Love Unknown: The Life and Works of Elizabeth Bishop by Thomas Travisano


Over the years we have known that our friend Jim’s brother has written books about Elizabeth Bishop; this one is surely his most ambitious. It is an eminently readable telling of her life and for me, an appealing recounting of her poetry.

Her father died when she was eight months old and when she was five, her mother had a breakdown and was hospitalized for the rest of her life. Bishop never saw her mother again. She was raised by a variety of pretty unpleasant relatives and was troubled by asthma and eczema that continued to plague her for her whole life. She was sick enough that beginning boarding school as a teenager was delayed for a year. That school, Walnut Hill, seemed to mark the beginning of a happier time for her.

Throughout her life she was a remarkable letter-writer beginning after her first year at a summer camp with a correspondence with Louise Bradley. The letters Bishop wrote are preserved, I was surprised to hear, at Wylie House at Indiana University. Curious about how that came to be, I looked up Wylie House and learned it is a museum and was the home of the first president there. Their archives include the correspondence from Bishop to Louise Bradley, who was a Wylie descendent.

One poem that she wrote as a teenager is, according to the author, a bold and charming poem, entitled “The Ballad of the Subway Train.” It creates a primordial world, “long, long ago when God was young,” describing dragons who crawled through space. The dragons unwittingly committed a crime by eating a swarm of new-made stars. The furious God damns them, saying, “you have been feeding, greedy beasts, upon the stars. For gluttony as deep as yours, be changed to subway cars.” This, Travisano says, is a precocious tragicomic remaking of the story of Adam and Eve and their lost paradise. Thanks to Dorothy, here’s a link to the poem with someone reading it:

She inherited enough money to begin a life in writing. Upon graduation from Vassar, she in Key West for a time, overlapping with Hemingway. Her work was noticed early on by the eminent critic Randall Jarrell and through him, she met her longtime friend and correspondent Robert Lowell. She lived for 15 years in Brazil, most of that time with her beloved Lota de Macedo Soares. For the last decade of her life she taught poetry, most of the time at Harvard. Her last love was the much younger Alice Methfessel, named as her literary executor.

In her later years many of her poems were published in The New Yorker. She stretched the limits of convention in punctuation while the grammarians at The New Yorker tried to rein her in. Their correspondence resulted in, according to Travisano, “the elegant 2011 volume, Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, the Complete Correspondence.” Sounds like a gem.

On a local note, she read her work in the Dome Room of the Rotunda at UVa in 1978 while on a reading tour.

After Bishop’s death in 1979, the recognition of her poetry grew. It was noted in 1993 that her gravestone in Worcester, Massachusetts was unmarked. Her beloved Methfessel was not willing to inscribe the stone as Bishop had requested, “Awful but cheerful”. In May 1996 the author met with others to organize a conference in Worcester, including a visit to the cemetery. He suggested inserting the line “All the untidy activity continues” ahead of Bishop’s stark three words. Methfessel agreed and the inscription was made. When the pilgrimage occurred, it was noticed that a comma had been omitted from the end of the first line. As a result of that kerfuffle, a comma was added and reported to the aggrieved in a newsletter with the title “A Comma for a Bishop.” The author ends his book this way:  “And so in the city of her birth, under the revised, expanded, and copyedited epitaph inscribed on her gravestone, the ashes of Elizabeth Bishop now rest, reunited with the parents she had lost so long before.”

Thomas Travisano, Love Unknown:  The Life and Works of Elizabeth Bishop, Viking, 2019, 422 pages. Available at the UVa library and from Amazon.

1 comment


  • The above saga of Bishop’s tombstone is a story unto itself. Am glad her stone is not a blank slate.

    In the December 29, 2019 Washington Post, Reviewer Scott Bradfield quotes Bishop as telling her friend Robert Lowell “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” Bradfield proceeds to refute that cry of loneliness based on his reading of LOVE UNKNOWN. Your review is written with more empathy than Bradfield’s; you are not dismissive of her formative traumas.


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