Poem-a-Day - "Behind Stowe" by Elizabeth Bishop

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January 21, 2023 

Behind Stowe

Elizabeth Bishop

I heard an elf go whistling by,
A whistle sleek as moonlit grass,
That drew me like a silver string
To where the dusty, pale moths fly,
And make a magic as they pass;
And there I heard a cricket sing.

His singing echoed through and through
The dark under a windy tree
Where glinted little insects’ wings.
His singing split the sky in two.
The halves fell either side of me,
And I stood straight, bright with moon-rings.

This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on January 21, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.

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“Behind Stowe” originally appeared in a 1927 issue of The Blue Pencil, a literary magazine published by Walnut Hill School for the Arts. Elizabeth Bishop, then a student at Walnut Hill, was only sixteen years old when the poem was published. In “Insects as Emblems of Affection: Symbolic Displacement in Selected Poems by Elizabeth Bishop,” published in Harvard Review no. 16, a special issue dedicated to the work of Elizabeth Bishop, poet Tina Barr writes, “The seductive ‘whistle’ and the cricket’s song have a transformational effect on the speaker. She is compelled by the ‘whistle’; she is emotionally moved and physically tugged by the ‘silver string’s’ hypnotic pull. [. . .] In this place of confrontation, the cricket’s ‘singing’ permeates not only the external darkness but also an internal space. Despite the romanticism of words like ‘moonlit,’ ‘silver,’ and ‘magic,’ the poem conveys a sense of violence during the speaker’s implicit transformation. The two halves of the split sky, in association with the insects’ wings in the previous line, create an effect that suggests the speaker as emerging from two halves of a chrysalis.”

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was born on February 8, 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was the author of many collections, including Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1955) and The Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), winners of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and the 1970 National Book Award in Poetry, respectively. She died on October 6, 1979.

Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems

The Complete Poems
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969)

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