Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet”

Introduction by Lloyd Schwartz

Elizabeth Bishop's SonnetElizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” is often taken to be her last poem. It was published in The New Yorker on October 29, 1979, three weeks after she died. And it feels like a posthumous poem, with its images of release from illness, from emotional conflict, from being “a creature divided.” In fact Bishop had written it more than a year earlier, then with surprising speed finished another poem, “Pink Dog” — a bitterly ironic, grotesquely comic “samba” set in Rio at Carnival time, in which she advises a “poor bitch,” a hairless scavenger with scabies (her chilling mirror image, another creature out of place among the Cariocan revelers), to “Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!” The New Yorker rushed this mardi-gras poem into the February 26 issue, while “Sonnet,” acquired months before, would have to wait another eight months to see the light of day.
Yet in some ways “Sonnet” really is the later poem. Bishop began drafting “Pink Dog” in Brazil as early as 1963, under the title “Goodbye to Rio” — one of the first signs that she had started to think about leaving Brazil, where after more than a decade the sweetest life she’d known was beginning to sour. “Sonnet” is the very last poem that she both started and also completed. It’s the closest thing we have to her final poetic testament.


Caught — the bubble

in the spirit level,

a creature divided;

and the compass needle

wobbling and wavering,


Freed — the broken

thermometer’s mercury

running away;

and the rainbow-bird

from the narrow bevel

of the empty mirror,

flying wherever

it feels like, gay!

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We will be reading and discussing Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.


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Filed under History, Poem, Study

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