Elegy & Exile: Elizabeth Bishop’s Poem “Crusoe in England”
February 8, 2012
All year long I’ve been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979).
You can read some of what I’ve written about Ms. Bishop and her poetry on this blog.
Today, the 101st anniversary of the poet’s birth, to mark the completion of the centennial celebrations, I want to share my essay “Elegy & Exile: Elizabeth Bishop’s Poem ‘Crusoe in England’.”
Here is my essay as it appeared in The Worcester Review‘s special edition “Bishop’s Century: Her Poems and Art”:
A new volcano has erupted,
the papers say, and last week I was reading
where some ship saw an island being born
They named it. But my poor island’s still
un-rediscovered, un-renamable.– Elizabeth Bishop
So begins Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Crusoe in England” one of two fine elegies found in her last collection, Geography III, and her longest sustained narrative poem.
The island is “un-renamable,” which implies it was named by someone once. In fact, the speaker in the poem named it “The Island of Despair,” for its volcano centerpiece, “Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair.” He had time to play with names; twenty-eight years, by at least one account.
The speaker is, of course, the protagonist of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe – and he isn’t.
Defoe’s Robinson was Christian, civilized, and strongly empirical in his thinking; Bishop’s Crusoe is skeptical and unsure of his knowledge and memory.
Both are displaced figures, but Defoe’s Robinson feels that displacement most acutely on the island upon which he is shipwrecked. Bishop’s Crusoe feels more displaced after his return to “another island,/ that doesn’t seem like one…” His home country of England.
Crusoe was lonely on the island; its clouds, volcanoes, and water-spouts were no consolation – “beautiful, yes, but not much company.” He experiences a “dislocation of physical scale,” as Bishop biographer Lorrie Goldensohn observed.
He’s a giant compared to the volcanoes, which appear in miniature from such distance; the goats and turtles, too. It is, Goldensohn writes, “an analogue of the nausea of connection and disconnection.”
Then “Friday” arrives, but even their relationship, in the Bishop poem, is tinged with loneliness. They both long for love they cannot consummate, “I wanted to propagate my kind,/ and so did he, I think, poor boy.”
Defoe’s Robinson is much less isolated. His island is visited by native cannibals who take their victims to the island to be eaten (Friday is their prisoner; until Crusoe saves him and names him), as well as Spaniards, and English mutineers. This last group helps Robinson return to England with Friday. There are other adventures in the novel, including a voyage to Lisbon and a crossing of the Pyrenees on foot.
None of this is for Bishop. Her goal was not to re-write the novel, but to re-imagine the story. Her Crusoe possesses, as C.K. Doreski has noted, “a weary tonality of such authenticity her character seems not an extension of Defoe’s fictional exile, but a real Crusoe, endowed with a twentieth-century emotional frankness.”
Bishop’s Crusoe finds even deeper loneliness back “home,” with its “uninteresting lumber.” Once there, he longs for the intensity of life on his island, its violence and self –determination, and its objects full of meaning.
“Disconcertingly,” as Goldensohn describes it, “Crusoe discovers that the misery from which he so willingly fled was the chief stock of his life.”
Defoe’s Robinson returns to England to find nothing there for him. Crusoe’s family thought him dead after his 28-year absence, and there is no inheritance for him, no fortune to claim, no home.
Crusoe, in Bishop’s devising, also finds nothing for him at home, despite the longing he felt for it while a castaway. His loss is a spiritual and cultural loss.
While on the island, he tried to hold on to his home culture. He makes “tea” and a kind of fizzy fermented drink from berries he discovers, even a homemade flute with “the weirdest scale on earth.”
Alas, he doesn’t remember enough of his culture’s great literature to make him feel at home,
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems – well, I tried
reciting to my iris beds,
“They flash upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss…” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
When I got back was look it up.
The bliss is, of course, “solitude,” which is the word completing this line from Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” (” I wandered lonely as a cloud…”). We forgive Bishop this anachronism; Wordsworth’s poem was written over one hundred years after Defoe’s novel. By referencing this line she creates a sense of displacement or dislocation in us, her readers.
For Bishop’s Crusoe, solitude approaches bliss by way of banality, especially when he reflects on what was lost – including Friday, who was introduced with the banal phrase, “Friday was nice and we were friends.”
The potency of their relationship is merely hinted at; perhaps reflecting Bishop’s own sense of decorum in matters personal. (“Accounts of that have everything all wrong,” Bishop writes.)
Some critics have suggested that Friday in this poem is a stand-in for Lota de Soares Macedo, Bishop’s Brazilian lover; while others, James Merrill among them, wondered why Bishop couldn’t give us “a bit more about Friday?”
For almost as soon as Friday arrives they are taken off the island. By the end of the poem, we learn that Friday died of measles while in England, presumably a disease to which he had no immunity.
Bishop began writing “Crusoe in England” in the early 1960s – although notebook entries from 1934 hint that the poem may have its origins in her time at Vassar – and picked it up again after Lota’s death in 1967. (Goldensohn postulates based upon her reading of drafts of the poem that Bishop brought Friday into the poem at that time.)
She worked on it again after a visit to Charles Darwin’s home in Kent. She relied on Darwin’s notes from the Galapagos for her depiction of the island, along with Herman Melville’s “Encantadas,” and perhaps Randall Jarrell’s “The Island,” as has been suggested, as well as on her own experience of tropical and sub-tropical locales.
By the time she visited Galapagos in 1971, however, the poem had been delivered to The New Yorker. She must have been fairly pleased that her description was almost spot-on. (My own experience of the Galapagos has the spitting and hissing she writes about coming from the iguanas rather than the turtles, but no matter.)
Bishop’s friend and fellow poet, Robert Lowell, thought “Crusoe” to be “maybe your very best poem,” and I’m inclined to agree. (Although the poem preceding it in 1979’s Geography III, “The Waiting Room,” gives it a run for my money.)
“An analogue to your life,”Lowell wrote in a letter to Bishop, “or an ‘Ode to Dejection.’ Nothing you’ve written has such a mix of humor and desperation.”
It’s true this poem has a kind of desperation to it that comes from desolation and longing, for “home,” in particular, be it the island or England. Bishop’s humor is evident, too, in such lines as
What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiarly
over a crater’s edge, I told myself
“pity should begin at home.” So the more
pity I felt, the more I felt at home.
“By making [Crusoe’s] life center around the idea of home,” writes biographer Brett Miller, Bishop “brings him in line with her own habitually secular and domestic points of view.”
Crusoe was also an unwitting solitary, who reluctantly gave in to his plight. As such, he appealed to Bishop, especially in his self-reliance. He made things from what’s at hand, just as she made poems from what surrounded her. She, too, had given in to her “exile” in Brazil.
There’s an ungentle madness to Crusoe the solitary, which also contrasts somewhat with Defoe’s Robinson. The latter reads the Bible and becomes increasingly more religious. Bishop’s Crusoe is more pagan, painting goats with berry juice, dreaming of “slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it/ for a baby goat,” and has visions of endlessly repeating islands where he is fated to catalog their flora and fauna.
I’m tempted to see this last reference as almost a nightmare reflection of the poet’s own self-exile and imprisonment by her style: her oft-cited gift for description, which she saw as limiting.
Regardless of whether Bishop saw herself in her Crusoe, her own removal to New England from Brazil– to Harvard’s uninteresting lumber – must have caused equal disconnection, a “dislocating dizziness,” to borrow Goldensohn’s phrase.
“When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived,” Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell in 1948. In “Crusoe in England,” she captures the loneliness, displacement, and loss of an individual set adrift in emotional isolation, which leads to a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
For Crusoe, his island life seemed interminable and insufferable, only to turn romantic and desirable when the experience ended.
It seems likely Bishop was thinking of her life in Brazil with Lota, which had become increasingly strained towards the end, until the latter’s suicide, and the poet’s life thereafter. That makes this poem, along with “One Art,” from the same collection, an elegy with a depth beyond its surface.
Here is a link to the complete text of “Crusoe in England,” which includes an audio recording of Bishop reading the poem: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177903
–Scott Edward Anderson