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

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

Emeritus Professor of English, Wilkes University. The late Norman Mailer’s archivist and biographer: NORMAN MAILER: A DOUBLE LIFE. http://jmichaellennon.com/

Emeritus Professor of English, Wilkes University. The late Norman Mailer’s archivist and biographer: NORMAN MAILER: A DOUBLE LIFE. http://jmichaellennon.com/