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Reading Is Believing
by Harold Bloom

 

When we suggested that Harold Bloom write about a poem of his heart, he chose one from Elizabeth Bishop's first collection, North & South (1946). As he admits, " The Unbeliever" is not among her more celebrated works--and certainly wasn't one of her favorites! But Bloom is ever the passionate contrarian, and his excellent defense might even have persuaded Bishop, who died in 1979, that she should have given its five taut, riddling stanzas their due.


There are grander poems by Bishop than the relatively early "The Unbeliever," but I center upon it here because I love it best. It does not compare in scope and power to "The Monument," "Roosters," "The Fish," "The Bight," "At the Fishhouses," "Brazil, January 1, 1502," "First Death in Nova Scotia," or the extraordinary late triad of "Crusoe in England," "The Moose," and "The End of March." Those 10 poems have an authority and a possible wisdom that transcend "The Unbeliever." But I walk around, certain days, chanting it to myself, it being one of those rare poems you never evade again, once you know it (and it knows you):

He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed.
The sails fall away below him
like the sheets of his bed,
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper's head.

Asleep he was transported there,
asleep he curled
in a gilded ball on the mast's top,
or climbed inside
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.

"I am founded on marble pillars,"
said a cloud. "I never move.
See the pillars there in the sea?"
Secure in introspection
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.

A gull had wings under his
and remarked that the air
was "like marble." He said: "Up here
I tower through the sky
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly."

But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull inquired into his dream,
which was, "I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all."

 

 

Its five stanzas essentially are variations upon its epigraph, from Bunyan: "He sleeps on the top of a mast." Bunyan's trope concerns the condition of unbelief; Bishop's does not. Think of her three personae as exemplifying three rhetorical stances, and so as being three kinds of poet, or even three poets: cloud, gull, unbeliever. The cloud is Wordsworth or Stevens. The gull is Shelley or Hart Crane. The unbeliever is Dickinson or Bishop. None of them has the advantage; the spangled sea wants to destroy them all. The cloud, powerful in introspection, regards not the sea but his own subjectivity. The gull, more visionary still, beholds neither sea nor air but his own aspiration. The unbeliever observes nothing, but the sea is truly observed in his dream:

which was, "I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all."

 

 

I think that is the reality of Bishop's famous eye. Like Dickinson's, its truest precursor, it confronts the truth: what is most worth seeing is impossible to see, at least with open eyes. A poetry informed by that mode of observation will station itself at the edge where what is most worth saying is all but impossible to say.

Harold Bloom is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University. His books include Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, The Western Canon, The Anxiety of Influence, and, most recently, How to Read and Why.

 

Bloom and Bishop


How to Read and Why
by Harold Bloom






The Complete Poems, 1927-1979
by Elizabeth Bishop


$11.70
$1.30 (10%)


 



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