cedar: the Wampanoag braves, “some sixe or seven of them, bearing us company every day into the woods, and helped us to cut and carie our Sassafras.” Likewise, Miranda’s suitor, Ferdinand is put to work by Prospero: “I must remove some thousands of these logs, and pile them up,” a “mean” and “odious” task. Ferdinand works happily because of his pure, ethereal love of Prospero’s daughter “makes my labors pleasures” (III.i.4–10), while Caliban, who loathes lugging logs, lusts for Miranda so he might “people this isle with Calibans” (I.ii.350–51). Hale mentions the springs, coves, and berries of Cuttyhunk, and the “lush and lusty” grass (II.i.53) on both islands, and notes, accurately, that there is not one tropical allusion in the play. He concludes, “I think there can be no doubt that the local coloring of the ‘Tempest’ is in part derived from the narrative of Gosnold’s adventures,” which gives him sanction to say “that we have the right to claim Miranda as a Massachusetts girl.” It is not difficult to imagine how such an assertion resonated with Bishop, another motherless Massachusetts girl brought up by the sea.


Key Sources

Brett C. Millier’s well-wrought and researched biography, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It was my most important source for information on her, and for Pound, Humphry Carpenter’s equally thoughtful biography, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound. Regular reference was made to Bishop’s letters: Elizabeth Bishop: One Art, edited by Robert Giroux. For Pound, I relied on his ABC of Reading; Literary Essays of Ezra Pound; and Selected Letters, 1907–1941, of Ezra Pound, edited by D. D. Paige. For Pound’s poems, I used the 1986 New Directions edition, The Cantos of Ezra Pound; and for Bishop, the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz.

For information on the Gosnold expedition, I have relied on The Gosnold Discoveries…in the Northern Part of Virginia, 1602, Now Cape Cod and the Islands, Massachusetts, compiled and edited by Lincoln A. Dexter; The Story of Cuttyhunk by Louise T. Haskell; Prospero’s Island by Edward Everett Hale; and “Cuttyhunk” by Arthur Cleveland Hall, in Tales of the New England Coast, edited by Frank Oppel, and special thanks to Eileen Sheehan.

For The Tempest, I used The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blakemore Evans.


Reprinted from Ocean State Review, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2016).