issue 23 > nonfiction > bishop > bornholdt
“The End of March”: Bishop and Stevens on the Sublime—Union or Relation?by Shaune Bornholdt
In June of 1974 Elizabeth Bishop and her partner Alice Methfessel stayed at the Duxbury, Massachusetts beach house belonging to Bishop’s friends John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read. Bishop reported that she initially wrote “The End of March” as a kind of thank-you note to her friends (Biele 55). It may have been a relief to write something intended as casual after the completion of her poem “Five Flights Up,” with its depressive ending: “(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)” (Bishop 171) After her lifetime of losses, the “yesterday” of the preceding few years had added more. There was the death of her beloved mentor Marianne Moore and the shock of John Berryman’s suicide. Her own health was worsening. Completion of her great, grief-laden “Crusoe in England” may have been not only exhilarating, but also emotionally exhausting. It is not surprising that when she began revising “The End of March”—deepening its meaning and its covert themes of loss, mourning, and the rebirth of creativity—that she turned to a poet whose work she knew well, Wallace Stevens, whose concern with such themes is so evident in his breakthrough poem, “The Sun This March.”
Stevens wrote his poem after more than six years in which he published no others; Bloom has described this period as a “poetic crisis” (Bloom 69). With its images of dark and cold, “The Sun This March” seems permeated by depression, but also filled with gratitude for the reemergence of creativity as the “exceeding brightness of this early sun” acts as a god-like force that redeems the speaker’s darkness, re-illumining the “things” of the natural world, while “winter’s air/ Brings voices as of lions coming down” (Stevens 108-09). Under the surface of descriptive language, Bishop’s speaker, too, seems a soul in grief, and throughout her poem Bishop’s allusion to Stevens’ imagery from several poems is evident (McClatchy 69-75), as she draws upon his idea of the sublime, questioning and modifying it. Here, building on work by Bonnie Costello (180-200) and J.D. McClatchy (55-75), and drawing from the psychological theories of D. W. Winnicott (Playing and Reality 1-34; 35-50; 128-139 and The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment 43-55), I will focus on three lyric episodes in “The End of March,” each set like a gem within the poem’s narrative. In each of these episodes, the speaker’s engagement with image coincides with a shift in her psychological state, as she is eased through the emotions associated with loss. Through this progression, Bishop offers a view of the sublime that is less grand but more relational than that of Stevens, suggesting that human relatedness itself mediates the sublime in ways that enhance creativity.
The sequence of events in “The End of March” is set forth simply, in four stanzas (Bishop 167-69). On a cold, windy day, the speaker and at least one other person walk along the beach. They follow dog prints “more like lion prints” and a string that ends in a “man-size” snarl in the ocean: “A kite string?—But no kite.” In stanza three we learn that the speaker “wanted to get as far as” her “proto-dream-house” where she would like to retire and do “nothing,/or nothing much…” She describes the house and its interior in detail, although she has never been inside it. The goal is never reached; the day is too cold, and the house in any case is boarded up. As they walk back, the sun comes out briefly and the speaker describes the play of sunlight on beach stones, imagining them as “teasing” the sun. The poem ends, “—a sun who’d walked the beach the last low tide,/ making those big, majestic paw-prints,/who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.”
Parallels with “The Sun This March” are clear in the imagery, and McClatchy has analyzed the relation of several of Stevens’ poems to “The End of March” (69-75). In addition to “The Sun This March,” McClatchy cites excerpts from poems such as “The Auroras of Autumn,” “A Postcard from the Volcano,” and “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” focusing on similarities in the relation of the sun to creativity. Other poems might be cited, such as Stevens’ “Stars at Tallapoosa,” an early poem, allusively evoked in the first of Bishop’s lyric episodes in which there is a shift in the speaker’s psychological state. This shift, the emergence of felt need, occurs at an unconscious level, expressed through image and outcome. Here in Bishop’s second stanza the walkers follow the string on the beach:
lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string,
looping up to the tide-line, down to the water,
over and over. Finally, they did end:
a thick white snarl, man-size, awash,
rising on every wave, a sodden ghost,
falling back, sodden, giving up the ghost. . . .
(lines 17-22; ellipse Bishop’s)
Tone, setting, and the image of the long lines all recall the Stevens poem. Bishop would certainly have known “Stars at Tallapoosa” from Harmonium; she claimed to have memorized the 1931 edition (Millier 51). In Stevens, a “secretive hunter” roams the beach at night, much like Whitman’s boy in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Stevens’ hunter is “Wading the sea-lines, moist and ever-mingling,/ Mounting the earth-lines, long and lax, lethargic,” while “criers” cry an “undulating” “deep-oceaned” phrase (Stevens 57). Stevens does not name the phrase, but we know that Whitman’s ocean sings back “…death” (Whitman 393). The hunter is directed to turn from this message, to eschew “melon-flower,” “dew,” and the wavering lines of earth and sea as antithetical to the “…brilliant arrows flying straight” within the self, arrows mirroring the swift straight lines between the stars, lines through which the mind “attains simplicity,” a desired clarity of thought and intent. It is as though death can be denied through immediate, willed apotheosis. Mind is elevated; confusion of thought is associated with the corporeal body which here seems devalued (“The body is no body to be seen”), equated with a kind of death.
In “The End of March,” in what seems an almost intentional contrast, Bishop allows her shore-walker to stay with the lines on the beach, and to be led to the messiness of that man-size, death-like swirl in which the string ends, rocked in the sea, described in the cradling rhythm and repetition of the speaker’s voice. She seems to identify with the sodden mass, perhaps holding within herself a “snarl” of confused thoughts; but Bishop allows her to remain with this image. If death and loss are the issues, Bishop suggests, clarity of thought may not be the best first step in coping. Feeling the inner confusion may be prerequisite for mourning. As readers, we raise questions: What might a ghost-giving-up-the-ghost mean? Can a deadened self mourn for another?—but these are not the speaker’s questions. She remains concrete, caught in the literal image: “A kite string?—But no kite.” Not much seems to have happened, psychologically. But suddenly she says, “I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream-house,/ my crypto-dream-house… ” It is as though she thinks, I need something. What can I do to help myself? Bishop has given the speaker time to experience her felt need. She does not reveal the motive for the walk until now because this is where it has the most effect; this is where it is most felt by the speaker.
In “The Sun This March” when Stevens’ speaker experiences need, he calls directly to his “rabbi”—his Emersonian scholar, exhorting him to “… fend my soul for me/And true savant of this dark nature be.” Bishop suggests, rather, that an indirect line to help and support may be taken. In the psychological terms of D. W. Winnicott, her speaker needs a “transitional” space, a “holding environment”; that is, a place in which a caring presence is felt, accepting her need for solitude and security, staying by her without intruding, letting her be. Stevens himself, in later poems, will conjure such places, but there is a kind of vehemence in both “The Sun This March” and “Stars at Tallapoosa” that precludes such relatedness.
Bishop’s speaker describes her dream house in loving detail. McClatchy has said that Bishop may imagine herself as her own mother in the house (62), and it does seem that gradually the speaker begins to “fill up” the two-room imagined interior in acts of self-mothering, allowing herself the aimless “play” of rumination that grows out of transitional experience, on the border between illusion and reality. Such experience, Winnicott feels, emerges within the mother/child relationship; it is essential for creativity, and is carried into adulthood. Here, in the very act of describing the “almost nothing” she would do, the speaker creates something: she would “look through binoculars, read boring books,/old, long, long books, and write down useless notes, talk to myself…” The house seems every writer’s dream, a place in which to read, think, and write. It is within this house of the imagination that the second psychological shift, the development of transitional relatedness, begins, centered within the second lyric passage that comes immediately after the rumination:
… and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.
At night, a grog à l’américaine.
I’d blaze it with a kitchen match
and lovely diaphanous blue flame
would waver, doubled in the window.
Costello has noted that the “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” might almost take place in Bishop’s dream house (Costello 197). Stevens’ poem begins, “Light the first light of evening, as in a room/ In which we rest and, for small reason, think/ The world imagined is the ultimate good” (Stevens 444). The poem has traditionally been interpreted as an affirmation of the imagination’s power to create a supreme experience, perhaps through love between poet and an internal paramour-muse, in the “intensest rendezvous.” In this union, the speaker claims, “We say God and the imagination are one…/How high that highest candle lights the dark.” Poet and paramour are wrapped so tightly in a “single shawl” that they almost seem to become one. For all its quietude, the vision is grand, as together they create a “central mind” that holds all within it. The room of shared self expands to become the house of God.
Despite the similarities, all this seems a far cry from Bishop’s modest, gradual acts of self-creation and relatedness that I believe occur within the speaker’s “house” of self. There is, however, another interpretation, one that suggests that Stevens himself may, late in life, have undergone a major change in his thinking. B. J. Leggett argues that the paramour is not a female muse, but the speaker himself as the beloved object of an all-enveloping world imagination: “His mind does not contain or imagine the world; he is contained within the world imagination, the imagination of a ‘central mind’ ” (55). Leggett states, “…mannerisms that we think of as human—meditating, thinking, imagining—are not being projected onto nature. The projection moves in the opposite direction, so that our meditating, thinking, imagining owe their pattern to external nature” (72). This is a startling reversal in interpretation, but it is well supported by Leggett’s inter-textual analysis of the late poems of The Rock.
Bishop was never a believer in absolutes; nevertheless, I think Leggett’s interpretation is one that Bishop, at work on a talk (canceled) on Stevens, Moore and Lowell in 1970 (Millier 424), and therefore familiar with The Rock, might have arrived at on her own and considered when writing her poem, perhaps taking aspects from both models of the sublime, reinterpreting them in relational terms. Drawing from Winnicott’s theories, I should like to suggest what may be happening, psychologically, within the speaker’s imagination as she gains in transitional relatedness. The lyric episode of lines 36-41 seems to have a sacramental quality, as though something larger is holding the house of self within it, a kind of caring “holding environment”—a sublime in motherly form, consistent with the speaker’s acts of self-mothering. This is suggested by those lovely, light-laden droplets that appear so mysteriously on this foggy day, seemingly neither inside nor outside the window but somewhere between, in transitional space, a gift from the sublime, but a gift co-created by the contribution made by the speaker’s own imagination and need. When night comes—that is, if despair deepens—the droplets can be recalled in memory, and made concrete by the speaker’s own creative act, through lighting the drink. This new light is implicit with both self and the sublime; that is, it holds both the self that has lit it, and the memory of the gold droplet, the gift from a care-giving “surround” analogous to the “central mind.” It may also hold projections of beloved lost objects, memories of loved persons. The light from the drink can now be projected outward, and reflected back (the reflection in the window) in a kind of re-communion. Through the speaker’s act, loss is restored, briefly, by reflection that is inspired by, but not wholly constituted of, the sublime.
With their dreamlike flow, the elements in this lyric episode seem to be moving in and out of focus and reciprocity. There is an aura of illusion, such as that which occurs during what I am calling a period of transitional relatedness. Winnicott describes a time in the child’s development during which phenomena and objects are experienced as “on the border” between illusion and reality. During this time, the child’s weak ego is supported by the mother’s strong ego, much as the experiences imagined as occurring in Bishop’s speaker’s dream house are supported by the reality of the speaker’s actual position: she is not in the house, but outside it (that is, psychologically outside her projected self-in-the-house) at a distance, her feet firmly on the beach, on a real border, in the presence of real others. Over time, negotiation of psychological “space” between self, other, and outside world may also be supported by the child’s use of a loved “transitional object” such as a blanket or favorite song, here perhaps represented by the light or the drink.
Winnicott believed that access to transitional experience is valued throughout life, a source of creativity. It is also a transitional developmental step towards the necessary achievement of a reality-based maturity that makes use of what is offered by culture. For Winnicott, transitional experience differs from the kind of mere fantasying that becomes all-absorbing, regressing to the omnipotence that is normal in infancy, but madness in adulthood. According to Winnicott, in health the child is eased from normal infant omnipotence, through transitional periods, and toward to the reciprocities of mature relatedness by the mother’s normal “graduated failures” in the nearly perfect attunement that characterized her care during the child’s early infancy. In the context of a supportive, non-traumatic and “good-enough” facilitating environment (Winnicott’s terms), such “failures” permit a space for the emergence of child initiative and sense of agency, and they facilitate development of a true self founded upon creative vitality rather than upon compliance.
These, then, are psychological the issues in play within the imagined house of Bishop’s poem. Clearly there is danger. Some critics have called the house a place of non-transitivity (Costello 196) or self-indulgence and unfulfilled relations (James Merrill in Kalstone 252-53). Although I believe that what happens within the speaker’s transitional imagined space is already partly enriched by the speaker’s own “holding” ego, and that this space is live, transitive, and loving, rich with human spirits and the memory of loved persons, it is also true that live mystery can become stasis, a crypt, collapsing into madness if the reflective process here described becomes recursive. Will the transitional object—the light or drink—lead outward toward true relatedness, or become a fetish of self-absorption? By allowing her speaker to recognize that permanent residence in the imagination may seem “Perfect!” but is actually impossible, Bishop suggests that luminous inner experiences, even those held by something larger than themselves, must become grounded in reality if they are to become truly creative.
Much depends on whether the speaker’s “holding” ego can maintain support while providing the graduated failures that may bring her imagined self back out into the world, intact, with sense of agency. Within the lyric episode, the mundane “kitchen match” first introduces reality. Real objects—lamps—are mentioned as light sources, then actual outside physical attributes—things that could be seen by others—are described: the chimney, the electrical wires. Finally, moving outward, nature returns: it’s cold outside! To be sure, the psychological need to describe the house as “boarded up” (which it actually is) connotes ambivalence, and suggests difficulty in accessing transitional states, regressive wish to live within them, a need to defend them, and a need to defend against them. But now she’s out, that imagined self. Projected and real self are united, and “reentry” to the world has been effected by a very human activity: the speaker’s own verbal description of a communally shared, potentially observable world. This ordinary means of egress and reentry may well contribute to a sense of personal agency that is grounded in reality, an agency neither glorious nor absolute, but relational and human in scale. In her imagination, the speaker has given herself a full transitional experience, including emergence from that experience. She cannot live in her house of imagination; but she now takes that which she learned, as she imagined herself within it, out into the world, in the form of implicit knowledge that may be of use, should she wish to straighten out those lines of thought that lie snarled on the beach, and should reality present an appropriate “local habitation” for what was once only imagined.
The question of agency is problematic in the primary poem that Bishop is referencing, Stevens’ “The Sun This March” (Stevens 108-09). What is the source of the “exceeding brightness” within the early sun that lifts the speaker’s depression and “re-illumines things that used to turn/To gold and broadest blue, and be a part/ Of a turning spirit of an earlier self”? Certainly, the brightness seems external, rather than co-created. Did those “things” play a role in their own illumination in the past? Do they do so now, or are they, as they seem to be, mere recipients of transformation? Was the self ever re-inspirited by way of the transformed objects, or does the re-inspiriting come—as it seems to now—straight out of “winter’s air,” the source of “…voices as of lions coming down”? How passive, how active, how resilient is the self beneath this burst of resurgent, sublime creative glory? Bloom suggests that the self can hardly bear the glory, and that at the poem’s close, Stevens prays to his “rabbi” to “fend his soul, as if he could not do it for himself.” Stevens’ “rabbi,” according to Bloom, is a figure “always in the sun” whose job it is to “reilluminate the poet’s dark nature so that he can write poems again” (Bloom 89). The figure seems far beyond the self, almost godlike. Within the present action of the poem, neither the self nor the objects of reality seem to possess the relational agency that could mediate the force of the sublime. In this absolute view, there can be little true reciprocity. The self can only merge with the sublime, or simply hope for grace while risking annihilation. This is an old philosophic problem, involving God and free will. At stake are human actions that matter: the ability to feel alive, to truly create, to write a poem and let it go, to say yes or no and mean it, to love and lose someone and to yield or refuse to yield that person’s memory up, freely, to a greater force while staying grounded on earth.
Bishop does not address these issues directly as she eases her speaker toward the third shift in psychological state, the experience of felt reciprocity. Rather, she steps around the issues through analogy. The third and final lyric episode occurs in the last stanza of “The End of March” after the beach walkers turn back in the cold wind:
The sun came out for just a minute.
For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
the drab, damp, scattered stones
and all those high enough threw out long shadows,
individual shadows, then pulled them in again.
They could have been teasing the lion sun,
except that now he was behind them . . .
(Lines 53-60; lyric episode lines 54-58)
In her discussion of what might be called the “parable of the stones,” Costello, writing of the relation between lyric and narrative, singles out this passage, noting the “transitive causal relations” (196) between light and stones as the sun is given a “temporal, multiplying” power rather than acting as an “annihilating force” in showing the stones’ colors (197). Bishop revised this stanza several times, even after it was in proofs for The New Yorker, focusing on the stones (Biele 59). Nearly every change she made serves to increase the value of the stones, to individualize them, and to grant them greater appearance of agency in relation to the sun. For example, “embedded” becomes “set in bezels.” Verb participles are changed to past tense so that the stones are agents of definite, completed actions: “threw” and “pulled.” “Shadows” is repeated as “Individual shadows.” The stones are given their own time through syntax; the sun has its “just a minute” in a sentence, while the stones, in a separate sentence, have theirs. Whereas Stevens’ “things” in “The Sun This March” seem passive recipients of transformation, Bishop’s language suggests that the stones possess live potential, something already within them, that is revealed by the sun, meeting and mediating its actions.
Bishop’s speaker brings to the beach the imagistic self/other knowledge gained through the exchanges of light within the house. Now she perceives these exchanges as re-presented to her by nature in its transitive reciprocity with the sun. It is striking how closely analogous the interplay of light in this lyric episode is to that which occurred in the house. For example, the sun appears briefly as did the droplets, its light is answered by the stones as it was by the speaker’s lighting the drink, then the light (here as shadow) is projected outward, and pulled back, perhaps to be reflected upon. To be sure, the analogy is not exact. The experience is more richly representational, more realized, as the speaker participates in this perceived reciprocity with the sublime through her own attentive observation and description of natural detail. For Winnicott, the child’s repeated successful emergence from subjective and transitional states includes the repeated discovery that the self survives and the objective world remains intact. This discovery strengthens the ego and permits creative use of reality. Bishop’s speaker’s nascent sense of agency has been strengthened by a full transitional experience that includes such emergence. Contact with the natural world can now further enrich both her sense of self as a creative agent and her ability to use her creativity. The process is felt rather than conscious. The speaker does not and cannot articulate it, but if it could be spoken, it would be something like, “I cannot become the sun, but I need not fear annihilation. I myself, like nature’s stones of the earth, have a unique beauty that can reflect, be transformed by, and transform the sun’s power, making something of my own that I can send out into the world.”
I am not suggesting that Bishop presents some crude view of animism or the pathetic fallacy. Rather, the pathetic fallacy, creation stories, and religious beliefs are all means through which culture interprets nature and the sublime. In her implicit use of the parable of the stones, the speaker is placing herself not only within the matrix of nature, but also within that of culture, accessing what Winnicott calls “the inherited tradition. … the common pool of humanity, into which individuals and groups of people may contribute, and from which we all may draw, if we have somewhere to put what we find” (Playing and Reality 133, italics Winnicott’s). Through this reciprocity with culture, the speaker gains ability to see herself as engaging in a reciprocal relation with the sun. She acts in ways that seem to modify and use the power of the sublime. Evidence that the speaker has undergone this shift in felt reciprocity is found in her bold attribution of human activity to the stones (“teasing”) and in her ability to pull several disparate elements into a coherent story about the sun “who’d walked the beach at last low tide,/making those big, majestic paw-prints,/ who had perhaps batted a kite out of the sky to play with.”
If Stevens’ sun “brings voices as of lions coming down,” Bishop’s stones throw lines of coherence—straight lines, like lines of poetry—going out and possibly up. If these lines can project, might they not also release a poem, a grief, a soul to be taken up? Might not the self, through participation in the parable, speak lines that do likewise? Human agency is short-lived, intermittent, contingent, perhaps even illusory, but in our relational world it is what we live by. By taking the long route, the speaker has kept her humanity, and she has also achieved a measure of Stevens’ hunter’s clarity. Shepherding her speaker through progressive shifts in psychological state—the emergence of felt need, the development of transitional relatedness, and the experience of felt reciprocity—Bishop has brought her back into the representational natural world in which she may create and act in relation to both culture and the sublime.
In the Stevens poems here discussed, felt need usually results in direct appeal to the sublime, rather than appeal to human relatedness. When such relatedness is sought and experienced, as in the luminous “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” it is seems to merge into unmediated oneness. Relations between self and sublime are unidirectional or, if bi-directional, show little reciprocity in that the human does not modify the divine. Stevens’ view of the sublime emphasizes its glory, its grandeur, its “otherness.” Perhaps the real glory (for which we should be humbly grateful) is that he finds human words that convey that otherness, the sublime in “Of Mere Being” that is “Beyond the last thought,” outside human meaning and feeling, “a foreign song” (476). His poems sometimes carry us directly up on those “voices as of lions coming down,” directly toward a sublime power, whether the route is through the riot of the senses or the austerity of cold. Perhaps for Stevens the desire to reach toward the divine, be it the imagination, the central mind, or the supreme fiction, is what is most human. For Bishop, too, the sublime is an abiding concern, but human relatedness is of equal importance. Her question with regard to the power of the sublime, in her dialogue with Stevens’ poems, seems to be, “Yes, but—how do we bear it, how do we live with it, here, with each other, on earth?” Here, in “The End of March,” one of her last poems, Bishop emphasizes, questions, and celebrates the ways in which human relatedness encultures, mediates, and humanizes that power.
It’s not that Bishop’s speaker doesn’t implicitly acknowledge the power of the lion-sun. After all, its very paw-prints are “majestic.” It’s just that today, having drawn strength and agency from her experience, she can set the fear and awe aside for awhile, take it for granted, even borrow a little of the sublime’s power for creative, imaginative explanations. It’s not a permanent redress: “For just a minute.” Today—battered by the emotional and physical world and weather, yearning for respite, perhaps caught in the paws of a god—today, thanks to her experience in her imagined house, her emergence, and her engagement with the stones in all their beauty, subjectivity, and reciprocity, the speaker can endure the necessary numbing of return; she can even create, write again, make up a story. It probably helps that she has done so in the presence of friends. It seems it was worth going out on such a cold day.
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