C. K. Doreski: On "Crusoe in England"
In the course of this dramatic monologue, Bishop disrupts generic expectations and traditions, reveals the child's vision behind the weary recollections of an aged exile, and locates the human bond in the very inadequacy of language. The voice of this poem argues that all knowledge, finally, is incomplete, and consists not of ends but of paths, processes, maps, ways. "Crusoe in England" provides the threshold to "One Art," an elegy for Bishop's attempt to grasp and possess her world through poetic achievement.
Adopting the voice of a male exile and refusing the privileges of autobiography, risking the glaze of distance Lowell noted in Browning's monologues, Bishop paradoxically heightens the immediacy of her "Crusoe" with a weary tonality of such authenticity her character seems not an extension of Defoe's fictional exile but a real Crusoe, endowed with a twentieth-century emotional frankness. The monologue seems the ideal form to tell the story of a prototype of Melville's isolatoes, since it enables Bishop to provide a maplike form of a life without adhering to disruptive chronology. The meanderings of the individual mind, a twentieth-century idea of a literary model, lends a degree of authenticity that owes more to Joyce and Freud than to Defoe or Melville. "Crusoe" assumes the appearance without run- ning the risks of an autobiography by ordering its experience into what Robert Lowell in an interview describes as "a shape that answers better than mere continuous experience."
Though the progenitive tale (Defoe's The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe ) posits a Christian context for the exile (and in some respects retains a Miltonic world-view for its sense of education and redemption), "Crusoe in England" discards all dogma while retaining the skeleton of the saintly and prophetic wilderness-quest. Bishop's poem might be considered an "education of the exile" poem, but it does not equate the return to civilization with salvation. Crusoe, after all, was exiled into, not out of, paradise. Unlike its fictional counterpart, the poem tells us nothing about this Crusoe's prior life—except that it began in England. The emotional intensity, viewed retrospectively, of the relationship with Friday indicates the most important respect in which the Bishop poem extends Defoe’s character.
[. . . .]
The landscape seems familiar; yet this volcanic wasteland is "dead as ash heaps." The colonial appropriators, or namers, are no longer in the characters of Osa and Martin Johnson; they have coalesced into the discovering and naming country itself: England. Decidedly postlapsarian, Crusoe both remembers and re-enacts that ahistorical, asocial moment of genuine love in exile. . . . Crusoe, like Lowell, comes with his attendant significance—his fictive and historical authority. In spite of that burden, however, he shrugs off his social (i.e., linguistic) inheritance as irrelevant and inaccurate. Seemingly revisiting in memory the landscape of the National Geographic of "In the Waiting Room," Crusoe dismisses everything the child struggled to acquire. Orality and literacy fail to capture the essence of his life, which remains "un-rediscovered, un-renamable." The authorial gesture of the poem depends upon the exasperation that "None of the books has ever got it right." Like Ishmael, Crusoe knows that "true" places remain unnamed.
From Crusoe's perspective, to acknowledge the shock of "waiting room" recognition is to acquiesce to the failure of language to identify. The core of the poem, preceded by the weary "Well," charts the encumbrance of language in a solitary world. Relative scale ("I'd think that if they were the size / I thought volcanoes should be, then I had / become a giant"), proper names, aesthetics, categories of all kinds ring false in this underpopulated landscape of "one kind of everything." Here the distinctions between ignorance and understanding, error and truth seem impossible to ascertain. Who would appreciate the act of delimiting that naming reflects? The landscape seems fated to the same oblivion as language as Bishop echoes "The Map" (where "The names of the seashore towns run out to sea") in the volcanic landscape (where "The folds of Java, running out to sea, / would hiss").
Like the speaker in John Clare's "I Am," Crusoe, too, is a "self-consumer of [his] woes." Even in isolation this must be given a name and a circumstance: "'Pity should begin at home.' So the more / pity I felt, the more I felt at home." Crusoe resorts to this colloquy with himself to externalize and verify the overwhelmingly interior sensation of pity. The physical remove becomes palpable as he conjectures: "What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?" [my emphasis] Crusoe confesses his humanity through by naming his emotion. For as D. H. Lawrence asserts in his own "Self-Pity": "I never saw a wild thing / sorry for itself. " Locating his emotion in language denies Crusoe the spontaneity or wildness of the animal world.
Incapable of "looking up" that which he does not possess, Crusoe abides by the asocial strictures of solitude. An air of unreality pervades the intense reality of this itemized landscape. Like the waiting-room child, Crusoe "reads" the landscape and attempts to place through names its inhabitants. His solitary word games seek to defeat "the questioning shrieks, the equivocal replies / over a ground of hissing rain": "Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair / (I'd time enough to play with names)," but serve only to sound off: Names are rendered meaningless. Knowledge and language as social acts become nightmarish anachronisms:
. . . . I'd have nightmares of other islands stretching away from mine . . . ……………………….. ……………..knowing that I had to live on each and everyone, eventually. for ages, registering their flora, their fauna, their geography.
Such occupational investments in local identity terrify the stranded character. As the waiting-room child discovered, even local geography requires an audience to render the significance fixed.
The eight-stanza terror of the societyless residence is peremptorily displaced by Crusoe's recollection of Friday. While language seems to have outlived its usefulness, Crusoe nonetheless fixes his "other" with a socially significant temporal marker: he names "Friday." Even as Crusoe details the effect of this new society, the impoverishment of language is complete. Declaring parenthetically that "Accounts of [Friday's arrival] have everything all wrong," he fails to meet the demands of language. Friday is "nice" and "pretty"; they were "friends." Stripped of a linguistic interface, Crusoe appears to have met the private, unmediated demands of a relationship shared with but one. Language cannot intervene.
The authorial impulse to give memory a name by converting it into history is a commemorative one. With Friday's deathdate comes the intrusive, factual marker—fixing in time the moment recalled, begging to be named. Crusoe's/Bishop's public and private artifacts seem destined for the Temple of the Muses: "The local museum's asked me to /leave everything to them." The human experiences of love and desperation coalesce about the devitalized remains: "the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes." Like Yeats's "Old iron, old bones, old rags," the island artifacts sit unre-discoverable and unrenameable. In questioning the value of this hopelessly romantic, Emersonian art of naming, Crusoe challenges the public appropriation of named things even as he recollects the private bonding of language to love:
How can anyone want such things? —And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles seventeen years ago come March.
Unable to thwart the named order of things—names, dates, countries, diseases—Crusoe can only recall a time when the world was unnameable but "nice." Readers of Stevens will recognize both place and question: "These external regions, what do we fill them with / Except reflections, the escapades of death."
Commentators have made much of the strangeness of the landscape of Crusoe's island; it echoes Melville's Encantadas, Darwin's descriptions of the Galapagos Islands, and Bishop's own vacation notes of a trip to Aruba. Developing the rich traditions of travel literature and playing against those garden poems that place a green shade against a contaminated world, Bishop extends a distinct tradition in the terms of the American pastoral.
From Natty and Chingachgook to Huck and Jim, and Ishmael and Queequeg, American couples have found adventure and purpose in the wilderness. Crusoe, like his literary ancestors and descendants, leaves the green shade of England, suffers a period of trial and uncertainty, but finds life in that incomprehensible world of that other island. The American pastoral illustrates the impossibility of lingering in the primitive world; the imperatives of human intelligence forbid it. In Crusoe's narrative, however, exterior forces, not his or Friday's intelligence or will, foster the return to civilized values. They perish, as a couple in mutual exile, when they are saved (Friday in fact literally dies of civilization in the form of measles). If Bishop intended to invoke the garden genre when she placed Crusoe once again on the barren volcanic island, she did so to emphasize the growth of Crusoe himself. Only one kind of creature flourishes when planted there, the human kind. Rather than functioning as a garden of humanity, however, a site of the creation myth, the island bears the impress of only one other individual, Friday, whose sex fails to complement Crusoe's.
From the opening stanza, Bishop is concerned not merely with the boundaries of communication—accounts, registers, books, poems, names, sayings, reading—but with the dependence of all these on social interaction, a human context. What meaning can a name have when there is no one with whom to share its significance? Books previously read show no signs of assisting Crusoe in this island world: "The books / I'd read were full of blanks." All degrees of order seem suspect: Crusoe finds joy and music in his homemade flute in spite of its weird scale, but he relinquishes his hold on language; words belong elsewhere.
The cacophony of baa, shriek, hiss reiterates the unimportance of embellished utterance. On this island, necessity dictates: The gut speaks. Yet Crusoe yearns for reciprocity. His insularity prompts a malignant introversion; dreams playoff his daylight fears. Soon he understands his solitary state in the human enterprise as not merely a term of exile, but forever.
The ultimate erasure of language occurs at the moment of intimate resolution of the state of exile:
Just when I thought I couldn't stand it another minute longer, Friday came. (Accounts of that have everything all wrong. )
After the nightmarish threat of intellectual pedantry throughout eternity, Crusoe surrenders his civilization. His need for contact with his own kind confounds his emotional grasp of the state of exile. Ordinary language, the language of accounts, cannot grasp the utter disruption of Crusoe's established emotional state triggered by the direct physical confrontation with a healthy otherness; in retrospect, unable to conjure a more emotive language, Crusoe can only confess that
Friday was nice. Friday was nice, and we were friends.
Yet the effect of this apparent failure of rhetorical prowess is to reiterate the original emotional value of these simple words. If language preserved itself for occasions of significance (as this encounter suggests), the apparent numbness of the cliché dissipates. With casual, offhand language, Bishop deliberately cloaks the interiority of this relationship. Unlike Defoe, who immediately establishes Crusoe and Friday as a hierarchical master-servant relationship, Bishop fosters the immediate equality of friendship. She has chosen to approximate the "infant sight" of original relationship with these deliberately disposable words, but in doing so she raises the issue of dramatic plausibility. Can it be that the Crusoe who is so able to recount and register his world and experiences alone is unable to articulate beyond these vague utterances the details of his saving relationship with Friday? Or is the subtle linguistic argument intended to be his own?
Judging the appropriateness of Crusoe's superficial recall re- quires examining the coda with some care. In examining his life in terms of the physical artifacts, one of the questions Crusoe must resolve is whether his narrative is the stuff of poetry. The problem seems less one of an inability to express (surely Bishop does not intend these items to serve as objective correlatives) than one pertaining to a sense of decorum. A stern aesthetic forbids the inclusion of tropes of sentimentality or, worse, formless abstraction. An effective narrative must derive its power from Bishop's ability to indicate the absence of sentiment and analysis and allow unspoken and aesthetically unspeakable language to reveal itself under erasure, taking form from the reader's, rather than Crusoe's or Bishop's, experience of mind and soul. Surely this degree of verbal intimacy is the keenest possible between the reader and poet.
Like Stevens's "The Man on the Dump," Crusoe's task is to invent a language, however primal or trite, of self-definition. As he beats on his lard pail on his island dump, he sounds the idioms of exhaustion, a language of despair. The world consists of debris, the island a "cloud-dump" with "left-over clouds." Even the water becomes dusty and vaguely landlike as the waterspouts are "scuffed-up white." The one tree, "a sooty-scrub affair," tropes on the futility of attempting to inhabit this burned-over district; credible living occurs elsewhere. In spite of the episodes of home crafts and simple pleasures,
The island remains a prehistoric site until Friday comes. Except for this brief respite of human contact and concern, the spirit of this life, as Crusoe recalls it, has "petered out" and "dribbled away." Finally the boredom of the other, home island—England, a real, yet uninteresting world—has corrupted the tongue, which has forgotten how to name the self-sufficiency that must have sustained Crusoe for many years by himself. The closure lacks the predictable and decisive trope of failure, resignation, or self- affirmation. Instead, the rhetoric seems exhausted, and trickles away. From this casual idiom of depletion, which dictates the tone and register of diction of the entire poem, derives the quiet authority of Crusoe's voice.
Framed and punctuated by figurations of experience (the knife-icon, the winemaking. the flute), the internal colloquy assumes a privileged stance, rhetorically empowered by the authority of the central trope of the romance, the quest into the wilderness for knowledge. Surrounded by stanzas devoted to the habitat and to seemingly minor occurrences, the dialogic meditations achieve a fresh radiance, despite their negative tone. Apparently at one time crushed by loneliness, Crusoe reflects on the fragility of the ego and its unease with the naked self:
The picture of Crusoe under the "cloud-dump" with his legs dangling "over a crater’s edge" mocks the conventional sublimity of Keats's Titans in Hyperion. Contemplating the familiar abyss— after the implied self-correction of "What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?"—Crusoe rises above self-absorption, rallying with "Pity should begin at home." The aged narrator, however, requires a retrospective amendment: "So the more / pity I felt, the more I felt at home." If there is more than a hint of the postlapsarian world in this poem (however genuine the direct observations of the landscapes are), it rests in its godless self-mockery. Bishop allows the preposition about to carry the weight of the questioning line, "What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?" Canceling the expected with, she turns to its abrupt cousin in the hope of suggesting a problem of view, one surrounded by the dislocations of self-pity. Though Crusoe returns to pity, his crater-colloquy has broadened his horizons.
Melville generates a similarly humane and humorous self- pitying, self-interrogation in the first chapter of Moby-Dick. For both Ishmael and Crusoe an unnamable lack of ease triggers interior, meditative voyages. Ishmael at home, like Crusoe, would die of boredom, but being at the beginning of his book he still enjoys the opportunity of an actual if also allegorical voyage. Crusoe has no such option, and his epic is too brief even to recover the original journey. The poem offers glimpses but no sustained history; even those glimpses assume a meditative, lyric concentration, inimical to narrative flow, when the simple past tense yields occasionally to the spirited, ever-present participles: "the overlapping rollers / —a glittering hexagon of rollers / closing and closing in"; the waterspouts "advancing and retreating"; the "hissing, ambulating turtles"; the "spawning," the "knowing," the "registering" of this island existence. The initial voyage and the shipwreck are prehistory. The world-weary Crusoe suggests through the indirection of selective recall that finally the sustaining aspects of island life were not the memory of his previous life but the unreal (surreal) and interesting (unexpected) features of everyday life as an exile. The relics, in the end, fail to sustain even that limited need to reflect upon the past:
That need for connections, a gaze returned, also occurs in the final meditative section of "At the Fishhouses." The recognition of shared experience through the fetishized artifacts confirms the historical validity of the reconstructed self. Strange that Bishop would confer upon the animal and inanimate worlds these powers of correspondence; but the auditory associations of "Clang!" and the "scream" of the village, the crazy-quilt and Aunt Mary's doll of Gwendolyn, the almanac of "Sestina" demonstrate how central the single isolated notes are to Bishop's recollections. With these she conjures up entire lifetimes.
"Crusoe in England" retrieves those poems of childhood that seek to situate the child in her own skin and in society, and anticipates (though chronologically succeeding) the landscape poems of the marginal observer of the sea and its shore. Born into the new world naked, a type of the first inhabitant of Bishop's world, Crusoe must first discover his self-identity and then proceed to a relational awareness through his mastery of a sufficient language. With his unsatisfying but undeniable success Crusoe supplies answers to Bishop's seemingly rhetorical questions of travel:
["Questions of Travel," lines 13-20]
What better way to rediscover one's self through self-education and the schooling of survival? In this island wilderness-garden, lacking community and rejecting history, Crusoe determines and defines home as a viable point of view. In retrospect, he could answer that final question of travel: "Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?" The lyric self emerging from the structuring landscape bares a soul linked to this world (this "surrealism of everyday life") while it claims the metaphor of creation and declares itself the finite I AM, only to discover, immediately, that existence is merely one more figure of speech.
As he recalls the new world of his exile, Crusoe lingers lovingly on significant moments of discovery and learning, despair and delight. Like the account of the conquistador tourists of "Brazil, January 1, 1502," this narrative weaves together the languages of metaphysical doubt, discovery, the domestic world, art and artifact, intimacies and geography. It is also an allegory of birth, of entry into the "historical, flowing, and flown." Avoiding the multiple identities of poems like "In the Waiting Room," Crusoe commits himself to no one, not even to his exiled but integrated self. Yet very much like the child's awareness, this moment of relative security purges the tide of self-pity long enough to allow Crusoe to see the world as something other than a self-reflection.
The memento mori framing of the poem contains its undelineated history as firmly as the National Geographic with its "yellow margins, the date" binds the experience of the waiting room. Between the newspaper account of the volcano's birth and the death of Friday occurs the empowering moment of Crusoe's meditation. These two historical events frame a highly conventionalized world of chronological connections ("Everything connected by 'and' and 'and"'), the calendar and habitat of the quotidian. Unlike Defoe's protagonist (whose moves kept time with England), Crusoe seeks to escape his historical frame and enter another dimension to form an ahistorical life. Told entirely in retrospect, his tale leaves enormous narrative gaps. Crusoe has identified the parentheses of his interior life, and leaves them vacant. He recalls his life as a series of poses vying for attention as the formative or empowering one, a series of moments that erupt, like volcanoes, from the surrounding historical matrix. In recall, chronology yields to lyric and meditative conventions of aporia, indirection, and unexpected juxtaposition.
To see the larger dimensions of Crusoe's self-construction requires a sense of its beginnings. Only knowledge of the "old," "bored" Crusoe of pre-Friday exile can account for the force-field of emotion and experience that follows. By the time of recounting, his life's blood—"that archipelago / has petered out"; the edge of survival "has dribbled away." Even as we see the life materialize, it fades. The reminiscence turned elegy serves primarily to measure the time from Crusoe's release from the island to his figurative death, coincident with Friday's actual one.
To account for himself, Crusoe feels obligated to place his narrative on the terra firma of a particular but peculiar nature. Despite its solid foundation, the scale is disturbing. The puniness of the volcanoes proves unsettling. Deprived of relational certainties, the exile wanders alert yet unknowing. He can judge a place or situation only in relation to the human community, but here there is none. Like Gulliver, Crusoe finds the landscape unsound because disproportioned. Like Alice, he wonders whether he has grown large or the world has grown small. Crusoe would have benefited from a glimpse of those "shadowy gray knees, / trousers and skirts and boots" of the waiting room; at least he could have gauged his size.
The panoramic overview gives way to a another dislocating exercise in scale and perspective. Crusoe sees his island in active relation to the sea and sky. Whereas the landscape at first seemed detailed but remote, it now challenges Crusoe's sense of reality. Empiricism fails him. Why the parched craters when it continually rains? Why the constant geologic unease? Why the lack of clear distinction between organic and inorganic forms?
The folds of lava, running out to sea. would hiss. I'd turn. And then they'd prove to be more turtles.
Bishop has often returned to the opaque surface of the sea to meditate upon the otherness of the natural world. Always before the ocean has functioned as a restorative trope of otherness; in its difference, its refusal of form, its marbled, restless surfaces, lay its soothing effects. In Crusoe's perverse island landscape, however, the sea relinquishes its primary role, and the land assumes the trope of otherness. Even the waterspouts are land-based, which may explain their flirtatious peculiarities:
And I had waterspouts. Oh, half a dozen at a time, far out. they'd come and go, advancing and retreating, their heads in cloud, their feet in moving patches of scuffed-up white.
Even these liquid funnels, which should have been beautiful, are disheveled. In spite being lovely "sacerdotal beings of glass" the funnels spout like chimneys. Crusoe's perception refuses the consolations of romantic languages of the sublime and the picturesque. Though risen from the "cloud-dump," his voice drops suddenly into the despair of isolation: "Beautiful, yes, but not much company." This first mention of human companionship forces reconsideration of those recalled human images: the war-torn, anthropomorphized landscape of volcanoes "with their heads blown off ," and craters with "their parched throats."
The landscape shrinks to the metaphorical "crater’s edge." Not that the lip of the abyss fails in significance, but rather it lacks specificity. From the precariously weighted "company" of the previous stanza (curiously intimate in its naked closure), Bishop withdraws to the public interior, the realm of literary metaphysical speculation and psychological brinkmanship. In spite of the surface, this stanza shields the grieving survivor from prying eyes. Yet the final aside—"So the more / pity I felt, the more I felt at home"—provides the only clue to life before the wreck. Why would pity of all emotional responses evoke memories of "home"? Bishop invents what appears to be one more casual cliché ("to feel at home") in order to fend off while disclosing a wound. "Company" and "home," however, prompt a retreat into the language of displacement and wilderness.
Unlike his eighteenth-century ancestor, Crusoe savors the moment, feeling no need to mark time. At least that is what the returned exile would have us believe from his timeless chronicle. What remains are formal moments sutured by the silence of a life lived and remembered. Each episode confronts a different issue of estrangement and isolation. As if to elude the monotony described—"The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun / rose from the sea"—Crusoe turns to a distillation of his experience with his description of the homely tasks of winemaking and the subsequent drunken flute playing.
The Dionysian ritual mimics the "untidy activity" of "The Bight." Survival requires sustenance and amusement; this moment of giddy inebriation begins the tug of war for recovery. Even intoxication on berry wine ("the awful, fizzy, stinging stuff / that went straight to my head"), however, cannot force the obvious answer to the seemingly rhetorical "Home-made, home-made! But aren't we all?" This rambunctious but momentary stay against despair collapses in another introspective view:
I felt a deep affection for the smallest of my island industries. No, not exactly, since the smallest was a miserable philosophy.
Unlike the figurative hang "over a crater's edge," this all-too-literal slump prompts a return to an early problem. the reason in fact for this narrative: "None of the books has ever got it right." From the start the poem has promised a corrective by one who knows, the traveler.
But he lacks audience-awareness. His poem begins in medias res; not only do the stanza breaks inhibit dramatic, completion, but the speaker neglects to match his key answer—"Because I didn't know enough"—with its unsounded "why?" Knowledge failed Crusoe long before his exile. The apparently random disciplines, Greek drama and astronomy, forge associative links with Crusoe's Bacchanalia and his persistent attempts to distinguish himself from the surrounding particulars. The unswerving particularity of the previous inventory scene crumbles into the drifts of snail shells about to become Wordsworthian iris beds. Inaccessibility, unexpectedly coupled with the inappropriateness of his book knowledge, allows Crusoe to associate the "bliss of solitude" to the other island, the one he cannot reach.
If books fail, perhaps salvation will arise from tropes of the elemental or excremental. The sounds and aromas of the gull and goat population impress upon Crusoe his difference from the native inhabitants; enough so that upon recall, at a lifetime's remove, Crusoe still "can't shake / them from [his] ears." He recalls an encounter with this population as a chance to assert his difference, his humanity and imagination:
Real and somewhere counter the otherness of this experience. How can these creatures be so at home on this burned-over island? Driven by boredom, Crusoe dyes a baby goat to force him into exile:
Displacing his feelings of strangeness upon the natural world by isolating the kid from its mother is Crusoe's ultimate retaliation, but it is a pathetic, cruel, and childish one.
Crippled by the boredom and uncanniness of the island, Crusoe must find another perspective to relieve the two-dimensionality of this scene; he chooses dreams. Within this sleep-tossed state, appetites surface, demanding to be satisfied. Stranded on the surface, Crusoe stands unable to relinquish or nourish his interior needs. How like the child's "immense, sibilant, glistening loneliness" is Crusoe's
The cry sounds the note of the condemned man, sentenced to endless, isolated, and isolating pointless endeavor. The nightmarish term makes the catechistic epigraph to Geography III ring prophetic. The lessons of geography prevail, the surface of the planet asserts its role as dominant trope.
The convulsions of the past nine verse-paragraphs spillover into:
Just when I thought I couldn't stand it another minute longer, Friday came.
Geographically and psychologically confined, Crusoe has withdrawn to the smallest temporal measurement. All knowledge—situational, personal, investigative, remembered, elemental, physical, irrational—has proven incomplete, insufficient to alleviate isolation. As if to underscore this painful insight, Crusoe parenthetically stresses that "(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)" This dismissal of Defoe's account of master-servant meeting for religious training not only sounds a corrective to the eighteenth-century tract, but it also denies this stanza the psychological and emotional embellishments that would satisfy the conventional social and readerly expectations. After toying with the unnourishing words nice and friends Bishop underscores all ambiguities with one of her famous conditionals; "If only he had been a woman!" Just as Crusoe and Friday have become a male-bonded couple, Bishop separates them by pointing to their basic incompatibility in terms of the requirements of the domestic world:
I wanted to propagate my kind, and so did he, I think, poor boy.
Friday does, however, supply the missing link between Crusoe and the uninviting landscape. Indeed, he becomes the bridge to Crusoe's humanity. In his sheer physicality, Friday stands as the ideal foil to the introspective gloom. Unlike the alien voice of "Manuelzinho," voicing sorrowing amusement but incomprehension, Crusoe knows the significance of this encounter. Unlike the earlier spectator, Crusoe means no condescension when he recalls: "—Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body." The role of admiring and loving white man resurfaces one more time. Perhaps Melville offers the shrewdest and funniest episode in such "savage" schooling; Ishmael tells of his waking sensations:
Now, take away the awful fear, and my sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg's pagan arm thrown round me.
Ishmael admires the animal (natural) physicality of this pagan cannibal. Like Friday, Queequeg becomes more than a male; he reaches into the natural unknown. He bridges that gap in which "The Moose" remain a visual standoff. Like the earlier "friendships" in American literature—Leatherstocking traveling "far towards the setting sun," Huck planning to "light out for the territory ahead of the rest"—these interior relationships thrive away from civilization, off the page.
Unlike its prose ancestors, "Crusoe in England" lacks the pages of narrative that would supply, conceal, and complete a relationship. It depends rather on the lyric strategies of compression and surprise. Not only does Bishop cloak the relationship with seemingly cast-off diction—"nice," "friends," "pretty"—but details the core of the lengthy tale in eleven lines. The stanza must bear the weight of the attempted and canceled antecedent perspectives, allowing the echoing "pretty" of the final line to multiply the images recalled. Though avoiding scandalous intimacy, the poem suggests a need for resolution of this new dimension, this superficial core. Just as a new passage is found, the poem adroitly avoids closure:
And then one day they came and took us off.
Now I live here, another island, that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides?
With a single line, Bishop erases an established life and substitutes the weighted present, allowing both deletion and articulation to stand. An entire history collapses into a sentence, and Crusoe reestablishes the historical, chronological frame, abandoning established formal considerations. The abruptness of the intrusive And telescopes narrative elements into staging devices. Only in retrospect does it become clear that them and us, then and now form the lyric hinges of the poem, the rhetorical elements that defer narrative in favor of lyric or meditative strategies. The isolation on a physical island has been replaced by the random, careless existential interior remove. Caught between the real and uninteresting of this other island, made so because of the postmortem realities, Crusoe can confer but a visual benediction on those treasured relics of a life. Reticent to handle his memorabilia, he whispers, "My eyes rest on it and pass on."
Though this withdrawal effects perspective, the deferred historicism requires closure. To rebuke the historicism, Bishop details the interment of the dry, lifeless artifacts, shorn of utility significance. All that's left is to tag and display them:
The echoing still carries the weight of this reminiscence and linguisically transforms living memories to a nature morte, museum artifacts. The narrative of the larger world continues, sometimes violently (as indicated by the volcanic eruption), but Crusoe, looking at his life as if it were a completed work of art, has in effect abandoned the present-tense and consigned the world of experience to memory. If he forswore life "seventeen years ago come March," then how can the poem retrieve the originating spark of this tale? The closure of the poem conceals or reveals its originating image, shelved and in Crusoe's rhetoric, drained of significance; it is the knife that once "reeked of meaning, like a crucifix. It lived." Like the man's old black knife in "At the Fishhouses" (that had "scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish . . . / the blade of which is almost worn away" [de-aestheticizing the object]), the tool Crusoe begged and implored "not to break" testifies only to his former existence, as if an artifact that proves that he had lived at one time also proves he no longer does. This last "effect" engenders the entire monologue; the knife testifies both to survival and to loss.
Yet the poem still aches for affirmation of interpretive possibilities that would challenge this failure of correspondences. Scanning the particulars of his life, the weary exile challenges the worth of the evidence: "How can anyone want such things?" As if to ward off possible requests for the offal of experience, the final indelicate historian of Crusoe's psyche intrudes, returning to the emotional crux of the poem:
—And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles seventeen years ago come March.
Crusoe survives the failure of his emotional life and lingers only to "enumerate old themes." Resigned and reconciled, he faces the necessary disjunctions between knowledge and understanding, knowledge and experience without the saving wisdom of "One Art": "(Write it!)"
In the 200 or so lines of this poem, Bishop fully realizes the potential of her language-world, illustrating what her poetry can and cannot know. This vision of wholeness exceeds and violates the visual clarity, the conventions established by her previous poems, which explicitly refuse models of inclusion and unity. The tension of "Crusoe" stems from the interplay between the monumental tropes of landscape and the elusive referential nature of the generative emotional core. The hiatus between stanzas command attention by more than the ordinary segmenting and limiting powers of the stanza break; by spatially marking the silences between place and person, the mind and the heart, they constitute one of the rhetoric strategies of understanding. Apparently transparent clarities of language, and conversational syntax expose a lack of autobiographical plenitude. Unlike the seemingly offhand but calculatingly glib counsel of "One Art," the meditation of "Crusoe" strains against the inarticulation of a powerful self-awareness held under erasure by the rhetorical strategies of the poem.
From Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP
|Title||C. K. Doreski: On "Crusoe in England"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||C. K. Doreski||Criticism Target||Elizabeth Bishop|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||06 Jan 2015|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language|
|Printer Friendly||View||PDF Version||View|
|Contexts||No Data||Tags||No Data|