“Open the book”: Elizabeth Bishop’s Marginalia

by Calista McRae

Elizabeth Bishop was a light annotator, the near-opposite of her friend John Berryman, who darkened his books with arguments. Bishop’s marginalia sometimes brings to mind the sandpiper that runs “straight through” the water, watching “the spaces of sand” between his toes. She doesn’t usually paraphrase what she’s reading; most often, she just dog-ears pages or adds a slash in a margin. And yet Bishop’s reading notes often leave a decisive verdict on what she has read, and even slight marks can sometimes throw light on her own poems.

For example, in her copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Bishop notes part of a long footnote for “This is the house that Jack built,” a children’s rhyme about the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house, etc. The form is used by Bishop in “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” a poem about Ezra Pound written in 1950. At the time, Pound was being held in a Washington, DC, mental hospital; Bishop begins with the flat statement that “This is the house of Bedlam.”

This is the time
of the tragic man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

This is a wristwatch
telling the time
of the talkative man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.


This is a world of books gone flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances weeping down the ward
over the creaking sea of board
beyond the sailor
winding his watch
that tells the time
of the cruel man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

In the paragraph Bishop marks, we learn that “This is the house that Jack built” might have had its origins in Had Gadyo, a text sung at Passover. It seems that she chooses a verse form that recalls a Hebrew chant in an ambivalent poem on a notoriously anti-Semitic poet.

Figure 1. Aristophanes, Lysistrata. *AC95.B5414.Zz906a v.2, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

“I am just reading . . . ”; “I have just finished . . . ” Such phrases show up all the time in Bishop’s letters. She read deeply and widely, as her jumbled shelves at Houghton Library make clear. There is a literally worm-eaten edition of Aristophanes, with Latin footnotes, from about 1900, which Bishop must have read in college in the early 1930s. She covers Lysistrata and The Frogs with glosses and exclamation points, although like pressed-for-time college students before and since, she has a tendency to leave the last few pages of each book bare. From the 1960s, there’s a copy of John Lennon’s punning, nonsensical stories and doodles.

Many of her books are from other poets. Their notes, too, remind us that Bishop’s circle went well beyond the mid-century poets she’s often associated with—Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Randall Jarrell. Gwendolyn Brooks inscribes a copy of her Pulitzer-winning Annie Allen: “For Elizabeth Bishop, excellent poet and personality, Gwendolyn.” This is interesting because there are very few records of Brooks and Bishop having anything to do with each other. When John Ashbery sends along The Tennis-Court Oath, he adds an apologetic note to explain the slightly windy blurb: “ackgh! (they copied this out of a questionnaire where I was supposed to ‘explain’ my book).” Seamus Heaney gives her Death of a Naturalist: “first gurgles from the bog-eyed Narcissus. Seamus, 9th March 1979.”

Heaney’s gift was one of the last books to end up in Bishop’s library. The very last recorded in the Houghton catalogue is a 1979 PhD thesis by Kathleen Ruth Mullen, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin; it’s about how Bishop’s poetry manipulates perspective. For a person inclined to keep some barriers between her work and life, Bishop read it with surprising thoroughness, correcting and underlining many paragraphs.

Figure 2. Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson.*AC95.B5414.Zz931b, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Bishop loved rhyme. When she was eight, after watching her grandmother use petroleum to clean shoes, she went around chanting gasoline, Vaseline the rest of the day. Soon she finds her own slightly daft rhyme pairs (like that of wore a and fedora, from “Exchanging Hats”), and she repeatedly tracks down the rhyme schemes of other poets. Even in Lowell’s free-verse Life Studies—where prosody might not seem to be the most arresting feature—Bishop remains alert to sudden moves into rhyme.

Margins are usually private: they’re places where you don’t need to cushion your words. This freedom comes out in Bishop’s forty years of commentary on W. H. Auden. She owned almost twenty of Auden’s books—essays, opaque early plays, even the somewhat deprecated late poems—and she read all of them with care and enthusiasm, not reverence. A few pages into The Age of Anxiety (Auden’s long poem about World War II, written in an alliterating form last used around 1500) she says that “the alliteration begins to sound like a dull parlor-game.” But she continues to circle obscure words, comments on technique, and remarks on a passage where the verse seems to get “suddenly much better.”

But my favorite note in Bishop’s Auden is in his posthumous Thank You, Fog (1974), on a short, rather frivolous poem:

Many creatures make nice noises,
but none, it seems,
are moved by music.

Bishop contradicts that statement: No—seals are. She would know; in “At the Fishhouses” she encounters a seal who

was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.

When I first read “At the Fishhouses,” I’d taken that matter-of-fact declaration about the seal’s interest in music as more playful than truthful. But as it happens, a 2013 paper in Journal of Comparative Psychology describes a sea lion bobbing her head to songs in several tempos. Pinnipeds are some of our first instances of animals literally “moved by music,” which Bishop knew.

Figure 3. Auden, Collected Poems. *AC95.B5414.Zz974a, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Published on December 17, 2015