Elizabeth Bishop’s “Seascape”: The Err of Definitive Statements
“Seascape” by Elizabeth Bishop
This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as angels,
flying high as they want and as far as they want sidewise
in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections;
the whole region, from the highest heron
down to the weightless mangrove island
with bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings
like illumination in silver,
and down to the suggestively Gothic arches of the mangrove roots
and the beautiful pea-green back-pasture
where occasionally a fish jumps, like a wildflower
in an ornamental spray of spray;
this cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a Pope:
it does look like heaven.
But a skeletal lighthouse standing there
in black and white clerical dress,
who lives on his nerves, thinks he knows better.
He thinks that hell rages below his iron feet,
that that is why the shallow water is so warm,
and he knows that heaven is not like this.
Heaven is not like flying or swimming,
but has something to do with blackness and a strong glare
and when it gets dark he will remember something
strongly worded to say on the subject.
Elizabeth Bishop, a painter and a poet, usually produces poetry which merely describes a landscape without inflicting any meaning or value into its image. “Seascape” is an exception. However, the thematic turn—so familiar to a Bishop poem is indicated when the “Seascape” landscape turns toward the description of the light house. The beginning praises the pure innocent “heaven-like” beauty of the celestial landscape in gross juxtaposition to the man-made lighthouse.
Bishop begins the poem discussing the attributes of the lighthouse, a fish jumps like a wildflower, herons flying as high as angels, a scene fit for a tapestry done by Raphael for a Pope. Note: the animals in the Seascape and free and blissful. Bishop paints the seascape as a euphoric and effortless scene wherein animals and nature are free. Bishop states, “it does look like Heaven.”
The turn is indicated by the abrupt line “but a skeletal lighthouse standing there” is representative of man and society. Bishop’s society sees man as “he lives on his nerves and thinks he knows better.” The man/lighthouse has an opinion on what Heaven is actually like, and knows Heaven is not like this seascape. The stanza ends with the line—“when it gets dark (presumably death) he will remember something strongly worded to say on the subject.”
Bishop’s distinction between the Seascape vs. the Lighthouse, Man vs. nature—has nothing to do with qualities and attributes provided within the poem, but the way in which ideas and thoughts are communicated. Notice the definitive speech of the lighthouse, he knows, he will remember, he thinks, he lives on his nerves etc… And note the passive almost fluid language of the description of the Seascape, there is no definite statement in the stanza except for “it does look like Heaven.”
Bishop is pointing out the arrogance of making definitive statements. Bishop believes we should look at the world as she looks at the Seascape, providing representations, while knowing they are images—and each image is conjured differently on an individual level. The atrocity of definitive statements is that they are NOT actual definite. Man will never know about Heaven while living and will not know death.
Therefore, life is better spent reflecting and observing then trying to ascertain precise definitive answers because, most of the time, the answers are subjective.