Joanne Feit Diehl: On "Crusoe in England"

In one of her few public statements on the relation of gender to writing, Bishop commented, "Women’s experiences are much more limited, but that does not really matter – there is Emily Dickinson, as one always says. You just have to make do with what you have after all" (from page 1: "Elizabeth Bishop Speaks About Her Poetry," New Paper). For Bishop, making do meant a life of daring exploration and an intense dedication to craft – the sustained development of a style of straightforward effacement that coupled indirection with the plainness of speech. The guise of the traveler, the voice of the child, and the testimonies of grotesque, liminal creatures all convey experience profoundly felt and obliquely expressed. Different as these voices are, each carries a quality of existential displacement that restricts as it imagines the possibilities of human relationship.

In "Crusoe in England," Bishop’s most extreme poetic instance of gender-crossing fused with eroticism, the practical, stranded voyager with his laconic voice becomes the spokesman for feelings of great intimacy, fear of maternity, and the pain of separation and loss. Here the voice of the isolated man most clearly articultaes Bishop’s terrain of difference, for Crusoe’s hardship is related as much to the claustrophobia of entrapment within an obsessive imagination as it is to the physical conditions of the island. (As John Hollander observes, "The very island is an exemplar, a representation; it is a place which stands for the life lived on it as much as it supports that life. Its unique species are emblems of the selfhood that the whole region distills and enforces and on it, life and word and art are one, and the homemade Dionysos is [rather than blesses from without or within] his votary ["Elizabeth Bishop’s Mappings of Life," 1983, p. 250.) Loneliness finds its projection in a violent, aggressive landscape where volcanoes’ heads are "blown off" and the "parched throats" of craters are "hot to touch," an island hissing with aridity and the replication of barren life. 

From Joanne Fiet Diehl, "Elizabeth Bishop’s Sexual Politics" (from Women Poets and the American Sublime, Indiana University Press, 1990), rpt. in Elizabeth Bishop: The Politics of Gender, ed. Marilyn May Lombardi (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993), 19-20.

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Criticism Overview
Title Joanne Feit Diehl: On "Crusoe in England" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joanne Feit Diehl Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Elizabeth Bishop: The Politics of Gender
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