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

Friday, August 20, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: Artists in the House

Is an artist born or made, or some combination of the two? Will any natural inclination (artistic or otherwise) survive even if there is nothing in a person’s environment to foster that inclination? Reading the biographies of artists, one tends to come away thinking, probably — as many artists have struggled in the face of great obstacles to pursue their art (in a way, overcoming is a necessary rite of passage for artists, part of the definition of what an artist is). But artists who garner biographies are the famous, “successful” ones, or those who crashed and burned spectacularly, awesome in their failures or tragic in their short lives.

Are there others who possess ability but cannot rise above the many immense forces that impinge on our lives, forces often beyond our control? Thinking for a moment of how many people have lived and now live on the earth, one would also tend to think: probably. Sometimes even highly evolved and conscious natural inclination is not enough to push through the difficulty.

From all the reading I have done about Elizabeth Bishop, from all research I have done about her childhood and family, I believe that she was a born artist. This view may seem simple-minded and obvious, but a question then arises (the answer to which is beyond scientists, philosophers, psychologists, theologians …): what is the origin of innate ability? (pure genetics? divine gift? utter chance?) Who knows. Does it matter?

We know that Elizabeth Bishop faced great obstacles, deep trauma, at far too early an age: the death of her father when she was eight months old; the illness and permanent hospitalization of her mother when Bishop was five; a dramatic removal from Nova Scotia, the only place she had known as home, when she was six, which resulted in her own serious illness when she was seven. If anything could prevent someone from fulfilling the promise of an innate ability, such trauma certainly could (indeed, the residual affect of these and other events and circumstances was a life-long struggle with alcohol and serious depression). But, in the end, it did not happen. Why? Again, probably an unanswerable question.

In the midst of, in spite of and, even, because of all the obstacles, Elizabeth Bishop managed to create lasting art, art that continues to affect lives in profound and positive ways. Her “tiny tragedies and grotesque grieves,” as she called them in “To a Tree,” a poem written in 1927 when she was sixteen, somehow did not prevent her from building on her innate ability and creating an artistic legacy of such influence that she herself would be surprised to see it, surprised because she more than once referred to herself as “a poet by default.”

For over twenty years I have looked into the events, circumstances and environment of Elizabeth Bishop’s early childhood and tried to trace how that time in her life affected her adulthood, and how that time in her life affected her art. My effort has been only partial and fragmentary because the mystery of any life cannot be fully reconstructed after death; the mystery of all art is definable only to a certain point. One of the things I have recovered from the extant record of Elizabeth Bishop’s life and art is the fact that on her mother’s side there was a rich artistic inheritance that, in my view, contributed both to her innate inclination and to the environment in which she grew up. As the saying goes, Elizabeth Bishop came by her artistic ability and interest in the arts honestly.

My “Nova Scotia Connections” contribution to this blog is one small way of showing something of this context and process. I have, however, not yet really addressed Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal family, the Bulmer-Hutchinsons, a multi-generation collective about which she was highly aware from the first years of her life. In this collective were a number of artists and she knew them directly or heard stories about them. This born artist had active precedence in her ancestral and immediate family — that is, there were artists in her house from the very beginning. Indeed, there were a number of professional artists who had fascinating, adventurous, even controversial lives. Elizabeth Bishop may be the most famous artist in her family, but she emerged from a lineage lively with all manner of creative and expressive endeavour. Her good education at Walnut Hill School and Vassar College built on a foundation that had been laid long before she was born.

Elizabeth Bishop held conflicting views about the artists in her family and sometimes spoke ambivalently about them, but she also held them in her mind for her entire life. Their lives were examples to emulate or cautionary tales to heed. The most prominent of these artists were her Hutchinson great uncles, her grandmother’s brothers: George Wylie Hutchinson, John Robert Hutchinson and William Bernard Hutchinson. Over time, I will share some of the stories about them, stories Bishop heard (indeed, I learned some of them from her remaining family in Nova Scotia, stories still being told) and stories that were uncovered in my research. In their day, these men had some stature and notoriety. The latter quality in particular fascinated Bishop; she, not disparagingly, called them “eccentric.” Their artistic lives were filled with intensity and mystery. They were three Victorian men who did not live what we might think of as typical Victorian lives.

For now, I will begin by introducing John Robert Hutchinson (a Baptist missionary who lived in India for some years, a translator, novelist, historian and bookseller — a writer with a dark secret that will be revealed in time), introduce him by copying out a poem he wrote in 1882, while a student at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, published in The Acadia Athenaeum in April that year.

Elizabeth Bishop owned several of John Robert’s novels, which she once referred to as “bad” — perhaps in the same way that she described one of Great Uncle George’s paintings as “Large Bad Picture.” She may have thought the same thing about this poem, if she had read it, though its theme is one she thought and wrote about many times. Its direct invocation of the natural world, especially to “The Sea & Its Shore” (one of her titles), would have resonated deeply. Besides, she was a not infrequent user of “O” (her most famous use, perhaps, even includes an exclamation mark and italics: “an oh! of pain”). It is also worth noting that John Robert’s father (Bishop’s master mariner great-grandfather, Robert Hutchinson) was lost at sea in 1866, when his son was only eight years old.

To Solitude
by Rev. John R. Hutchinson
Jan. 28, 1882

Within the shadow of the rocky land
I went my way beside the sober main,
And trace my tardy steps along the sand,
And seek thee, seek thee, solitude in vain.

Across my view the bending vessels fly
While sea-gulls battle with the quickening gale,
The Clouds scud quickly o’er the leaden sky,
The lightning flash reveals the billow pale.

On me the moaning, moaning, of the deep
Rolls now instinctively a chilling fear;
Awed earth, wild sky, made sea together creep
Affrighted by the unseen Presence near.

Old Ocean knows no care whose murky light
Can form a suited covering for thy face:
In all the mansions of Eternal night
For thee, O Solitude, is found no place!


I reach a sombre wood, and far intrude
Into its shady depths with aimless feet;
“Within this leafy temple, Solitude,
Sure though inhabitest with influence sweet.”

The greenest moss invites to soft repose;
Un-numbered leaves their breathless voices raise;
While mellowed light reveals a sad days’ close,
And all combine to hymn thy lovely praise.

Down yonder bank a lengthening shadow creeps,
Then o’er the book and up the gentle hill;
The light has died; that shadow never sleeps,
But falls on me when all the trees are still –

The gloomy shade of thought knows no rest
But whirls and maddens like an angry sea,
And in the cavern of my aching breast
Leaves no abode, O Solitude, for thee.

John Robert (above) and his first wife Charlotte (below), with their missionary colleagues, are seated on the far right. My thanks to Acadia University Archives for this photograph, which is found in a publication called The Beacon Light. This photograph was taken only a few years after John Robert wrote this poem.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps not a 'perfect' poem - but so moving and so deeply felt. I really like those two repetitions: seek thee, seek thee/moaning, moaning. Perhaps it's a 'good bad' poem; what's certain is that it's a good poem to encounter in this context. And the furious intensity of that last stanza has an authentic sting. Sandra, you keep unearthing treasures!