"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Wonder Question V: Bishop and Wordsworth? Bishop and Washington Irving??

Many scholars have noted the role Wordsworth plays in Bishop's poetry, but I wonder if anyone of our readers hears the echo of "Tintern Abbey" that I do in "The Shampoo"? I have in mind the line "The shooting stars in your black hair," which for me brings to mind the phrase "the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes" [lines 118-119 of "Tintern Abbey."] David Kalstone in Becoming a Poet discusses one of Robert Lowell's drafts in which Lowell writes:

One reads his "Dearest friend, my dear, dear friend,"
and weeps for Wordsworth, yes, and Dorothy --
All that dry, horselike, Viking energy --
How soldierly their Northumberland reserve
Defied the Walsung's incest! ... I will serve
England's true genius, I desire to bend
With humorous awe to love's contingency,

Yet cringe disloyally from their fierce joy --
Even Victoria in all her glory
is less Olympian. Poor Wordsworth's sorry
Lightning-rod figure and sublimity
Say little after forty... The marvelous boy,
Still (thirty) guides his sister to the sylvan Wye,
Mirrors the shooting lights in her wild eye!

Kalstone asks "Were Dorothy and William meant to be prototypes of the young Bishop and Lowell?" [p. 183] I think it more likely, on the basis of the echo I hear of "Tintern Abbey" in "The Shampoo," that Lowell had in mind Bishop as William and Lota Soares, (whom Bishop addresses as "dear friend," in her poem) as Dorothy.

Kalstone doesn't mention "The Shampoo" in his discussion of Lowell's draft. Neither does Henry Hart in his extended essay "Robert Lowell: the Politics of the Sublime," (Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 37, no. 1 (Spring, 1991), pp. 105-129). Hart's analysis (pp. 123-125) posits the same pairing as Kalstone's: "In this tangled psychodrama, Lowell casts himself as the egotistically sublime Wordsworth, characteristically aligns himself with the mad, despotic King George, and casts his friend as Wordsworth's adoring sister, Dorothy. While Lowell represents the imperial father, he acts as Bishop's brother. In either case, possible sexual relations smack of incest." [p. 123] Hart goes on to assign to Bishop the words in Lowell's draft that begin "I will serve England's true genius," but it seems more plausible to me that it is Lowell himself (or his persona) who is speaking here.

* * *

A great deal more fancifully, I wonder, too, if Bishop's conjunction of "precipitate and pragmatical" draws upon the following passage from Washington Irving's The Art of Book-Making in which the two words are, it is true, somewhat more distant the one from the other, but in which, too, the mention of the frizzled and then grizzled wig might have been irresistible as a private subtext:

"But the personage that most struck my attention was a pragmatical old gentleman in clerical robes, with a remarkably large and square but bald head. He entered the room wheezing and puffing, elbowed his way through the throng with a look of sturdy self-confidence, and, having laid hands upon a thick Greek quarto, clapped it upon his head, and swept majestically away in a formidable frizzled wig.

"In the height of this literary masquerade, a cry suddenly resounded from every side, of "Thieves! thieves!" I looked, and lo! the portraits about the walls became animated! The old authors thrust out, first a head, then a shoulder, from the canvas, looked down curiously for an instant upon the motley throng, and then descended, with fury in their eyes, to claim their rifled property. The scene of scampering and hubbub that ensued baffles all description. The unhappy culprits endeavored in vain to escape with their plunder. On one side might be seen half a dozen old monks, stripping a modern professor; on another, there was sad devastation carried into the ranks of modern dramatic writers. Beaumont and Fletcher, side by side, raged round the field like Castor and Pollux, and sturdy Ben Jonson enacted more wonders than when a volunteer with the army in Flanders. As to the dapper little compiler of farragos mentioned some time since, he had arrayed himself in as many patches and colors as harlequin, and there was as fierce a contention of claimants about him, as about the dead body of Patroclus. I was grieved to see many men, to whom I had been accustomed to look up with awe and reverence, fain to steal off with scarce a rag to cover their nakedness. Just then my eye was caught by the pragmatical old gentleman in the Greek grizzled wig, who was scrambling away in sore affright with half a score of authors in full cry after him. They were close upon his haunches; in a twinkling off went his wig; at every turn some strip of raiment was peeled away, until in a few moments, from his domineering pomp, he shrunk into a little, pursy, "chopp'd bald shot," and made his exit with only a few tags and rags fluttering at his back.

"There was something so ludicrous in the catastrophe of this learned Theban that I burst into an immoderate fit of laughter, which broke the whole illusion. The tumult and the scuffle were at an end. The chamber resumed its usual appearance. The old authors shrunk back into their picture-frames, and hung in shadowy solemnity along the walls. In short, I found myself wide awake in my corner, with the whole assemblage of bookworms gazing at me with astonishment. Nothing of the dream had been real but my burst of laughter, a sound never before heard in that grave sanctuary, and so abhorrent to the ears of wisdom, as to electrify the fraternity.

"The librarian now stepped up to me, and demanded whether I had a card of admission. At first I did not comprehend him, but I soon found that the library was a kind of literary "preserve," subject to game-laws, and that no one must presume to hunt there without special license and permission. In a word, I stood convicted of being an arrant poacher, and was glad to make a precipitate retreat, lest I should have a whole pack of authors let loose upon me."

I suppose this is going rather too far...

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