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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

FIRST ENCOUNTER XXXIII: Bishop’s “Roosters” by Elizabeth Jones

Recently I’ve been reading and rereading Bishop’s “Roosters” in order to compare it to a short story by Chekhov. Not unsurprisingly, the “old holy sculpture” that Bishop evokes representing “one small scene” of Christ, Peter and “in between / a little cock … / carved on a dim column in the travertine” (stanzas 29-31) set me wondering what and where this sculpture might be. It didn’t sound like something Bishop had invented. Was it something she had seen in Europe? From my own limited sightseeing, I remembered a vivid depiction of such a scene in S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, but this was, of course, done in mosaic. A friend who had studied art history remembered illustrations in a book of this scene carved on sarcophagi of the early centuries A.D. The next obvious step was to go to the Internet where I found this article: http://www.jstor.org/pss/3046629, which excitingly went further than just answering my question.

Entitled “The Iconography of the Cock on the Column” and written by S.A. Callisen, it appeared in The Art Bulletin in June 1939, not long before Bishop started on “Roosters”. The gist of this article is that the image of a cock on a column in Christian art was adapted from a pagan motif that went back centuries. Even a quick perusal of the article makes clear how much Bishop is indebted to it for images, ideas, and phrases, particularly in the second section of the poem, where hope responds to despair. And oh joy, it features an illustration of the “Christ, Peter and cock” scene carved on one side of a sarcophagus in the Lateran museum, the very scene that Bishop describes! (Only the cock is not so “little” but the size of a turkey.) One can see too (something that always puzzled me) why she describes Christ as “stand(ing) amazed”. However, Bishop’s scene is a composite, as the inscription “gallus canit; / flet Petrus” appears, not under the sculpture illustrated, but under another depiction of St. Peter weeping, mentioned but not reproduced in the article. The comparison between Magdalen’s sin “of the flesh” and St. Peter’s “of the spirit”, the “bronze cock on a porphyry pillar” near the Lateran, its association with the erring “Prince of the Apostles”, the cock as weathervane on basilica (“churches” in Callisen) and barn, all appear in the article. Only four of the thirteen stanzas of this section could have been written without reference to it.

What the article also cleared up for me were two of the three allusions to the Greeks in stanzas 17 and 18. On page 170 of the article, mention is made of “the ancient sport of shooting at a rooster placed on top of a column”, something I had never read of anywhere else. On page 166 we discover that it was Pausanias, the Greek geographer, who explained, concerning a statue of Athena, that a cock was perched on her helmet “because cocks are very combative.” (The third allusion, that to a sacrificed cock, I’ve always taken to be a reference to Socrates’ request, before he took the hemlock, that his friend, Crito, should sacrifice a cock to Asclepius. The cock’s struggling I attributed to Bishop’s imagination. But perhaps this alludes to something else Bishop read.)

Also striking is Callisen’s observation (p.173) that “the feathers of the rooster” on the sarcophagus mentioned above are so precisely carved as to “seem almost to have been inspired by some metallic prototype”. Could this have inspired Bishop’s image of “those metallic feathers” that “oxidize” in stanza 26? Or did it just corroborate her own observation of the metallic sheen on rooster’s feathers?

As this article is available to anyone who can access the JSTOR archive, I can’t think of it as a discovery. However, I have not as yet had time to do a thorough search to see if someone has written on it, noting what Bishop borrowed from the article and how she used these borrowings. In the meantime I thought that anyone interested in “Roosters” might like to read it. However, fascinating though it is as a source on which Bishop drew, and then consider it as an example of how an artist refashions borrowings, one can still appreciate this fine poem without reading the article, much as one can, on a larger scale, appreciate Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra without recourse to the relevant part of North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives.

Read "Roosters" here.

{Ed. note: While Elizabeth’s piece is technically not her first encounter with Bishop – she has been reading Bishop for many years – it is a particularly interesting close encounter, which needed to be shared for its discovery of this important source for Bishop. If anyone else has made this link, let us know in a comment or drop us an email.}

1 comment:

  1. I also was just studying "Roosters," trying to type it into a note in Facebook, and, in an attempt to find a photo to attach to the note, searched the phrase "gallus canit; flet Petrus" and then "the Lateran," and found the JSTOR article. The relative ease of this discovery, I guess, doesn't bode well for modern poets who wish to conceal their sources.