Elizabeth Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. When she was less than a year old, her father died, and shortly thereafter, her mother was committed to a mental asylum. Bishop was first sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia and later lived with paternal relatives in Worcester and South Boston. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1934.
Bishop was independently wealthy, and from 1935 to 1937 she spent time traveling to France, Spain, North Africa, Ireland, and Italy and then settled in Key West, Florida, for four years. Her poetry is filled with descriptions of her travels and the scenery that surrounded her, as with the Florida poems in her first book of verse, North & South (Houghton Mifflin), published in 1946.
She was influenced by the poet Marianne Moore, who was a close friend, mentor, and stabilizing force in her life. Unlike her contemporary and good friend Robert Lowell, who wrote in the Confessional style, Bishop’s poetry avoids explicit accounts of her personal life and focuses instead with great subtlety on her impressions of the physical world.
Her images are precise and true to life, and they reflect her own sharp wit and moral sense. She lived for many years in Brazil, communicating with friends and colleagues in America only by letter. She wrote slowly and published sparingly (her Collected Poems number barely one hundred), but the technical brilliance and formal variety of her work is astonishing. For years she was considered a ‘poet’s poet,’ but with the publication of her last book, Geography III (Chatto and Windus), in 1977, Bishop was finally established as a major force in contemporary literature.
She received the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1955). Her Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), won the National Book Award in 1970. That same year, Bishop began teaching at Harvard University, where she worked for seven years.
Elizabeth Bishop was awarded an Academy Fellowship in 1964 for distinguished poetic achievement, and served as a Chancellor from 1966 to 1979. She died in Cambridge, Massachussetts, on October 6, 1979, and her stature as a major poet continues to grow through the high regard of the poets and critics who have followed her.