Week 338: North Haven, by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop wrote this elegy for her longtime friend and correspondent Robert Lowell after Lowell’s death in 1977; she herself died two years later. I think that at least back then Lowell enjoyed the huger reputation, but I have to say that I have always found Bishop’s poems a lot more satisfying than Lowell’s, in much the same way as I find Ted Hughes’s more satisfying than Sylvia Plath’s. I guess I like there to be a balance in the work between the inner world of the poet and the outer world of the independently real – call it a passion for the empirically observed – and I find that balance, that passion, more in Bishop and Hughes than in Lowell and Plath. 

But anyway, to the elegy… North Haven is an island community in Maine where towards the end of her life Bishop often spent the summer.

North Haven

(in memoriam: Robert Lowell)

I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off, I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds except for one long, carded horse’s tail.

The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south, or sidewise
and that they’re free within the blue frontiers of bay.

This month our favorite one is full of flowers:
Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,
Hawkweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,
the Fragrant Bedstraw’s incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first ‘discovered girls’
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had ‘such fun’, you said, that classic summer.
(‘Fun’–it always seemed to leave you at a loss…)

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue… And now -– you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

Elizabeth Bishop

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