David Kalstone: On "At the Fishhouses"

[Robert] Lowell, when he read the poem in The New Yorker, recognized immediately the "great splendor" of the descriptive part, but questioned "a little the word BREAST in the last four or five lines – a little too much in the context perhaps; but I’m probably wrong." What he picked up, of course, was the flicker of human drama, of a vestigial implacable female presence behind the scene – as in The Prelude when the young Wordsworth’s landscape is suddenly and unintentionally shadowed by feelings which have to do with his dead parents. That, no doubt, is why Bishop’s poem has often been felt as Wordsworthian in its evasions and circlings. Originally, "At the Fishouses" began with more details about Bishop’s grandfather, but her revisions suggest the degree to which she chose not to overstress the poem’s human and personal center. Here eye, as Howard Moss suggests, is a dramatic eye; yet she often experiences traditional dramatic problems – character, comic or tragic action – by fitting out a stage for them, a stage upon which the protagonists will not necessarily appear. By the end of "at the Fishhouses," Bishop’s own place as protagonist is apparent; her sense of being an outsider is powerfully banished at the cost of identifying herself with severe, if universal, natural laws.

David Kalstone, "Prodigal Years," Chapter 1 in Part II of Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,1989), 121-122.

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Criticism Overview
Title David Kalstone: On "At the Fishhouses" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author David Kalstone Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell
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