Free Resources for Leaving Cert English 2021



The Good Old Days!

This week the Government announced that schools would remain closed until February 1st, and that Leaving Cert students would be able to attend school for three days a week, beginning on Monday January 11th. That Government decision remained in force for all of twenty-four hours!   Because of this continuous  disruption and uncertainty, no doubt caused by the Covid-19 upsurge in the community, but not helped by Government indecision, I have brought together here in one post links to a series of relevant notes which you may consider useful in your English course studies for 2021. These notes are not exhaustive but focus mainly on  Single Text, Comparative and Poetry Sections.

Caveat Emptor! Leaving Cert Student Beware !! These are resources which you should use wisely. They are personal responses to the various texts and you should read and consider them if you find them useful.



(You know the drill, click on the link!)

King Lear (H/O)

Single Text Study Notes on King Lear

Study Notes on King Lear

Some Central Themes in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Image Patterns in King Lear

Wuthering Heights (H/O)

Major Themes in Wuthering Heights

Imagery and Symbolism in Wuthering Heights

The Depiction of Childhood in Wuthering Heights  Some Observations on Characterisation in the Novel

Grace Notes on Wuthering Heights

Philadelphia Here I Come (O)

Characters and Relationships in Philadelphia Here I Come!

The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come!

The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!


Some Themes in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Characterisation in the novel Persuasion

Fairy-Tale Motifs in Persuasion by Jane Austen

Silas Marner

Themes in Silas Marner

Imagery in Silas Marner

Silas Marner The Characters

Fairy-Tale Elements in Silas Marner



For each Leaving Certificate course, three modes of comparison will be prescribed. This means that the texts chosen for comparative study must be studied under these particular modes (headings).

This year the modes of comparison at Higher Level and Ordinary Level are as follows:

Higher Level

  • Theme or Issue
  • Cultural Context
  •  General Vision and Viewpoint

Ordinary Level

  • Theme
  • Social Setting
  • Relationships

This year there will be two questions on EACH of these modes of comparison.  In reality this means that because of the time constraints and limited time given to you to study the syllabus properly you only need to focus on ONE mode of comparison.

FYI the following  adjustments have been made to the Comparative Section in the Leaving Cert English Syllabus for 2021: next June the Comparative Section will include questions on all three modes prescribed for examination in 2021 – namely, Theme or Issue, Cultural Context, and General Vision and Viewpoint.

Candidates will be required to answer on one mode only. This will allow you to concentrate your efforts because in effect, if you wish, you can simply concentrate on one mode of comparison only and you can be guaranteed that there will be a choice of two questions for you to answer on that chosen mode of comparison.  Remember, the standard required won’t alter but you are being given greater choice this year in your Comparative Study.

The internal question choice within modes will remain the same. Single questions (marked out of 70) will require candidates to refer to AT LEAST TWO texts in their response. The same criteria for assessment will apply to candidates irrespective of whether they refer to two texts or to three texts when responding to 70 mark questions. Two-part questions (marked out of 30 and 40) will require candidates to refer to ONE text in answer to part (a) and to TWO other texts in answer to part (b).

Theme or Issue

This involves comparing texts on a prescribed theme(s). These would have to be themes that were pervasive and central to the texts chosen for study e.g.

Isolation and Loneliness
Fantasy and reality

These themes/issues will be the messages or concerns that the writer or film director wishes to impart to the audience. In most texts, there will be a number of themes/issues worth considering

Your task, therefore, in this section is to compare and contrast the same theme as it is treated by different authors or film directors.

Cultural Context

Compare the texts focusing on social rituals, values and attitudes. This is not to be seen as a sociological study of the texts alone. It means taking some perspectives, which enable the students to understand the kind of values and structures with which people contend. It amounts to entering into the world of the text and getting some insight and feel for the cultural texture of the world created. This would imply considering such aspects as the rituals of life and the routines of living, the structures of society, familial, social, economic, religious and political: the respective roles of men and women in society, the position of children, the role and nature of work, the sources and structures of power and the significance of race and class.

Vision and Viewpoint

The term, general vision and viewpoint, may be understood by candidates to mean the broad outlook of the authors of the texts (or of the texts themselves) as interpreted and understood by the reader  – excerpt from Marking Scheme, 2003

When approaching this mode of comparison it is important to examine each text to discover what particular vision or view of life is presented by the novelist, playwright or film director.  We need to find the overall view of the writer as it is reflected through the themes and issues raised in the text.  We will probably realise that we as readers or as an audience have been given a privileged position by the author and that we often know more than the characters in the novel or the actors on the stage or film set.  We are, after all, entitled to our own viewpoint also!  Commonly, we are expected to judge whether the text is positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, realistic or dystopian, etc., etc.


When you answer a question in the Comparative Section remember that you have to be selective in emphasising the most meaningful similarities and differences between texts. The more similar they appear to be, the more provocative and challenging it is to contrast them and to draw out differences between them. Remember also that when you draw out surprising or disputable similarities or differences, you require detailed support from the texts.

In a Comparative answer, it is vitally important to compare and contrast these different ways of looking at life, or to examine if there is coherence or a lack of coherence between all these differing viewpoints.



I include links to SIX of the eight poets on your course here – simply click on the link.  Again, in this area, the Department and the Examinations Commission have made very generous adjustments to the Syllabus for 2021.  So, this year, ONE additional poetry question will be included i.e. candidates will be required to answer one of five questions instead of the usual four.  In reality, therefore, instead of having to have at least FIVE  poets prepared for examination, you now will need to have at least FOUR poets studied at Higher Level this year.  (Two extra poems will also be included in the Ordinary Level paper).

Seamus Heaney

The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Some Recurring Themes

Analysis of The Forge by Seamus Heaney

Analysis of The Harvest Bow by Seamus Heaney

Bogland by Seamus Heaney


Elizabeth Bishop

Themes and Issues in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop: The Poets Poet


Eavan Boland

Major Themes in Eavan Bolands Poetry

The Beauty of Ordinary Things  In the Poetry of Eavan Boland

Child of Our Time by Eavan Boland


Robert Frost


Commentary on A Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost

Analysis of Spring Pools by Robert Frost

Some Personal Thoughts on The Road not Taken by Robert Frost


Gerard Manley hopkins

The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Analysis of The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Commentary on Pied Beauty by Hopkins

An Analysis of Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins


Sylvia Plath

The Poetry of Sylvia Plath



“Roosters” by Elizabeth Bishop – A poem whose time has come again?





Taking recent political events in America into account, especially the election of Donald Trump to the White House, this poem seems to me to be one whose time has finally come round again!  In 1938, as another war threatens to engulf the world, Elizabeth Bishop stops off in Key West for almost a decade on her slow, leisurely migration South.  In 1941, shortly after the tragic events of Pearl Harbour, she produced this classic poem, a poem which many claim depicts American chauvinism at its worst and a poem that was read with interest by millions of returning soldiers and marines as they undertook the challenging reintegration back into civilian life after its publication in 1946 as part of her collection North and South – a collection of quintessential Bishop poems about waking up and the sea.

It is one of her ‘long narrow poems’ (44 stanzas) and yet Colm Tóibín in his analysis of the poem states rather controversially that, ‘it is important to insist that the poem “Roosters” is about roosters’.  He goes further and insists that ‘more exactly, it is about roosters in Key West’.  This may be so but even a cursory reading, in these revisionist times, will no doubt point up the presence of many other important sub-themes which are scrutinised and analysed here by the poet, such as militarism, male/female roles, war-mongering, forgiveness, and waking up to reality.  However, her treatment of the roosters is generally subtle, though not always so, and I have to agree with Tóibín’s final assessment that, ‘she managed to write one of the great poems about power and cruelty by not doing so.’

The poem was written at a time when the navy was gearing up for a war in Europe and other far-flung theatres of war.  Key West had been chosen as a new navy base and she was at one stage, much to her annoyance, forced to rent her beloved property to navy personnel.  In other areas of Key West, property was being purchased compulsorily and some houses were being demolished.  Therefore, it is no wonder that the poem has been read as an anti-war poem and a poem condemning arbitrary authority, ‘what right have you to give / commands and tell us how to live.’

The poem opens in Key West with the town waking to a morning light which she characterises as militarised, the morning is ‘gun-metal blue dark’.  The poet and her lover, the ‘we’ of the opening stanza, are rudely awakened from their slumbers by a martial rooster. This initial call is soon echoed by others and within a short time, there is a cacophony of strident roosters calling the sleepy Key West community to face a new day.  In a letter to Marianne Moore, Bishop wrote that she wanted the opening to represent the baseness of military warfare, and had in mind, too, Picasso’s Guernica.  From the weaponized colour of dawn to the macho “first crow of the first cock,” Bishop lures us into the poem as if from sleep, from non-consciousness, and forces us to face our own new (political) reality post November 8th!!

The macho roosters, symbolic of American chauvinism, ready themselves for another day of domination, of seeing off rivals, and indulging in some megaphone diplomacy.  They are depicted as ‘stupid’, using their ‘traditional cries’ and she personifies their behaviour, ‘their protruding chests’, ‘their green-gold medals dressed’; she ridicules their efforts ‘to command and terrorise the rest’.  One of the many things that makes Bishop’s anti-war argument in “Roosters” so interesting is her rare lack of reticence to disclose the struggles of women to survive against the rhythms of male competition, rivalry, discord, the taking up of arms, and combat.   She is anything but subtle here and, in my opinion, it is one of the times when her customary reticence and use of understatement goes out the window.  This is very evident in her unflattering depiction of the roosters’ wives:

The many wives

Who lead hens’ lives

Of being courted and despised;

She uses the traditional image of the ‘tin rooster’ as weather vane on ‘our little wooden northern houses’ to introduce the concept of militarism again.  She uses military imagery to depict their battles and skirmishes.  The roosters make ‘sallies’, setting out their territory, ‘marking out maps’, and the image of a great operations centre with maps ‘like Rand McNally’s’ with ‘glass-headed pins’ and military uniforms is created with imagery like ‘oil-golds and copper greens’.  The roosters are compared to the ‘scarlet majors’ in Sassoon’s anti-war poem, ‘Base Details’, who send their “glum heroes up the line to death”.   Again they are personified, they are ‘screaming’ at the inhabitants of Key West to ‘Get up! Stop dreaming!’.  The poet refers to the idea that the Greeks used these ‘very combative’ birds for their cock fighting spectacles.

There follows more imagery of roosters fighting, flying, dying – the blood has gone to their heads, which are ‘charged with all your fighting blood’.  She disapproves of their ‘virile presence’ and their paradoxical ‘vulgar beauty’.  Bishop is playing with us here: is she not saying, ‘Whatever else we say about these roosters, they’re not chicken’!

All my adult life I have been aware of America as having a predisposition to enter conflicts all over the world.  My memories of the 60’s and 70’s are of harrowing television clips from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos.  In recent years, especially since 2003, America has been mired in military intervention, military deployments  and full blown wars which seem to be unwinnable despite the seeming one-sided nature of the contests. Nothing, Bishop’s poem reminds us, is ever won from war.  This poem is a perfect example of her honesty and here she shows her nerve to review human nature honestly and she also  portrays a steely resistance to duplicity and coercion.

Bishop, up to this point, has looked at roosters from many different angles but now she focuses on an association between the rooster and St. Peter in the Gospel account of the denial of Jesus before his Crucifixion:

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

In the Latin version of the Bible “gallus canit” means “the cock crowed,” and “flet Petrus” means “Peter wept.”  So this is one of the reasons why roosters are so often used ‘on basilica and barn’ to depict, not so much Peter’s denial and humanities overall frailty, but the unconditional forgiveness offered by Christ.  The climax of the poem is beautifully rendered as we witness the literally “cocky” roosters subside in the last part of the poem to become an image of peace, ‘The cocks are now almost inaudible’.   Morning has returned, with immense hope, to the world.  By poem’s end, the rooster crows and Peter weeps as the poem shifts from remorse to salvation to inescapable hope—like a re-enactment of civilisation’s transformation from militancy to humility—so that the rooster’s call is a symbol of forgiveness.

The final five stanzas take us back to the beginning – morning has broken and the master craftswoman uses beautiful slender ‘l’ sounds to depict a new dawn, a new beginning:

In the morning

A low light is floating

In the backyard and gilding

Colm Tóibín so rightly asserts that ‘In ‘Roosters’, she … managed to produce one of the great poems about the morning’.  ‘The sun climbs in’ and transforms ‘the broccoli leaf by leaf’ and ‘the tiny floating swallow’s belly’.  She uses the beautiful simile ‘like wandering lines in marble’ to depict the creeping rays of sunshine.  The only discordant note to this otherwise idyllic, hopeful ending is the ambiguous role played by the sun – it can be seen as either an ‘enemy’ or a ‘friend’.

This literary tour de force broke new ground in its attitude to, and treatment of, war and pacifism on the one hand and the sometimes fraught relations between men and women in a post-war world on the other.  If there is hope, and the poem ends with a new dawn, then Bishop is bold enough to suggest that it lies with women.  She sees a future America where hope lies in the power of women to seize a greater share in mapping out the future destiny of the nation and wrestle it away from stubborn, war-mongering men.  I said at the beginning of this piece of commentary that I thought this was a poem whose time had come again – I hope America have not lost their chance to carry out Bishop’s manifesto with the recent defeat of  a strong female candidate in the Presidential Election.  Time will tell but it adds to the cachet of this poem that it has had the power to continue to shape America from its first publication in 1941 until the present day.



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:  Themes and Issues in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

Reviews Rants and Rambles: Commentary on Sandpiper by Elizabeth Bishop

Commentary on ‘Sandpiper’ by Elizabeth Bishop



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.

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:

Inniskeen Road: July Evening

Inniskeen road (1)
Bikes on the Road to Billy Brennan’s Barn, Inniskeen – courtesy of

Inniskeen Road: July Evening


By Patrick Kavanagh

The bicycles go by in twos and threes –

There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight,

And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries

And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.

Half-past eight and there is not a spot

Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown

That might turn out a man or woman, not

A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.


I have what every poet hates in spite

Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.

Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight

Of being king and government and nation.

A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king

Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.


Copyright © Estate of Katherine Kavanagh

In his early poems Kavanagh experimented with a dreamy, transcendental sort of poetry.  He seemed to want to escape from his own real world.  He didn’t feel that his own world was a fit subject for poetry, or that poetic thought could be expressed in ordinary language.  All this has changed when he comes to write ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ in 1936.

This is one of the first examples of realism in Kavanagh’s poetry.  For the first time he has found the courage to use his own specific world and his own position within that world as the subject matter for poetry.  In this poem he writes about his own local place – a world in which he was both an insider and an outsider.  He belongs because he was born there and lives there.  He doesn’t belong because, as a poet, he is isolated, he is different.  In this poem he writes eloquently about this anomaly.

This poem is about a local and personal experience.  It’s the first time that Kavanagh uses actual place names and personal names in his poetry.  There is a specific place, Inniskeen Road, and a specific time, July Evening at half-past-eight and the centre of local activity is Billy Brennan’s Barn.  It’s the first time that Kavanagh’s own local world comes to life in his poetry and marks a major watershed in his poetry where from now on realism is at the heart of all his work.  He writes about his own real, personal situation in the real world of Inniskeen Road during a summer barn dance.  To make the poem even more real, he uses the present tense throughout – it’s as if the action is happening as he speaks.

THEME:  This poem is about the isolation of the poet.  A poet is different from other people: he is not interested in material matters such as the price of cattle, the progress of crops or the results of football matches.  The poet lives in the world of imagination and because of this he is often considered as an outsider; he is isolated – a loner – he does not fit in to ordinary society.  So the price the poet pays for his gift of poetry is the pain of isolation.

This poem recounts a local barn dance and the whole neighbourhood has gone for an evening’s enjoyment. Kavanagh has not gone – perhaps for fear of being laughed at.  The tone of the octet (first 8 lines)is thoughtful as well as being bitter.  There is a sense of loneliness in it – ‘and there is not a spot upon a mile of road…’ He feels a palpable sense of being excluded by the other young people’s ‘half-talk code of mysteries’ and by their ‘wink and elbow language of delight’.

In the sestet (final 6 lines) the tone is again very bitter when he considers his own isolation and compares his lot (similar to Elizabeth Bishop in ‘Crusoe in England’) with that of Alexander Selkirk, the prototype for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – ‘Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight…’.  Listen to the bitterness of the final line: ‘I am king of banks and stones and every blooming (God damned) thing’.

LANGUAGE:  Kavanagh is the poet of ordinary language.  He has no place for poetic diction or flowery language.  Instead he uses ordinary, colloquial language.  This use of ordinary speech is part of his simplicity; he does not try to impress; he is not looking over his shoulder at the literary critics.  Here he is content with himself and with his language: there is a country barn dance in ‘Billy Brennan’s barn’, ‘the bicycles go by in twos and threes’, there is ‘the half talk code of mysteries’ and also he notices ‘the wink and elbow language of delight’, capturing perfectly the closely-knit peasant atmosphere of the local dance.

STRUCTURE:  In the first quatrain (4 lines) Kavanagh focuses on the togetherness, the closely-knit community spirit of the place – the cyclists going along the stony road to the local dance.  They are so closely-knit they don’t even have to speak to be understood, they wink, use ‘half-code’, and nudge each other in an excited way – they communicate in code, they gesture and signal each other.  This creates a huge obstacle for the reticent, isolated poet.

In the second quatrain the road is deserted.  We sense the poet who has probably noticed all the earlier excitement from a safe distance, hidden from view, now is overcome with a sense of isolation and the silence on the roadway is unbearable, ‘not a footfall tapping secrecies of stone’ – he might as well be on a deserted island.

In the sestet Kavanagh further contemplates his own situation and his plight as a poet. The break between the octet and the sestet on the page symbolises Kavanagh’s separateness from the community.  For him, the price he must pay for being a poet is to be considered an outsider.  This notion is typically Irish and goes back many years when the Bardic poets had great standing and power in the community: they could make or break a lord or lady and were often paid to praise a patron or denigrate an enemy.  This is the price Kavanagh must pay for his poetic gift and he calls this state a ‘plight’.  He makes the comparison with Alexander Selkirk, a man who was marooned on a deserted island.  Of course, Selkirk was set ashore voluntarily, so Kavanagh is not totally a reluctant loner.  But he is honest; honest enough to admit that poetic solitude is not some grandiose, blessed, exalted state.  He rejects the ‘solemn talk of contemplation’.  Here he is distancing himself from pretentious phoney literary attitudes and poses.

RHYMING SCHEME: This is a Shakespearean sonnet and therefore it has the classic Shakespearean rhyming scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.  However, Kavanagh is experimenting here and even though the sonnet has a Shakespearean rhyming scheme, the sonnet is laid out in the classic Petrarchan pattern of octet followed by sestet.  As we have referred to earlier he cleverly uses the break between octet and sestet to show his own separateness and isolation from the community; to show his plight as an outsider.


  • First published in 1936
  • First published example of Kavanagh’s realism
  • Poetry could be written about the local and the ordinary
  • This is a personal poem – Kavanagh’s own situation – his plight as poet – insider and outsider
  • Honesty – ‘solemn talk of contemplation’ – distances himself from phoney literary attitudes and posing
  • Ordinary world – a road, bicycles, a barn dance
  • Conversational tone – ordinary diction can be used in poetry

Inniskeen road (2)
Platform Dance

Themes and Issues in the Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

 Bishop (2)

The main purpose of these notes is to assist you in forming an overview of Bishop’s work.  For this reason the material is structured as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings.  These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive.  Neither are they ‘carved in stone’, to be memorised: ideally they should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own set of notes.  This priceless pearl of wisdom can be applied to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop but it equally applies to all the other poets on your course as well!

The poems that we will analyse are: The Fish, Filling Station, The Prodigal.  (These are also on the Ordinary Level Course.) and also First Death in Nova Scotia,  In the Waiting Room, At the Fishhouses and Questions of Travel.

Bishop (3)

Major Themes in Bishop’s Poetry


  • Many of her poems have their roots in childhood memories, indeed are based on her own childhood (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • The perspective is mostly that of adult reminiscence (‘In the Waiting Room’), but occasionally the child’s viewpoint is used (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’).
  • The lessons of childhood are chiefly about pain and loss (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • There is a strong tension between the need to return to childhood and the need to escape from that childhood (‘In the Waiting Room’, ‘At the Fishhouses); she even returns in dreams in a poem called ‘The Moose’.
  • Perhaps this is based on the notion of childhood as the completion of the self, and the poems are a search for the self? (Don’t mind me I’m just showing off!)
  • We know she attended counselling to find the origins of her alcoholism and depression. Yet her reconstructions of childhood do not seem to function as Freudian therapy.  She doesn’t seem to alter her direction or attitudes as a result of drawing her past into the conscious, though she does seem to find a deal of comfort and a greater acceptance in the later poem, ‘The Moose’.  She is not trying to apportion blame, neither is she trying to be forgiving or sympathetic.  In general she seems neutral and detached (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’).
  • She also deals with the end of childhood and the awakening to adulthood (‘In the Waiting Room’).

Her life was her subject matter

Bishop was ‘a poet of deep subjectivity’, as Harold Bloom said.  She wrote out of her own experience, dealing with such topics as

  • Her incompleteness (‘In the Waiting Room’)
  • Alcoholism (‘The Prodigal’)
  • Achieving adulthood and the confusion of that (‘In the Waiting Room’)
  • Travel, her wanderlust (‘Questions of Travel’), her favourite places (‘At the Fishhouses’)
  • Even her hobbies, such as fishing (‘The Fish’).

The poet and travel

  • As her own wanderings show, she was a restless spirit, constantly on the move: Nova Scotia, Florida, Brazil, Europe, New York, San Francisco, Harvard.
  • 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.   There is a tension between land and sea in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Questions of Travel’), with the sea viewed as a strange, indifferent, encircling power (‘At the Fishhouses’).  Perhaps this is a metaphor for the conflict between the artist and life?  Quite a few of her poems are set at this juncture between land and sea (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘The Fish’).
  • She seemed to be fascinated by geographical extremities: straits, peninsulas, wharves; mountains, jungle, outback (‘Questions of Travel’). Perhaps she was attracted to the near-isolation of these places.  They are almost isolated in her poems.  One critic viewed these as the sensual organs of a living earth, ‘fingers of water or land that are the sensory receptors of a large mass.’  The poet is seen as making sensuous contact with the living earth.
  • Bishop has an eye for the exotic and the unusual (‘Questions of Travel’) but also for the ordinary (‘Filling Station’).
  • She dwells on the difficulty of ever really knowing another culture (‘Questions of Travel’), but this did not prevent her trying!
  • Travel and journeying can be seen as a metaphor for discovery of truth in some poems (‘Questions of Travel’).

Bishop and the natural world

  • Nature is central to her poetry, either as an active element central to the experience of the poem or by making an intrusion into the domestic scene (in a minority of poems such as ‘Filling Station’, ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, and ‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • The experience of really looking at and encountering the natural is central to her poetic process (‘The Fish’, ‘Questions of Travel’).
  • Our ability to understand the natural is sometimes limited, yet there are great moments of awe and insight in our encounters with the otherworldly spirit of nature (‘The Fish’).
  • Bishop is always aware of the sheer beauty of nature (‘Questions of Travel’) and this is obviously tied in with her fascination with travel and her already mentioned interest in the exotic.
  • She tends to domesticate the strangeness of nature through language and description (see ‘The Prodigal’).
  • You should also consider again some of the points already made, such as how geographical extremes fascinated her, her beloved places, and the significance of journeys for her.

The domestic and the strange

  • The importance of the domestic is also a central ground in her poetry. Domesticity is one of the unifying principles of life.  It gives meaning to our existence (‘Filling Station’).
  • The comfort of people, of domestic affections, is important (‘Filling Station’).
  • Yet the heart of the domestic scene can sometimes be enigmatic. This strangeness, even at the centre of the domestic, is a powerful element in human life (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).  One can be ambushed by the strange at any time, even in the security of the domestic scene (‘In the Waiting Room’)

Bishop’s philosophy as revealed in the poems

  • Bishop’s is a secular (non-religious) world view: there is no sense of ultimate purpose, and in this she relates to modernist American poets like Frost and Stevens.
  • Hers is very much a here-and-now, existential philosophy: the experience is everything. There is some sense of tradition or linear movement in her life view, but tradition is just an accumulation of experience.  The transience of knowledge (‘At the Fishhouses’) and the limits to our knowing (‘Questions of Travel’) contribute to this outlook.
  • Her ecological outlook is at the basis of her philosophy, as we have seen: humans communing with nature, discovering, encountering, not domineering (‘The Fish’).
  • She demonstrates the importance of the domestic (‘Filling Station’).
  • Her view of the human being is as fractured and incomplete (‘Chemin de Fer’). This duality has been described by Anne Newman (in Elizabeth Bishop: Modern Critical Views, edited by Harold Bloom) as follows: ‘She sees the ideal and the real, permanence and decay, affirmation and denial in both man and nature’; a sort of ’fractured but balanced’ view of humanity’.  Examine ‘Filling Station’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’ for signs of this.
  • A person may not always be entirely free to choose her location (‘Questions of Travel’), yet she can make a choice about how her life is spent. Life is not totally determined (‘The Prodigal’).
  • The bleaker side of life is often stressed, the pain, loss and trauma (‘The Prodigal’, ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, ‘In the Waiting Room’), yet she is not without humour (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Filling Station’).
  • She believes we need to experience our dreams (‘Questions of Travel’).
  • Is her overall view of humankind that of the eternal traveller, journeying? And is the journey all?
  • She expresses the unknowable strangeness of death (‘First Death in Nova Scotia’).
  • Yet there is a sort of heroism evident in her poems. Many of the poems feature a crisis or conflict of some sort, with which the narrator deals courageously, often learning in the process (‘The Fish’, ‘In the Waiting Room’).

Bishop and Women’s Writing

  • Are you conscious of the femininity of the speaker in Bishop’s poems? Some critics have argued that the importance of the domestic principle in her philosophy (‘Filling Station’) and the attitudes of care and sympathy in the poems (for the fish, the prodigal, the animals and birds) and even the occupational metaphors, for example of housekeeping (‘Filling Station’) and dressmaking and map colouring in other poems, all indicate a strong feminine point of view in her poetry.
  • Other critics have argued that her rhetoric is completely asexual, that the poet’s persona is neutral, the Bishop ‘I’ is the eye of the traveller or the child recapturing an innocence that avoids sex roles altogether, an asexual self that frees her from any sex-determined role.  Examine ‘Questions of Travel’ and ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ in this regard.
  • We have already encountered something of her treatment of her own sexuality and her attitude as a child to female sexuality (‘In the Waiting Room’ and other poems).

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Style and Technique

Variety of verse forms

  • Though she was not often attracted to formal patterns, there are a variety of verse forms found in Bishop’s poetry: sonnet, sestina, villanelle, etc. (‘The Prodigal’, ‘Sestina’).
  • She used a variety of metres but often-favoured trimeter lines (resulting in those long thin poems!).
  • She was happiest using free verse (‘Questions of Travel’. ‘At the Fishhouses’).

Her descriptions

  • The surface of a Bishop poem is often deceptively simple.
  • A favourite technique is ‘making the familiar strange’ (‘Questions of Travel’).
  • Her detailed descriptions function as repossession or domestication of the object by the artist. This is how she gradually apprehends her subject, through the accumulation of detail (‘The Fish’).
  • Bishop often insisted on the truth of her descriptions, but the reality is more complex than that. Her descriptions are both recreation and creation, creating veracity but also using poetic licence (‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • Her similes and metaphors are often surprising, like conceits. They can be both exciting and exact.

Control and feeling

  • Many of her poems deal with emotive subjects (‘In the Waiting Room’).
  • There is an element of spontaneity and naturalness in the tone. Consider the opening of ‘In the Waiting Room’ and ‘Filling Station’.  ‘The sense of the mind actively encountering reality, giving off the impression of involved immediate discovery, is one of Bishop’s links to the Romantics,’ as the critic Penelope Laurans put it.
  • The matter-of-fact tone avoids sentimentality. The use of understatement controls feeling (‘In the Waiting Room’).

The absence of moralising

  • Her dislike of didacticism is well documented. She disliked ‘modern religiosity and moral superiority’, and so she avoids overt moralising in her poems.  The scenes offer up their wisdom gradually, ass the descriptions help us to understand the object or place (‘At the Fishhouses’, ‘Questions of Travel’).

Bishop as a dramatic poet


  • Scenes of conflict or anger
  • Moments of dramatic encounter
  • Dramatic monologue structure in many of the poems.

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Think about the following points, and make notes for yourself.

  • Which of her poems made the deepest impression on you?
  • Which passages would you wish to read and reread?
  • What are her principal issues or concerns?
  • Did you find that reading Bishop gave you any insights into human beings or the world? What did you discover?
  • Think about the landscapes and places that attracted her. What do they suggest about the poet and poetry?
  • What do you notice about the people featured in her poetry?
  • Do you find her poetry different in any way from other poetry you have read?
  • Why should we read Bishop?
  • What questions would you like to ask her about her poetry?


The Romantic Movement held sway at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  It was at its height between 1800 – 1830 and the main architects of this movement were Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge.

There follows a list of some of the main distinguishing features of Romanticism.  Consider Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in the light of some or all of these statements.

  • Romanticism stressed the importance of the solitary individual voice, often in rebellion against tradition and social conventions.
  • In place of orthodox religious values the individual looks for value and guidance in intense private experience.
  • Nature often provides this intense experience, hence the notion of nature as the great teacher and moral guide as in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (or even ‘The Daffodils’!).
  • Romanticism can show a divided view of the individual. The individual is often pulled in opposite directions – for example solitariness versus sociability, lonely pursuit of an ideal versus community fellowship.
  • It is anti-rational. Feelings, instinctive responses, unconscious wisdom and passionate living are valued more than rational; thought.
  • Dreams and drug-enhanced experiences are especially valued. Children, primitive people, outcasts, even the odd eccentric figure are regarded as having special insight and wisdom.
  • ‘Bishop explored typical Romantic themes, such as problems of isolation, loss, and the desire for union beyond the self.’ Explore the poetry in the light of this statement.
  • It has been said that Bishop’s practice of poetry follows Wordsworth’s advice that poetry should embody controlled passion. For Wordsworth, (and for Bishop also), poetry was ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ and many of his great poems embody the notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity.’ Would you agree with this assessment of her poetry?
  • Finally, as a little test of your new-found expertise, examine ‘At the Fishhouses’ as an example of a great Romantic poem.

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The poems by Elizabeth Bishop on our course reveal many of the most striking characteristics of her work: her eye for detail, her interest in travel and different places, her apparently conversational tone, her command of internal rhyme, her use of repetition, her interest in strict poetic forms (the sonnet and the sestina), childhood memories, identity, loss.

The world, which Bishop describes in her poetry, is vivid and particular.  She is so intent on accurate description that often the detail is qualified and clarified within the poem.  In Michael Schmidt’s words, ‘the voice affirms, hesitates, corrects itself; the image comes clear to us as it came clear to her, a process of adjusting perception until the thing is seen.  Or the feeling is released.’  For example, in ‘The Fish’ she tells us:

                       While his gills were breathing in

the terrible oxygen

– the frightening gills,

fresh and crisp with blood,

that can cut so badly –

Another example would be where she describes the eyes of the fish.  She says that they ‘shifted a little’ and then she clarifies this further with the more precise observation that, ‘it was more like the tipping / of an object towards the light’.

Bishop is a sympathetic observer and it has been said of her that she asks us ‘to focus not on her but with her’.  She looks at the fish, imagines its insides – ‘the coarse white flesh / packed in like feathers, / the big bones and the little bones … ; she sings hymns to the seal in ‘At the Fishhouses’; she finds love is present in the unlikely setting of a dirty filling station.  When Bishop uses ‘I’ in her poetry it is never alienating or distancing.  Somehow she makes the reader feel at ease.  The poems as we read them are working something out.

Her poetry is not always strictly autobiographical but Bishop, an outsider for much of her life, writes indirectly in ‘The Prodigal’ of the outsider and later, in the explicitly autobiographical ‘In the Waiting Room’, she names herself (‘you are an Elizabeth’) and charts the sense of her child’s mind realising her uniqueness and identity.  ‘Sestina’ is also autobiographical, in that it tells of a home without a mother and father.  She only wrote of her childhood experiences late in life: ‘Sestina’, ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ and ‘In the Waiting Room’ all date from when she was in her fifties.  In these poems she captures the confusion and complexities of childhood, its terror, panic and alienation.  In ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, she pieces together, as a child’s mind would, the details in order to understand them: ‘Arthur’s coffin was / a little frosted cake, / and the red-eyed loon eyed it / from his white, frozen lake.’

It has been said that Bishop preferred geography to history and it is significant that she remembers reading National Geographic in ‘In the Waiting Room’.  The title of her first book, North and South, contains the idea of opposites but opposites that co-exist.  Yet her descriptions of place are never just descriptions of place.  Morality, history and politics are also evident in Bishop’s landscapes.  In ‘Questions of Travel’, Brazil and its otherness prompt Bishop to ask if it’s right to watch strangers in another country.  She dwells on the country’s traditions (‘In another country the clogs would all be tested’), religious influences (‘a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque’), history (‘the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages’).

In her poetry there is self-discovery, a sense of difference, moments of heightened awareness (epiphanies), a strong sense of here and now, an absence of any religious belief but a belief in the mystery of knowledge ‘flowing and flown’.  In ‘At the Fishhouses’ what begins as accurate and gradual description of landscape gives way to a downward movement towards the dark cold centre of meaning, here imagined as deep beneath the ocean surface and something that we can never know or understand fully.

In Bishop the act of writing and the art of writing bring shape and order to experience.  In ‘Questions of Travel’ she describes the traveller taking a notebook and writing.  The use of ‘we’ in the poem and the way in which every traveller is contained in ‘the traveller’ allows everyone to enter into the experience.  This record of thought and feeling is what Bishop herself does in her poems.  She was interested in form: the sonnet and the sestina are very formal, but in other poems where the structure and rhythm may not be obvious at first there is often a very fine command and control.


In one of her finest poems, ‘Crusoe in England’, she imagines Robinson Crusoe lonely for his island and his friend Friday; and remembering his time there, she writes:

                   The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun

                   rose from the sea,

                   and there was one of it and one of me.

Here we have the voice of Robinson Crusoe, and the voice of Elizabeth Bishop, and the voice of all other lonely, observing, travellers.  It is significant that Bishop was attracted to the figure of Robinson Crusoe, an isolated figure, someone ill at ease having returned to society.  Her sexuality and her struggle with alcohol were part of her own sense of isolation.  In a letter written in 1948 to Robert Lowell she said, ‘When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.’  Her later work suggests a happier Elizabeth Bishop, but her life was never uncomplicatedly happy.

Bishop’s The Complete Poems 1927 – 1972 contains just over 140 poems and some thirty of these are translations from French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  She wrote very slowly, very carefully, sometimes pinning bits of paper on her walls, leaving blank spaces (‘with gaps / and empties for the unimagined phrases’ is how Robert Lowell described it in a poem for her), waiting for the right word.  Some of her poems were several years in the making.  She worked on ‘The Moose’ for over twenty-five years, yet it seems effortless as all good poetry does.  She writes a poetry that echoes the rhythms of natural speech and her rhymes are not always easy to detect.  End rhymes and cross rhymes or slant rhymes create a special and effective music.  And what Yeats says of all true poetry is true of Bishop:

                             ‘A line will take us hours maybe;

                             Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

                             Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.’



Sample Answer:

‘Bishop’s poems are constructed around movement and reflection.  She is a meticulous writer who effectively combines precise observations with striking imagery’.

In the words of famous American poet, Robert Lowell, ‘I don’t think anyone alive has a better eye than she has’ – there is ample evidence in her poems on the course of the truth of this statement.

Each of her poems, from ‘The Fish’ to ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, throbs with movement and reflection.  Bishop is a poet who seems preoccupied with the passion of movement, yet never strains in her ability to capture its beauty, strangeness or intricacies in imagery which can be dramatic, and at times almost outrageous, in its originality.  In ‘The Fish’, she describes how the fish hung ‘a grunting weight’ while his eyes ‘shifted a little’.  Through the poem, Bishop reflects on its suffering movements before she finally ‘let the fish go’.  Further activity is observed in ‘At the Fishhouses’ including the motion of wheelbarrows, the sea that considers ‘spilling over’, the standing seals and ‘forever flowing water’, all elements within a sea of change.

‘Filling Station’ has dirty monkey suits, wickerwork baskets and dogs, bringing to vivid life the ordinary, mundane scenes of a petrol station.  The observations here are precise, honest and real, ‘a dirty dog’, ‘a big dim doily’ … (‘Embroidered in daisy stitch / with marguerites, I think, / and heavy with grey crochet’.); the comic books which provide ‘the only note of colour’.  Much description, little movement it seems, until the observer moves outside where ‘high-strung automobiles’ fill up with gas as they impatiently prepare to depart the scene.

Movement is never described for its own sake or in isolation.  It expands on a theme, a tone, a mood that the poem is trying to reflect on.  The repentant wastrel in ‘The Prodigal’ mentions ‘pigs’ eyes’ following him, while the farmer comes at dark to inspect his labourer.  These images are used to emphasise to us the misery and remorse of the prodigal, a lonely emigrant worker in a foreign land at the soul-destroying job of pig-herding.

In her later poems, Bishop’s reflection on what she observes becomes a theme in itself.  In ‘Questions of Travel’, for example, there are ‘too many waterfalls … and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops / makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion’.  Bishop feels a pang of guilt as the scene unfolds and asks, ‘Is it right to be watching strangers in a play / in this strangest of theatres?’  It is noteworthy too, that in describing the skies of Brazil she imports her imagery from Nova Scotia in saying, ‘the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships, / slime-hung and barnacled’.  However, some things she observes will always be ‘inexplicable and impenetrable’ and can only be pondered on ‘blurr’dly and inconclusively’.

In all her poems, Bishop describes and defines movement, reflecting on landscape, animals and on people who work in and traverse that landscape.  No detail seems too trivial for her to note in her observations.  She paints striking pictures with imagery which is surprising, unusual and captivating – all the more so because many images depict ordinary, everyday scenes.  Bishop was a meticulous worker, whose attention to detail shows she had a reflective mind and was a keen observer.  Her craft, like her knowledge, is ‘flowing and flown’.

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