Elizabeth Bishop and the Dream of Perceptual Content


In Dreaming by the Book, Elaine Scarry makes three distinctions that will be important for this blog post.  I will be arguing that Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Twelth Morning; or What You Will” is about what Scarry calls “the felt experience of imagining,” (71) or “the felt experience of image-making,” and that the poem calls attention self-reflexively to this fact (48).  But first, some distinctions are in order, helpfully provided by Scarry, who writes,

“To be clear, it might be useful to distinguish three phenomena.  First, immediate sensory content: the light-filled surface of Matisse’s Interior at Nice, the sweet fleeting notes of “Honey-Suckle Rose” on Fats Waller’s piano recording, or indeed the particular room one, at this moment, inhabits while reading.  Second, delayed sensory content, or what can be called “instructions for the production of actual sensory content.”  A musical score has no immediate acoustical content, only the immediate visual content of lines and dots and the immediate tactile content of the smooth, thin pages, but it does directly specify a sequence of actions that, if followed, produces actually audible content.  The third case, in contra-distinction to the first two, has no actual sensory content, whether immediate or delayed; there is instead only mimetic content, the figural rooms and faces and weather that we mimetically see, touch, and hear, though in no case do we actually do so (6).”

Scarry goes on to point out that, “painting, sculpture, music, film, and theater are weighted towards the first [category, immediate sensory content]….whereas the verbal arts take place almost exclusively in the third [category, mimetic content].”  (7)  And yet this point must be qualified, for “poetry,” according to Scarry, “retains a strong engagement with delayed perception, the second category:

“like the musical score, its sequence of printed signs contains a set of instructions for the production of actual sound; the page does not itself sing but exists forever on the verge of song.  Poetry – again unlike narrative – even has immediate sensory content, since the visual disposition of the lines and stanzas provides an at once apprehensible visual rhythm that is a prelude to, or rehearsal for, or promise of, the beautiful regulation of sound to come (7).”

Poetry, then, more than the other art forms, participates in all three forms of content outlined by Scarry.  It’s immediate sensory content participates through the visual form of the words on the page.  Its delayed sensory content participates through the way in which the notations on the page are intended to produce actual sound.  And its mimetic content participates through the way in which the poem activates our imaginations.


With these categories intact, we can now think about the difference between the perceptual and mimetic worlds.  Scarry writes, “When we speak in everyday conversation about the imagination, we often attribute to it powers that are greater than ordinary sensation.”  She goes on to write,

“But when we are asked to perform the concrete experiment of comparing an imagined object with a perceptual one – that is, of actually stopping, closing our eyes, concentrating on the imagined face or the imagined room, then opening our eyes and comparing its attributes to whatever greets us when we return to the sensory world – we at once reach the opposite conclusion: the imagined object lacks the vitality and vivacity of the perceived one; it is in fact these very attributes of vitality and vivacity that enable us to differentiate the actual world present to our senses from the one that we introduce through the exercise of the imagination (3).”

The actual magic of literature, Scarry points out, is that it manages, through the instructions of the writer, to make us feel as though we are in the presence of the perceptual world, when in reality we are actually producing mimetic content.  As Scarry writes, “Now it is a remarkable fact that this ordinary enfeeblement of images has a striking exception in the verbal arts, where images somehow do acquire the vivacity of perceptual objects” (5).  And yet: How do we think about images in Bishop’s poems that simultaneously “acquire the  vivacity of perceptual objects” while calling attention to their own artifice, their own status not as perceptual but mimetic content?  In other words, most if not all of Scarry’s examples from literature are intended to produce in our minds the “vitality and vivacity” of the perceptual world, so much so that we are convinced (momentarily) that we are in the presence of the perceptual world.  But how do we account for the dynamic in Bishop’s poems, whereby we are made aware of the materiality of the page and the artifice of the images, even as the images are so vivid as to suggest the perceptual world?


In which poems does Bishop call attention to the poems’ own artifice?  There are poems which call attention to the artifice of painting – I’m thinking of “Large Bad Picture” or “Poem” – and therefore perhaps indirectly call our attention to the artifice of the poem.  But the power, humor and pathos of “Large Bad Picture” and “Poem” both seem to depend on us, to a certain extent, “buying into” the mimetic content, and not doubting it – in fact, “Poem” is so delightful because we believe that Bishop is seeing the painting for the first time, even if in actuality she has revised the poem thousands of times over.  Therefore, when she writes, “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” the euphoria of her epiphany is startling, not least because we have believed in the mimetic content as though it were perceptual content, as though Bishop, almost in our presence, were actually describing a painting, as opposed to using words to build something on a white page that somehow represents, through the instructions of the language, this experience of sudden epiphany.

Yet there are poems that do call attention to themselves as poems.  These strike me as in many ways trickier or more difficult endeavors, because we need to believe enough in the poem to care about it and therefore read it – we need to believe in its mimetic-as-perceptual content – yet we need to be distanced enough by the poem, to even doubt the poem, to have the faint awareness that the poem is made of artifice, and is therefore a construction of language – mimetic and delayed content more so than perceptual content.  And no poem does this more for me than Bishop’s “Twelfth Morning; or What You Will.”  The title itself – “Twelfth Morning; or What You Will” – in its play on the Shakespearean title, and its emphasis on volition, on willing something into being, suggests a playfulness in keeping with the idea that a poem itself is something constructed playfully out of words.  (The form, too, in its elegant repetition of four-line stanzas, with the last line indented, suggests artifice through its very elegance, for it emphasizes that these words are being shaped in a certain way.)  The poem begins,

Like a first coat of whitewash when it’s wet,

the thin grey mist lets everything show through:

the black boy Balthazar, a fence, a horse,

      a foundered house,


-cement and rafters sticking from a dune.

(The Company passes off these white but shopworn

dunes as lawns.)  “Shipwreck,” we say; perhaps

      this is a housewreck (110).


We begin with the rough materials of “whitewash,” as though Bishop were already indirectly calling our attention to the materials of her own construction – that is, the words on the page, the poem itself.  And like a new poem just beginning, the “first coat of whitewash” is wet, is freshly beginning, freshly starting up.  Bishop is playing with notions of transparency and opacity.  She is thereby indirectly emphasizing, again, the language of the poem itself, the way in which language both obscures and makes tantalizingly lucid, as if abetting our dream of language as a clear window, (even if we know better).  Thus: “the thin grey mist lets everything show through.”  Like a magic act, the poem then does just that: it shows us, like the mist, and through the mist, the objects behind it – a boy, a fence, a horse, a house.  Indeed, the house echoes the whitewash in an inverted way, for as the whitewash is just-coming-into-being, the house is “foundered,” is decaying and eroding into its own earlier state of development, and the “cement” and “rafters” peek through the sand like the earlier objects peeking through the mist.  Sand may symbolize the passage of time, and therefore erosion, and so (and yet?) we are suddenly made aware that what we are presented with is not so much a picture representing the passage of time, so much as the passage of the poem itself, the erosion of its seeming perceptual content back into mimetic content.  The poem is self-aware about the content it exhibits.

By the time we reach the third stanza, this element of belief and skepticism in the content of the poem is quickened by Bishop’s humor about the sea, and her questioning about what we are exactly hearing.  We read,

The sea’s off somewhere, doing nothing.  Listen.

An expelled breath.  And faint, faint, faint

(or are you hearing things), the sandpipers’

      heart-broken cries.


The fence, three-strand, barbed-wire, all pure rust,

three dotted lines, comes forward hopefully

across the lots; thinks better of it; turns

      a sort of corner…(110)


It’s as though Bishop doesn’t care about telling us about the sea – “the sea’s off somewhere, doing nothing” – because suddenly she is aware that what she is doing is making us aware of the artifice of the poem.  Why make up something grand or “poetical” about the sea, when we are already soberly aware (at times) of the poem’s own tromp l’oeil qualities, its status as language as opposed to actual objects in our perceptual field?  Perhaps this is why the “expelled breath,” though logically mimicking the sound of the sea, might also represent a kind of sigh from the speaker or reader, as if we were being disabused of our conviction that what is playing across our eyes is perceptual, as opposed to mimetic, content.  Are we hearing things, or does the sandpiper’s cries mirror our own internal state, for we are constantly and heartbreakingly being indirectly reminded that our imagination itself is being prompted, that we are resolutely not in the presence of actual sandpipers but instead in the presence of language?  Then Bishop does an even stranger thing.  She describes the fence as “three dotted lines,” and in doing so she makes the artifice more layered.  For now we are back pretending that the poem does represent the vividness and vitality of the perceptual world, so much so that the fence is seen more clearly than normal, in its more abstract properties.  And yet even the fence itself, we might say, like an existential teenager, doubts its own existence!  For it “comes forward hopefully / across the lots” like a loyal canine, then “thinks better of it” and “turns / a sort of corner….”  In the ellipses that follows “corner,” might we construe a kind of perceptual depth, the place where the fence leaves off, even as the ellipses also drops us into the white space, therefore calling attention again to the poem’s artifice, its surface, its mimetic content?

As the poem continues to its end, we are relentlessly presented with images that gleam in two directions – in one way, as perceptual objects, and in another, as mimetic images.  In this way, Bishop continues to play with our readerly absorption, making us alternately faithful believers and doubtful skeptics.  We read,

Don’t ask the big white horse, Are you supposed

to be inside the fence or out?  He’s still

asleep.  Even awake, he probably

      remains in doubt.


He’s bigger than the house.  The force of

personality, or is perspective dozing?

A pewter-colored horse, an ancient mixture,

      tin, lead, and silver,


he gleams a bit.  But the four-gallon can

approaching on the head of Balthazar

keeps flashing that the world’s a pearl, and I,

      I am


its highlight!  You can hear the water now,

inside, slap-slapping.  Balthazar is singing.

“Today’s my Anniversary,” he sings,

      “the Day of Kings” (110-111).


Everything here seems to be in a state of doubt, a kind of shrill though muted irony – the horse is bigger than the house, is probably “in doubt,” and seems at times to be made of materials that suggest a toy horse; the horse is also “inside….or out” suggesting our own navigation between perceptual content outside and mimetic content inside.  It’s as if Bishop is constantly asking, “How do we see things?”, and her own focused gaze of attention does not preclude the investigation of the artifice of the poem she herself is writing.  The poem ends on a very strange note – of both faith and skepticism, sentimentality and irony – for Balthazar is singing “Today’s my Anniversary…the Day of Kings,” all of which echoes Biblical allusions, and yet how are we supposed to understand this?  It seems likely that a note of irony creeps in here, for the whole picture of the poem has been so “two-faced,” so ingenious at evoking the perceptual and mimetic worlds.  By the time we greet Balthazar and his voice, we are helplessly torn between believing in and doubting the poem (although we never really doubt Bishop’s powers as a poet, something rather interesting in and of itself).  For these reasons, “Twelfth Morning; or What You Will” is a deeply mysterious and beguiling poem, in which objects are themselves and images, people themselves and characters, and the speaker herself (or himself) a kind of perplexing oracle.

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth.  The Complete Poems, 1927 – 1979.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.  Print.

Scarry, Elaine.  Dreaming by the Book.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.  Print.


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