Elizabeth Bishop’s (non-)response to Robert Lowell’s declaration of love

During my three years in law school, I read very little fiction and wrote even less. My time was spent worrying about studying (55%), gearing up to study (15%), wondering how I’d let my father talk me into law school when I’d known I would hate it (10%), complaining about all the studying I had to do (10%), and studying (10%).

Obviously, literature had to take a backseat to my busy schedule. But I didn’t want to lose touch with books entirely, so I started reading writers’ letters at night, before bed. One of my favorite collections at that time was One Art, a volume of the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s correspondence, not least because it revealed how little time she actually spent writing. Months and months would pass and still she would be working on one poem or a single story or, just as likely, not working at all.

Bishop once told Robert Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” This was in 1948, before Bishop met Lota, the Brazilian woman who was her lover and partner until Lota committed suicide in 1967.

On Friday Stephany quoted from a review of Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives Of American Writers And Artists, 1854-1967. In it, Cohen apparently discusses Robert Lowell’s declaration, in a letter, of his love for Bishop.

Robert Giroux edited the letter collection I mentioned. He succinctly introduced Lowell’s letter and Bishop’s non-response this way:

Before EB left New York for Brazil, Robert Lowell on August 15 [1957] had sent her an unusual letter (six single-spaced typewritten pages), written shortly after her and Lota’s visit with the Lowells in Maine. After a five-page account of sailing with the Eberhorns and Wannings, he breaks off and comes to the point: the revelation that nine years earlier he had wanted to propose marriage to EB but had never found “the right stage-setting.” He also refers to it as a “Strachey and Virginia Woolf relationship.”

EB waited four months before replying in two letters on December 11 and 14, though she had cabled Lowell at her departure for Brazil in October. What she writes is remarkable: the letters show friendliness and admiration for his new book, and are filled with news, but she makes no direct reference whatsoever to his dramatic statement that “asking you is the might-have-been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.” There may be irony in her statement that, in looking back, “the real marvel of my summer” was “the whole phenomenon of your quick recovery.”

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