Blog Post

In Sickness and in Health

Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Image via Flickr.

Elizabeth Bishop’s most impactful letter of the summer of 1947 was the first substantive one she ever wrote to Robert Lowell.  Written from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia on August 14, that first real letter of the poets’ storied epistolary friendship begins with a parenthetical aside that nods to their new familiarity: "Dear Robert, (I’ve never been able to catch that name they call you, but Mr. Lowell doesn’t sound right, either.)”1  The immediate pause—not so much to find the correct nickname (“Cal”) as to record the effort to find the correct nickname—is so characteristically Bishop that it suggests heuristic significance.  It seems as if everything you might want to learn about the poets’ friendship could be derived from that single aside. 

And perhaps it can be.  For Bishop and Lowell’s friendship is so very storied as sometimes to seem almost overly determined in the criticism of each poet.  When drafting a dissertation chapter on Bishop’s midcentury work several years ago, I set myself the perverse challenge of composing an entire first draft without once mentioning Lowell in the main text.  I did this partly because I was as interested in Lowell as I was in Bishop, I and wanted to push against the sometimes limiting or teleological habits of the criticism of them.

Far less important, on the face of it, than the August 1947 letter to Lowell, are a pair of letters that Bishop wrote that same summer to Dr. Anny Baumann, her general practitioner.  In the first one, dated July 11, 1947, Bishop’s asthma has flared up; in the second, dated July 22, it has only worsened.  Bishop finds this unaccountable, given the clean, cool air of Cape Breton.  The first letter asks for a new prescription and some advice, and so Bishop details the medicine she’s been taking (“I have to take about 2cc [of adrenaline] during the course of the day and 3 or 4 during the night”), enumerates the emotional and secondary physical effects of her asthma (a feeling of discouragement, a rash that “itches like poison ivy but looks more like eczema to me”), and arrives, perhaps wishfully, at a measurement of her alcohol intake (“I haven’t had anything to drink”).2  The effect of all of this is—there is only one word for it—sobering.  

Into this record of her experience of her body, Bishop drops a sentence at once humdrum and startling:  “This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen—much nicer than Lockeport [Nova Scotia].”  On a postcard, one might follow a sentence like that with “Wish you were here.”  Hence my description of it as “humdrum.”  The sentence is startling, however, for many reasons.  For one thing, Bishop doesn’t typically trade in assertions of obvious, unqualified, capital-B beauty in her poems.  Rather than announcing beauty, the midcentury Nova Scotia poems in particular (e.g., “At the Fishhouses,” “Cape Breton”) create, to use the old buzzword of Bishop criticism, “accurate” descriptions of the scenic coastline.  For another, in the more immediate context of this despairing letter, the sentence underscores how gorgeous Cape Breton must really be.  If Bishop can break out of what we might now describe as “quantifications” of her health in the letter—and out of her own standard practices of qualification and restatement—then this place must be truly breathtaking.

Bishop’s July 11, 1947 letter to Baumann, which is exemplary of her correspondence with the sympathetic doctor, offers a précis of just how much time and energy Bishop had to spend thinking about her health, or rather, about her various forms of ill health.  Bishop’s alcoholism remains the most documented of her conditions.  (The resistance that met the first critical accounts of Bishop’s alcohol addiction has long since abated.3)  Yet Bishop’s careful record of medicine, mood, activity, intake, and sleep, in a single letter of the summer of 1947 alone, looks like a kind of low-tech prehistory of the contemporary Quantified Self movement. 

Except not quite.  Among other distinctions from the self-monitoring and self-improving ethos of QS, this letter, like so many others in Bishop’s epistolary record, speaks to the desire or will not to have to think about one’s health or one’s body all the time.  Not to have to quantify, monitor, measure or otherwise tally one’s existence in the putative service of physical or mental wellbeing.  In that one sentence—“This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen”—of the July 11 letter, the measuring lets up.  The poet encounters something outside of herself that cannot be quantified.  And just like that, just in that instant, there is a deposit of unchecked aesthetic and affective exhilaration. 

Bishop spent a lot of time thinking about her body.  She had to.  I don’t mean she was or would have been an exercise junkie (a truly regrettable term) or a fitness freak (ditto), or that she would have loved the FitBit the way Frank O’Hara would’ve loved Facebook.  Instead, I wonder what it might mean, among the many new approaches to Bishop’s career and especially her politics that have emerged in recent years, to think about Bishop’s signature poetics as predicated on ill health and health care, chronic illness and attempts at what we now call “self-care.”  What might it mean, for example, to think about the inconsistency and slightness (in the quantitative sense) of Bishop’s total output as predicated not only on her famed perfectionism and meticulousness, but also on a body uncomfortable, or unwell, in its skin.  Conversely, how does the often elective attention to the single, ostensibly perfectible body (or life) that undergirds QS perhaps undermine the imperfections that must be a part of creative life?

  • 1. Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Words in Air, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (New York: FSG, 2008), 4.
  • 2. Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (New York: FSG, 1994), 144-45.
  • 3. See Brett C. Millier, "The Prodigal: Elizabeth Bishop and Alcohol," Contemporary Literature 39.1 (1998): 54-76; Millier, Flawed Light: American Women Poets and Alcohol (Champaign, IL: U Illinois P, 2009).
Assistant Professor of English, Dickinson College

Claire Seiler's research and teaching focus on modern and contemporary literature and culture in the U.S., England, and Ireland. Her work makes an inquiry of inconspicuous terms that inform twentieth-century literary criticism, among them "midcentury" (which she investigates in her first-book-in-progress, titled "Midcentury Suspension") and the "generation" (the problematic category that organizes her next project, on twentieth-century poetics). Her work has been published in Twentieth-Century Literature, Comparative Literature, Modernism/Modernity, and elsewhere.