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

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, Nova Scotia: A Site of Pilgrimage, Part 1

A “common enough” urge
Several years ago, I read Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, conducted by Dennis O’Driscoll. I am an admirer of Heaney’s work and his two fine essays about Elizabeth Bishop. I was intrigued to read a response to one of O’Driscoll’s comments about Heaney’s literary pilgrimages. O’Driscoll observed, “…you must have visited more dead writers’ houses than any poet alive — Yeats’s Tower, for example, Hardy’s birthplace….” (251) With Heaney picking up the thread:

“…and Carlton’s birthplace, Tenneyson’s birthplace, Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill, Alphonse Daudet’s mill, Hopkins’s grave in Dublin, Joyce’s grave in Zurich, Wilde’s grave in Paris, Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, the Keats House in Hampstead, Akmatova’s “House on Fontanka” in Petersburg, Brodsky’s “room and a half” in the same city, not to mention Stratford and Abbotsford, Coole Park and Spenser’s castle, Lissoy and Langholm…I’d have thought the urge to go to those places was common enough….” (252)

This multi-part essay is about the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia, Canada, the childhood home of a poet often declared by academics and critics to be “homeless.” A house to which hundreds of academics, artists and fans have travelled. For a person supposedly so “rootless,” why do so many people feel Heaney’s “common enough” compulsion to visit it?1
Bishop’s Vassar Yearbook photo, 1934 (Photo credit: Vassar College Special Collections)

Where and what is the Elizabeth Bishop House
8740 Highway 2, Great Village, Nova Scotia, Canada, is not simply a street address. It hasn’t been for decades.2 The house at this address, an 1860s clapboard with a tin roof, was the home of Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal grandparents, William and Elizabeth Bulmer (Pa and Gammie to Bishop).
Elizabeth Bishop House (Photo credit: Paul Tingley)
This house sits in the centre of the village, where three roads converge, where the Great Village River is crossed by a bridge, where St. James Church (“high shouldered and secretive”) stands with its 112 foot steeple topped by a lightning rod (“flick the lightning rod with your fingernail” and you might still hear Bishop’s ill mother scream — read her memoir “In the Village”).
Aerial view of the centre of Great Village, circa 1970s (Photo credit: unknown)
The house sits in the middle of a community that imprinted itself deeply onto the precocious mind of a little girl, who experienced tragic loss too early in life, and who has become one of the most important poets of her generation, of the twentieth century. Elizabeth Bishop, a highly educated, cosmopolitan world-traveller, called this nineteenth century house home, called it “an inscrutable house” (read her poem “Sestina”), one of her lost “three loved houses” (read her poem “One Art”3). It was the prototype for all her houses, the ones she imagined and the ones she actually inhabited, even owned.
View of Great Village from top of church steeple Bishop House
second on the right. (Photo credit: Meredith Layton)

1. In 1978, Bishop told Alexandra Johnson, “I’ve never felt particularly homeless, but, then, I’ve never felt particularly at home. I guess that’s a pretty good description of a poet’s sense of home. He [sic] carries it with him.” (102) Although I invited Seamus Heaney to visit the Elizabeth Bishop House, he never did. He did not turn down my offer; my timing was not good. His busy life and then illness prevented him from doing many things he might have enjoyed. A couple of other Irish writers have visited: the poets Mary Montague, Carmel Cummins, Padrig Rooney, Paula Meehan, and the well-known novelist Colm Toíbín. Toíbín recently published a book about Bishop.

2. Recently, I did a search on Google Maps for 8740 Highway 2, Great Village, N.S., and was rather surprised to discover (though, I suppose, with Google’s pervasiveness in our lives, I should not have been) that Google has labelled this address “Elizabeth Bishop House.” Even Google knows the significance of the house at this number. Not surprisingly, as well, Wikipedia has an Elizabeth Bishop House entry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Bishop_House), which I have had no role in creating.

3. Some critics argue that these are 1. the house in Key West, which Bishop owned with Louise Crane in the 1940s; 2. the house at Samambaia, where she lived with Lota de Macedo Soares in the 1950s; and 3. the house in Ouro Prêto, named “Casa Mariana,” which she bought and restored in the mid-1960s. I would argue that the first “loved” house she “lost” was her grandparents’ house in Great Village. Perhaps the house in Great Village set up the template for all these later houses; that is, it is the ur-house, preceeding them all.

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