Elizabeth Bishop was refined. Manners interested her, as The Collected Prose makes clear. She can remember learning 'how to behave in school' with more recall than most people: 'this meant to sit up straight, not to scrape your feet on the floor, never to whisper, to raise your hand when you had to go out, and to stand up when you were asked a question.' Fifty-odd years later in Brazil, she teaches manners to two little girls who are following a crazy woman and giggling at her: 'I give them a look.' At the same time, she could see the limitations of manners, could see beyond their immediate and important utility as guides to behaviour. She realises that manners are provisional. They change. Which is why her poem, 'Manners', carries the ironical epigraph, For a Child of 1918. Elizabeth Bishop knows that this rigid six-inch ruler, serviceable in its way, cannot measure the larger reaches of human behaviour. 'Manners', then, isn't quite the charmingly simple, didactically homespun affair it pretends to be. It is an elegy for a lost, straightforward world. Present, too, squally and intractable, is the unmentioned problematic present.
LRB 17 May 1984 | PDF Download