Elizabeth Bishop


Elizabeth Bishop reading “The Fish”

Today is Elizabeth Bishop‘s birthday (1911-1979).

I am lucky enough to have been in her childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, and her mountainside villa in Ouro Preto, Brazil.  In both instances, her bedroom was the smallest room in the house.

Frye never wrote about Bishop. (See Bob Denham’s correction in the post above.)  But he did meet her at Harvard in 1975, when she was writer-in-residence and he was the Charles Eliot Norton lecturer (those lectures later became The Secular Scripture).  According to John Ayre, they were seated together at dinner one night and “swapped tales” of their Maritime upbringing, she in Nova Scotia and he in New Brunswick. (Northrop Frye: A Biography, 347)

After the jump, “First Death in Nova Scotia.”

In the cold, cold parlor
my mother laid out Arthur
beneath the chromographs:
Edward, Prince of Wales,
with Princess Alexandra,
and King George with Queen Mary.
Below them on the table
stood a stuffed loon
shot and stuffed by Uncle
Arthur, Arthur’s father.

Since Uncle Arthur fired
a bullet into him,
he hadn’t said a word.
He kept his own counsel
on his white, frozen lake,
the marble-topped table.
His breast was deep and white,
cold and caressable;
his eyes were red glass,
much to be desired.

“Come,” said my mother,
“Come and say good-bye
to your little cousin Arthur.”
I was lifted up and given
one lily of the valley
to put in Arthur’s hand.
Arthur’s coffin was
a little frosted cake,
and the red-eyed loon eyed it
from his white, frozen lake.

Arthur was very small.
He was all white, like a doll
that hadn’t been painted yet.
Jack Frost had started to paint him
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever.

The gracious royal couples
were warm in red and ermine;
their feet were well wrapped up
in the ladies’ ermine trains.
They invited Arthur to be
the smallest page at court.
But how could Arthur go,
clutching his tiny lily,
with his eyes shut up so tight
and the roads deep in snow?

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