An exploration of the underlying dialogue with Christianity in the works of a prominent American agnostic poet
In this original study of Elizabeth Bishop's lifelong engagement with Christianity, Laurel Snow Corelle illuminates the ways in which Bishop's Protestant childhood and reading of Christian literature, coupled with her deep commitment to agnosticism, inform the works of this former poet laureate of the United States. Corelle sees in Bishop's writing a sophisticated and sustained interrogation of orthodoxy that exquisitely balances Bishop's religious upbringing with her agnostic stance.
Corelle immerses the reader in Bishop's works and world in order to convey the rigor, subtlety, and complexity of the poet's dialogue with Christianity and its literature. Bishop was a self-proclaimed nonbeliever; yet she grew up in two devout Protestant homes and she studied Christian literature throughout her life. As a result some of the perspectives and prejudices voiced in her verse are transparently Protestant. Placing Bishop's work in direct relation to some of her favorite Christian texts, Corelle locates her within the intellectual milieu of post-World War II America in which she wrote.
The study, which spans the course of Bishop's poetry and draws as well on her letters and prose, illustrates how she incorporated allusions to scripture and Protestant sacraments in a subversive critique of organized Christianity and how her appropriation of three traditional genres common to Christian literature—allegory, pastoral elegy, and spiritual autobiography—advanced her own poetic purposes.
Laurel Snow Corelle received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from Boston University and has since taught English there, at Babson College, and elsewhere. An independent scholar, she lives near Boston.
"As Laurel Corelle shows in this finely researched and intricately argued study, Elizabeth Bishop was both skeptical of and fascinated by religion. Although Bishop was critical of orthodoxy and religious institutions, her writing was profoundly influenced by the rhetorical tradition of the Bible and its literary afterlife. Corelle's own 'high argument' is persuasive in its broad strokes, but also in its rich and intricate close readings—where she explores Bishop's dialogue with great Christian writers of the past, including Herbert, Donne, Milton, Hopkins, Thomas, Moore, and others, and with the forms of the Christian literary tradition such as allegory, parable, pastoral elegy, and litany. In this powerful and important analysis of Bishop's relationship with Christianity, readers can find fresh, informed readings of the poetry as well as an exemplary portrait of an era when skeptical minds remained moved and inspired by the forms of a lost faith."—Bonnie Costello, Boston University