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In her poem 'The Gentleman of Shalott', Elizabeth Bishop parodies Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott' with its message of female weakness and passivity.
Among those who influenced Elizabeth Bishop were many outstanding male poets, for example, George Herbert, Gerald Manley Hopkins and the modernists, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens. The poet, Marianne Moore, who was Bishop's close friend and mentor, also had a strong effect on her life. Bishop opposed the idea of a female tradition of poetry and objected to being praised as a 'woman'poet'.
A Voice of Dissent
Bishop provided a voice of dissent by challenging the patriarchal conventions of Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott'. Tennyson's poem is well-known for its primary message of feminine weakness and male power. This destructive male power is symbolised by flamboyant Lancelot's flaming armour, while the Lady is remote, passive and unable to influence events around her. The Lady weaves a tapestry depicting nature; she does not experience nature directly. Her decision to live in the real world is not fitting for a Lady and she is, therefore, punished with death.
Bishop's 'Mirror Poem' Mocks Male Vanity
The Gentleman of Shalott was published in 1936. It is described by Angus Calder with Lizbeth Goodman, as Elizabeth Bishop's 'Mirror Poem', and parodies Tennyson, mocking the male sex for its self-absorption and vanity. This self-reflecting state is a fundamental condition of the gentleman's being. A useful word here is 'solipsim' which applies to the condition of people who relate everything in the world to themselves, whether joyously (manic) or gloomily (depressive). The Gentleman believes himself to be the very centre of the universe. (One might compare this to a small child buying a toy car as a present for his grandmother. He likes it, and therefore believes that she must like it too. Most children grow out of this solipsistic phase by the age of seven.)
In the poem, the Gentleman gazes, fascinated, into his mirror. The shortness and sharpness of the lines gives the poem pace and enhances the quickness of the poet's wit, for example: 'But he's in doubt / as to which side's in or out / of the mirror.' The shifting tone of these lines is echoed towards the end of the poem: '...The uncertainty / he says he / finds exhilarating.' Bishop's use of the term 'Gentleman' is deliberate and loaded with meaning within its social context, for it implies: '...an archaic, anti-democratic standard of social values,' says Angus Calder.
An Unstable Gender-Bias
There are other ways of interpreting the poem, among them, the assertion that its gender-bias is unstable. Even the shape of the poem has been remarked upon as an indication of this trend. There is a loose arrangement of rhyme. In the first and last stanzas there are half-rhyming couplets, but the middle has a more irregular rhyming scheme that led one critic, B. Costello, to comment: '...too many lines in the middle of the poem suggest Bishop's positive identification with the Gentleman.' Maybe Costello is suggesting that a certain fascination with one's own appearance is not exclusively a male prerogative and that Elizabeth Bishop, in her attention to detail, betrays her own weakness while she makes fun of the Gentleman. The jerkiness of the poem adds to its comic effect and some of the lines are farcical. 'If the glass slips / he's in a fix - only one leg...' This line also suggests a split between subject and object.
Only the Mirror Holds the Gentleman Together
Like Tennyson's Lady, the Gentleman looks at himself through a mirror, but unlike her, he is active, in control, and he can make choices. A Lady would be expected to sit passively. Nevertheless, Bishop insists that he is dependent on his mirror. '...[T]he artist cannot by virtue of her or his occupation participate fully in the life which she or he reflects and reflects upon. Only the mirror holds the Gentleman together,' says Angus Calder. This poem is either Elizabeth Bishop's answer to the male sex, or an attempt at retaliation for the broken mirror of Tennyson's Lady and her shattered dreams. It challenges the Lady's passivity, for Bishop herself renounces, as always, the concept of 'a woman's poetry', preferring to challenge the patricarchy on her own terms and to demand inclusion as a poet whose gender is immaterial.
In 1955 Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize for her volume (containing two collections) Poems: North and South - A Cold Spring. Her Complete Poems won the National Book Award in 1969 and her fourth and final collection, Geography III, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976.
'The Gentleman of Shalott', Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop, Complete Poems, Chatto & Windus Ltd., London, 1991.
'Gender and Poetry' by Angus Calder with Lizbeth Goodman, Literature and Gender, ed. Lizbeth Goodman, Routledge in Association with The Open University, London, 1996.
Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery, B. Costello, Harvard University Press, 1991.
Copyright Janet Cameron. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.