Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts, the only child of a builder who died when she was eight months old. A few years after this, possibly as a consequence, her mother became mentally ill and went into an institution in 1916 where she died in 1924. Elizabeth went to live with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia until her father’s family gained custody and she returned to Worcester to live with them. She was unhappy there and was sent to live with her mother’s sister Maude in Revere, Massachusetts. Her stay in Nova Scotia is captured in her work of autobiographical fiction In The Village, and her time in Worcester in her poem In The Waiting Room.
Her aunt introduced her to the Victorian poets and although she had little formal schooling because of illness, she started to write poetry. She went on from Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, initially studying music and later switching to English Literature. She graduated with a BA in 1934. After leaving Vassar she travelled widely, visiting several European countries and living in France for a time. On her return to the United States she bought a house in Key West where she met Hemingway’s then wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. She was employed as the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress in Washington in 1949 but then moved to Santos, Brazil, where she lived for the next fifteen years. During this time she had a passionate, tempestuous love affair with Lota Soares, an architect who later committed suicide. In the 1970s she lectured at several prestigious American universities.
Elizabeth Bishop’s first collection of poems, North and South, which includes The Man-Moth and The Fish, was published in 1946. This was republished in 1955 with eighteen new poems as North and South: A Cold Spring, which was to win her the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry the following year. She published several more volumes in the ensuing years and in total wrote just over 100 poems. She was a perfectionist with meticulous attention to detail and a witty, polished style. Her poems celebrate working class settings with themes of the struggle to find a sense of belonging and experiences of grief and longing. Shy and vulnerable by nature, she always avoided details of her personal life in her poetry and was at odds with her long-standing friend, Robert Lowell, over his tendency to do this.
She died in Boston in 1979. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, she won numerous other awards during her lifetime and several collections of her poems were published posthumously. She also wrote a travel book on Brazil.