Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1911, but spent part of her childhood with her Canadian grandparents after her father's death and mother's hospitalization. Of her childhood she noted, "My relatives all felt so sorry for this child that they tried to do their very best. And I think they did. I lived with my grandparents in Nova Scotia, then with the ones in Worcester, in Massachusetts, very briefly and got terribly sick. This was when I was six and seven.... Then I lived with my mother's older sister in Boston, she was devoted to me -- she had no children. My relationship with my relatives -- I was always sort of a guest, and I think I've always felt like that."
Miss Bishop attended Vassar where she majored in English although she had originally intended to major in music composition and piano. "You had to perform in public once a month. Well, this terrified me. I really was sick. I played once and then gave up the piano because I couldn't bear it. The next year I switched to English."
In addition to working on the school newspaper, The Vassar Miscellany, Bishop founded a literary magazine, Con Spirito, with fellow students Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark, and Muriel Rukeyser. It was as a Vassar student that Elizabeth Bishop met Marianne Moore.
The two women first met in 1934 when Fanny Borden, the Vassar librarian, arranged an introduction. Miss Bishop described the meeting thus: "I first met Miss Moore by appointment in 1934, in the New York Public Library. I had actually picked out a tall, eagle-nosed, beturbaned lady, distinguished-looking but proud and forbidding, as a possible Miss Moore, when to my great relief, the real one spoke up." In the course of their conversation, the Vassar senior suggested they go to the circus in two weeks and Miss Moore, who had a passion for the circus, agreed.
The older poet played at least a tangential role in the following year in Miss Bishop's decision not to enroll in Cornell Medical School. As she explained, "I had all the forms. But then I discovered that I would have to take German and more chemistry. I'd already published a few things and Marianne discouraged me, and I didn't go. I just went off to Europe instead." Miss Bishop traveled extensively in Europe and lived in New York, Key West, Florida, and, for seventeen years, in Brazil. She taught briefly at the University of Washington, at Harvard for seven years, at New York University, and just prior to her death in 1979, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Elizabeth Bishop won virtually every poetry prize in the country although she insisted, "They don't mean too much." Her first book, North & South, won the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award for 1946. In 1955, she received the Pulitzer Prize for a volume containing North & South and A Cold Spring. Her next book of poetry, Questions of Travel (1965), won the National Book Award and was followed by The Complete Poems in 1969. Geography III (1976) received the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1976, Miss Bishop became both the first American and the first woman to win the Books Abroad/Neustadt Prize for Literature.
In addition to her volumes of poetry, she translated a famous Brazilian diary, The Diary of Helena Morley, edited and partially translated An Anthology of Contemporary Brazilian Poetry (1972), and was a prolific contributor to The New Yorker. In 1967, Bishop was the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships. She received honorary degrees from Adelphi, Brandeis, Brown, Dalhousie, and Princeton Universities, as well as from Smith and Amherst Colleges. A chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Bishop was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress in 1949-50.
Elizabeth Bishop died on October 6, 1979. A new edition of her poems, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, was published in early 1983, and The Collected Prose was published in 1984.
Of her work, Robert Lowell remarked, "Elizabeth Bishop is the contemporary poet that I admire most .... There's a beautiful completeness to all of Bishop's poetry. I don't think anyone alive has a better eye than she had: The eye that sees things and the mind behind the eye that remembers."