We do not always remember that Elizabeth Bishop came of age as a writer during the rise of fascism, and that she composed a number of the poems for her first collection, North & South (1946), in Europe, as the Continent consciously prepared for world war. One reason we do not often connect her early work to such dramatic historical context is the late date of her first book: her poems had been appearing in major magazines for a decade when North & South was published. While a few scholars, notably James Longenbach and Betsy Erkkila, have begun to consider Bishop's early poetry within the political context of the 1930s, and to "locat[e] Bishop's work within the debates about the relation between literary modernism and the American—and international—Left[,]" the tendency of many critics has been to focus on what seem to be the purely aesthetic, apparently surrealist elements in Bishop's writing from the '30s and '40s, and to characterize her later work in Brazil, from the '50s and '60s, as a political awakening (Erkkila 285).1 At the same time, insightful biographical and psychoanalytic studies of her work sometimes downplay or overlook the impact of the larger, dramatic historical context in which she was writing her early poems.2 Here I want to consider more deeply the influence, on Bishop's early work, of the year and a half she spent in Europe shortly after college—from July of 1935 to June of 1936, and from June to December of 1937—and to attend to the startling ways that three of her strange, early poems register contemporary anxieties about the development of fascism and militarism in Germany and Italy, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and Italy's invasion of Ethiopia.
Bishop's work has always resisted easy categorization, and it has been subject frequently to ahistorical readings. Bishop can be aptly discussed as a postmodernist poet, yet her early work can be considered late modernist; the aesthetic-political dilemmas of late modernism in the '30s were very real to Bishop. As Longenbach has argued, "The problem for Bishop, early and late, was not her values as such but her discomfort—nurtured in the thirties—with the conventions of political poetry. . . . [F]rom the beginning of her career, Bishop was 'more interested in social problems' than, in retrospect, she would allow" (Longenbach 468–69). He refers here to statements Bishop herself made, much later in life, about politics and her poetry. For instance, she said in the '60s: "Politically I considered myself a socialist [in the 1930s], but I disliked 'social conscience' writing" ("Interview" 293).
As a young writer, Bishop consciously approached the apparent dilemma of any ambitious, socially aware author of the time, who also admired the implicitly elitist aesthetics of modernism: how to allow politics to affect her writing. For a sophisticated writer, of course, this is not a simple problem, and it seems hasty, on the one hand, to fault her early poems for their "Eurocentric aesthetics," and, on the other, to praise Bishop for eventually "moving . . . toward a more socially embedded and class-conscious art" (Erkkila 290). Bishop felt drawn to the poetics of T. S. Eliot, whom she interviewed as an undergraduate at Vassar, but she also found a hero in W. H. Auden, admiring his outspoken leftist politics and his poetic wit, and in college she helped found a leftist magazine, Con Spirito, with Mary McCarthy and Muriel Rukeyser (Millier 48). She did not obviously imitate Auden's voice or style, in its direct appropriation of jargon and topical themes, but her fondness for writing formal, rhymed poems in the '30s may owe something to him.3 At the same time, she disliked some of the more overtly political writing of some of her peers, including Rukeyser.4 She seemed to feel that poetry could be politically engaged without making direct political statements.
The development of her political thinking, and the formative influence of the '30s and World War II, emerge in a 1964 letter about her early work, which she wrote in Brazil to the poet Anne Stevenson, her first biographer:
[W]ell, at the time I...