Turns out Bishop wrote the poem out of her despair over the impending departure of her much younger partner, Alice Methfessel. (The two are shown in the photo at left, from the New Yorker.)
Emerson College professor Megan Marshall in a marvelous article on the New Yorker's web site unveils Bishop's late-in-life relationship with the much younger Methfessel.
Bishop was in her 60s and Methfessel in her 20s when they met. While Bishop's poem expresses desolation, the relationship blossomed again.
As the article relates, Bishop had moved to Boston from Brazil to take over Robert Lowell's poetry class at Harvard. Methfessel was the manager of the apartment on the Harvard campus where Bishop stayed; in a delicious aside, Marshall says the place was Harvard's male athletic dorm. The childlike Bishop came to depend upon Methfessel for taking care of life's daily practicalities, and they fell in love.
Marshall, who won a Pulitzer for her biography of the transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller, gives an affecting portrait of Bishop and Boston literary life. She also touches upon Bishop's friendships with Adrienne Rich and Frank Bidart, and her intense love of nature, and life in general. The article also gives a brief but interesting study of Bishop's composition of "One Art."
With her battles against alcoholism and variety of illnesses and personal tragedies, Bishop exhibited dependency and courage. Her love of travel, food and conversation, and her delight in the world's simple pleasures, make her not only a great writer but a vivid character.
Marshall's book, "Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast" comes out in February. The New Yorker article raises my anticipation that the book will bring a warm glow to midwinter.