Commentary on ‘Sandpiper’ by Elizabeth Bishop

Sandpiper

By Elizabeth Bishop

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
And that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
In a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
Of interrupting water comes and goes

And glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
Where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
Rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
He stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear. The tide
Is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

Looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
Mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

A “music video” treatment of the Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Sandpiper” produced by Pink Dog Productions

Commentary: This exquisitely constructed poem sees the poet compare herself in an extended analogy to the lowly sandpiper. The poem is inspired by observations made on a return visit to Nova Scotia in 1965 and in it she personifies the bird, giving it human characteristics and eccentricities.  She tells us that ‘he’ is ‘a student of Blake’, referring to the great English poet and painter, William Blake, who famously celebrated seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower’ in his poem, ‘Auguries of Innocence’, which, by the way, is a poem from one of his notebooks now known as The Pickering Manuscript.

We sense the continuous, nervous movement of the bird as ‘he runs to the south’, searching, exploring, discovering.  The bird is ‘finical’ or finicky and ‘awkward’ as it ceaselessly searches for the perfect grain, the discarded morsel.  The movement ‘south’ in turn mimics Bishop’s own migration south from Nova Scotia to Boston to Key West and later further south to Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.

Colm Tóibín in his effortlessly scholarly work, On Elizabeth Bishop, mentions that the ‘search for pure accuracy in her poems forced Bishop to watch the world helplessly, as though there was nothing she could do’.  She shares this trait with many other poets and artists.  This debilitating feature is also evident in Hemingway and Hopkins, this ceaseless search for the perfect word or phrase, and also features and is dramatised in the content and unique structure of Emily Dickinson’s poems with her use of dashes and capitalisation and other structural tricks to highlight the honing and triple distillation of each poem.  It also reminds me of something my son wrote very honestly  in one of his blogs, writing about his own writing process and that famous Irishman, Jack O’Metty!:

I’m the type of person who makes casual reference to Alberto Giacometti in everyday conversations. I have a vivid childhood memory of watching a Euronews cultural vignette which outlined the great sculptor’s methods: starting from a large scale he would pare down and reduce his sculptural figures until almost nothing remained save only the most minimal of features which could be said to represent man.  Giacometti’s problem was knowing when to stop before his clay figures, once larger than himself, disappeared to nothingness.  I use this as a metaphor for my own critical thought.  I consider and consider and pare and reduce until sometimes nothing remains. The trick is to create some academic content before this happens. I don’t always succeed. https://nicholasstreet.wordpress.com.

Many of the places she visited (Nova Scotia, the Straits of Magellan, the Amazon Estuary, Key West, Florida) stand at the boundary between land and sea and this tension between land and sea is very evident here in ‘Sandpiper’ and also in such poems as   ‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Questions of Travel’ and ‘The Fish’, with the sea viewed as a strange, indifferent, encircling power.  In this poem, the sandpiper patrols that dividing line between sea and land and perhaps this is a metaphor for the conflict between the artist and life.

Bishop is fascinated by geographical extremities: straits, peninsulas, promontories, wharves, bights, mountains, jungle, outback, attracted to the near-isolation of these places.   Colm Tóibín makes the very astute observation that she, ‘made her homes on a single line of longitude, or close to one: Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, New York, Key West, Rio de Janeiro, Boston’.

In 1976, three years before she died, she wrote:

All my life I have lived and behaved very much like that sandpiper – just running along the edges of different countries ‘looking for something’.  I have always felt I couldn’t possibly live very far inland, away from the ocean; and I have always lived near it, frequently in sight of it …. timorously pecking for subsistence along coastlines of the world.

The second stanza opens with the domestic simile, ‘the beach hisses like fat’ and the caesura which follows is meant to demarcate the dividing line between left and right, sea and land, north and south.  A feature of her style is her continuous self-correction and search for exactness and greater precision in her description of the scene:

He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
Where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
Rapidly backwards and downwards.

This is immediately followed by another feature of her poetic work and craft: contradiction and deeper clarification of what has gone before:

The world is a mist. And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear. The tide
Is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.

The poem ends with the poet again personifying the bird and it is clear to us that if we but simply change the gender, she could be talking about herself and the poetic process, just as Heaney does so eloquently in such poems as ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’:

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

Looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!

Perhaps we can say, ‘Poor bird, (s)he is obsessed!’ with the impossibility of the task which she has undertaken as a poet: It’s as if the sandpiper who has been looking for ‘something, something, something’ suddenly sees the drab beach (with its millions of differing grains of sand as opposed to Blake’s one grain) transformed into a dazzling bejewelled walkway glistening with diversity and riches,

The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
Mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Bishop (7)

Works Cited:

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems, 1927 – 1979.  New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroix, 1983

Tóibín, Colm. On Elizabeth Bishop, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. Digital

See also Reviews Rants and Rambles:  https://vinhanley.com/2015/08/28/themes-and-issues-in-the-poetry-of-elizabeth-bishop/

The Terrible Sonnets – not so terrible after all!

 

bighopkins

In his Terrible Sonnets, Hopkins’s shows off his wide-ranging use of imagery. We know that he wrestled with doubt, particularly during his final years which he spent teaching in University College Dublin.  In his attempts to express clearly his meaning it can be said he transformed almost every known literary device used by poets: dramatic opening lines, imagery, irony, ambiguity, puns.  He also invented a few of his own: sprung rhythm, compound adjectives, and his use of foreign, colloquial and archaic words.  The best we can say about his sonnets is that they demonstrate his almost complete disregard for sonnet conventions!

All of his poems, and especially the Terrible Sonnets, were directly inspired by his experiences as a Jesuit priest, and his sonnets are attempts to elaborate his central themes: the value of sacrifice, the transience of mortal beauty, the permanence of evil in an unchristian world and the deep spiritual anguish and desolation which characterises two sonnets in particular: ‘No Worst, there is None’ and ‘I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark’.  Critics would have us believe that these ‘terrible sonnets’ plumb the depths of despair but yet I believe that despite his battles with desolation and near despair, his sonnets always contain signs of hope, no matter how slender.  After all, despair, in his Catholic catechism was one of the Seven Deadly Sins and I believe that these often harrowing sonnets are dramatisations of the darkness and spiritual anguish which comes with ‘the dark night of the soul’ often mentioned in Ignatian and John of the Cross spirituality.

Therefore, it is my view that while the Terrible Sonnets sometimes plumb the depths of despair they never actually reach rock bottom and each sonnet ends on the slightest sliver of hope.  We must remember again that Fr. Hopkins is a priest, not only that but he is a Jesuit priest, one of Christ’s Storm Troopers, crack SAS commandoes, and so despair is not an option!

In his sonnet ‘No Worst, there is None’, Hopkins outlines the intensity of his pain in the opening quatrain and then proceeds to seek significant comfort, but in vain.  This sonnet is particularly interesting in that many of its images echo through earlier poems where the mood was less despondent.  The poet’s sense of despair is emphasised in quatrain two in an unusual but particularly poignant image of his cries heaving ‘herds-long’, gathering at the gate of heaven perhaps but not being admitted or even acknowledged.  Where is the comfort that Hopkins himself had administered to Felix Randal?  The poet then refers to an ‘age-old anvil’, a sounding board which winces and rings out his pain. This very original image of the anvil reminds us again of Felix and his work in the forge, except on this occasion the poet is the raw material that Christ is beating into shape.  In the sestet, the poet refers to a natural landscape, the mountains.  In earlier poems, ‘wilderness’ filled him with joy.  Here, however, the steep cliffs, a nightmarish metaphor, represent the spiritual torment and physical suffering that the poet has had to endure, day in, day out.  The only comfort is the relief of sleep.  However, as the poem comes to an end, there is slender hope because while the lost souls are as he is, they are worse off because they are dead and at least he is still alive and has time before he dies to repent and live a better life.  This in turn makes him realise that he is not so badly off after all.  The title also, believe it or not, contains a tiny nugget of reassurance: here, he is not saying that this is the worst, but that there IS no worst – as we all know from sometimes bitter experience,  things can always get worse!

In ‘I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark’ the poet awakens to the oppressive darkness of night and yearns for the respite of daylight.  The dark night is itself symbolic of dark periods in the poet’s life when hope of spiritual ecstasy may have seemed very distant.  So where then is our sliver of hope here in this sonnet?  Well, there are a number of sightings!  For example, when he says, ‘Comforter, where, where is your comforting?’, this is merely echoing Christ’s words on the cross. ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ and while it may appear at times in his imagery that Hopkins is literally hanging by his fingernails over the pit and the abyss, yet he does not despair.

In The Terrible Sonnets, he constantly uses numerous tricks to gain our attention and his opening lines are often very dramatic and effective:

            ‘No worst, there is none.  Pitched past pitch of grief’

            ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.’

The Terrible Sonnets, in particular, specialise in short, hurried, phrases and in the repetition of certain thematic words: ‘Pitched past pitch of grief’; ‘More pangs will, schooled at forepangs’; ‘Let me be fell’; ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’; ‘O the mind, mind has mountains’; ‘What hours, O what black hours’; ‘Fall, gall themselves, and gash’; ‘I am gall’.

His schooling and studies in theology have convinced him that God exists, he is always certain of that, so why then has He forsaken him and why does he appear to be so far away, apparently unresponsive and uncaring to a man whose letters are ‘dead’?  Hopkins’s increasingly sinister images explore the bounds of human suffering and despair.  In the sonnet ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark’, for example, the conspicuous absence of daylight reminds us how far the poet has come from the glorious sunshine and colour in ‘Spring’, ‘God’s Grandeur’ or ‘The Windhover’.  There is little evidence of ‘couple-colour’ in ‘the black hours’ Hopkins has spent with his torment, suffering ‘yet longer light’s delay’.  The delay of light represents, of course, the delay of hope – all is now ‘gall’ and ‘heartburn’.  Quite remarkably, taste is evoked as a description of the poet’s state.  He becomes bitterness itself, borne out of his despair.  Yet, perhaps this is God’s will that he suffer the ‘curse’ with which his ‘bones’ and ‘flesh’ must contend.  But the poet’s tormented spirit is souring dough, which needs to be infused with spiritual ecstasy.

To conclude, in Hopkins’s poetry, therefore, the range of imagery is certainly quite extensive, his originality unquestioned.  Imagery ignites the poet’s celebration and it ignites his desolation.  In the darkness, there is no flash of colour, of light, no ’dapple-dawn-drawn’ inspiration to lift his thoughts, no sparks, no flashes, no gold.  In 1889, only weeks before his death, Hopkins wrote another sonnet, often linked with the Terrible Sonnets, ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’.  This sonnet is a hurt protest by the good and devout priest that God allows the wicked to prosper while Hopkins, who has devoted his whole life to the service of God in the slums of cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow and Dublin, suffers the tortures of the damned.  In the poem images of fertility in nature abound: building, breeding, waking, growing.  The poet, however, is depicted in the sterile image of a ‘eunuch’.  Nonetheless, the concluding appeal expressed again through a vivid and most appropriate image, is that as Spring renews nature, so God may send his spiritual ‘roots rain’: surely if he can still pray he is not in despair.   Where there is prayer, there is hope!

 DONNE- a Hymn to God the Father