'Epoch in a Large File Box': Elizabeth Bishop & Alice Methfessel’s Love Story
In the spring of 1970, Robert Lowell accepted a position at the University of Essex, in England, leaving a vacancy at Harvard, where he’d been teaching poetry for one semester each year since the fall of 1963. He wrote to his old friend, the poet Elizabeth Bishop, then fifty-nine, to ask whether she would fill in for the fall semesters of 1970 and 1971. Despite Bishop’s meagre teaching experience, the college was happy to offer her the job on the strength of Lowell’s recommendation and the National Book Award bestowed on her “Complete Poems,” in 1970.
Bishop was living in Casa Mariana, her restored colonial home in Ouro Prêto, the picturesque former mining town in southeastern Brazil to which she’d retreated after her longtime partner, the Brazilian modernist designer Lota de Macedo Soares, committed suicide, three years before. For two decades, Bishop had found solace in Brazil from the horrors of her early life in the suburbs of Boston—her father died when she was eight months old, her mother was institutionalized after bouts of insanity four years later, and she spent the rest of her childhood being shuttled between the households of relatives, some of them abusive. But Lowell’s invitation found her at a moment when she needed relief from memories of Soares. Bishop had recently sent The New Yorker two long poems, “In the Waiting Room” and “Crusoe in England.” The first contained a coded acknowledgement of her grief, a “big black wave” that threatened the young Bishop, and the second bade farewell to Soares in its closing lines, when the repatriated Robinson Crusoe recalls the loss of “Friday, my dear Friday,” who “died of measles / seventeen years ago come March.” Had Soares lived to one more March birthday, the couple would have spent seventeen years together.
Bishop accepted Lowell’s invitation, overcoming her memories of terrible students during a semester at the University of Washington, in 1966—“their hatred for my sex, their LSD fantasies, their bluffing,” as she’d confided to friends in Brazil. Harvard, she hoped, would be different, and it was: though the shop windows in Harvard Square were still boarded up from the past spring’s antiwar riot, she found her students eager to learn, primed for her advent by Lowell. She was the first woman to teach English S, Harvard’s most advanced writing course, and the first woman poet to have her name published in a course catalogue. The Radcliffe women, who had access to all of Harvard’s courses, had begun to agitate for female professors, but Harvard’s English department still was not welcoming to women faculty members. The last female poet to teach at Harvard was May Sarton, who held a two-year lectureship in the early fifties, but only her colleague John Ciardi was permitted to teach a poetry course or named in the catalogue; Sarton taught freshman composition.
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