Elizabeth Bishop’s Last Poem


Caught — the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed — the broken
thermometer’s mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

Elizabeth Bishop

And if you are so inclined, here is a short commentary on the poem by Lloyd Schwartz, co-editor of the new Library of America volume on Bishop:


“Sonnet,” with its unusually short lines, is a playfully bottom-heavy inversion of the traditional sonnet form. Bishop’s octave (including two images of being “freed”) follows rather than precedes the sestet, with its two images of being “caught” (thereby giving more room to being free than to being trapped). Many of the rhymes (and delicious half rhymes) come not where you’d expect them or where they’re supposed to be — that is, the rhyming pair doesn’t always appear at the end of a line: “bird” rhymes with “freed”; “rainbow” and “narrow” fall mid-line; the rhyme in “thermometer’s mercury” comes at the beginning rather than at the end of the words. Like the “moon in the bureau mirror” in her poem “Insomnia” (1951), which looks out at a world “inverted,” the newfound freedom depicted in “Sonnet” (including a liberation from traditional form) presents a topsy-turvy solution, an upside-down resolution, that doesn’t fit the usual formula.

This solution, this resolution, is death — the solution to all conflict, to all illness, to all decision-making, to all the claims and pulls that upset the balance of one’s life. The more you know about Bishop, the more directly autobiographical this poem begins to seem. She was, like the bubble in the spirit level, “a creature divided,” both accepting and nervous about her homosexuality (she said she wanted to restore the last word of the poem, “gay!,” to what she called its “original” non-sexual meaning), needing to drink yet ashamed of her self-destructive compulsion (in the version of the poem published in The New Yorker, the line “a creature divided” appears as “contrarily guided”). She loved living in Brazil, away from New York literary politics and gossip, yet it was hard for her to be separated from her native country and language, and from the recognition of her admirers. “Dear, my compass/still points North,” begins a love poem she wrote in Brazil but never published, still wavering about her true home. And she was never completely convinced that her poems had any lasting value.

The “rainbow-bird” in the last and most complex image of “Sonnet” is clearly self-referential. “Rainbow” is a key Bishop word. Her most famous poem, “The Fish,” ends with the ecstatic “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” (and with another one of her rare exclamation points), as she prepares to set free the tremendous fish she caught (another trapped creature). In “Song for the Rainy Season,” her love poem about the house she and her Brazilian companion were living in way up in the mountains outside of Rio, she calls the landscape “rainbow-ridden.”

Hidden, oh hidden
in the high fog
the house we live in,
beneath the magnetic rock,
rain-, rainbow-ridden,
where blood-black
bromelias, lichens,
owls, and the lint
of the waterfalls cling,
familiar, unbidden.

The most poignant — and frightening — image in “Sonnet” is the empty mirror. Always shy and self-conscious, Bishop hated the way she looked, hated looking at herself. She’d grown heavier from the years of cortisone she had to take for her asthma; her hair had turned gray. She felt old and bloated, though everyone else thought she looked more elegant than ever. I was visiting her the day her copy of Richard Howard’s coffee-table anthology Preferences arrived, with a beautiful full-page photograph of her by Thomas Victor. She excused herself, went into her bedroom, and tore the page with the photograph out of the book. She would have preferred to look into an empty mirror, even given the sinister implications.

Bishop had been plagued by various illnesses all her life, from persistent eczema (like a pink dog?) to the chronic, sometimes life-threatening asthma for which she was repeatedly hospitalized. In the 1970s her beloved Aunt Grace, in Nova Scotia, was showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Bishop was morbidly worried about an old age of illness after lingering illness, and was terrified of becoming senile. I think if she could have known that she would die of an aneurysm, suddenly and without warning, at sixty-eight, as she was putting on her shoes to go out to dinner, she’d have lived a happier life.

Though she had been in relatively good health at the time she wrote “Sonnet,” dying seemed increasingly on her mind. In these lines from another unpublished love poem, “Breakfast Song,” from 1974, she wrote:

Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I’ve grown accustomed to?
— Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it’s true.
It’s just the common case;
there’s nothing one can do.

Here she raises the disturbing idea that someone might actually want to die. But — in love — she talks herself out of it. “Breakfast Song” reveals feelings, especially sexual feelings, that were probably too personal for Bishop to allow herself to make public. In “Sonnet,” however, she finally confronts, though with characteristic indirectness, her death wish, her desire for the freedom death brings.

To hear several different poets read “Sonnet”, go to Soundings.

One Reply to “Elizabeth Bishop’s Last Poem”

  1. […] about Elizabeth Bishop yesterday. Lloyd Schwartz, co-editor of her new Library of America volume, discussing her final poem, ‘Sonnet’, writes: In the 1970s her beloved Aunt Grace, in Nova Scotia, was showing […]

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