Essay: Elizabeth Bishop and the discovery of Brazil - by George Monteiro

Posted on 20 March 2015.

By George Monteiro, Contributor (*)

No sooner had the European leaped ashore than he found his feet slipping among the naked Indian women… The women were the first to offer themselves to the whites, the more ardent ones going to rub themselves against the legs of these beings whom they supposed to be gods. They would give themselves to the European for a comb or a broken mirror.

Gilberto Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves (1936)


Grecian Urn, Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon.

Grecian Urn, Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon.

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme;
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820)


There is evidence to indicate that some years before first arriving in Brazil, late in 1951—she would remain, unexpectedly for nearly two decades—the American poet Elizabeth Bishop had had a taste of Brazilian poetry in English translation. New Road 1944: New Directions in European Art and Letters, which reprinted Bishop’s poem “Jeronymo’s House, Key West” from the Partisan Review (Sept. / Oct. 1941) featured a first-of-its-kind dossier on “modern Brazilian poetry.” The poets chosen were Castro Alves (an excerpt from The Slave Ship), Cruz e Souza (one poem), Alberto de Oliveira (one poem), Alfonsus de Guimaraens (one poem), Raul de Lioni (one poem), Ronald de Carvalho (one poem), Menotti del Picchia (two poems), Carlos Drummond de Andrade (one poem), Manuel Bandeira (two poems), Ismael Nery (two poems), Murilo Mendes (one poem), Jorge de Lima (one poem), and Olavo Bilac (one poem). (Four of these poets—Jorge de Lima, Drummond, Bandeira, and Murilo Mendes—would reappear in An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry, a collection prepared by Bishop herself, with the collaboration of Emanuel Brasil, and published in 1972.)

New Road 1944 also contained an essay on “Brazilian Poetry,” which summarized several contentious generalizations about Brazil:

Anthropologists and sociologists, still obsessed by exploded climatic theories, unaware of experiences like that of Northern Australia, and intending to restore the classic conception of the ‘torrid zone’ to its full value, had proclaimed impossible, the existence of civilization in the tropics. Besides, racial theorists stigmatized the coloured people and the mestizos as irrevocably inferior. Iberian decadence sharply contrasted with the vigorous development of Anglo-Saxon populations all over the globe. There was an insidious and pessimistic propaganda which threatened to stupefy and paralyse the energies of the nation, and which produced reasons for a pretended inherent annihilating melancholy of the Brazilian race, as the outcome of the mixture of the Portuguese, Negro and Indian.

The poems presented were offered, of course, singly and in the aggregate, as correctives to such easy and familiar canards.

The Olavo Bilac poem included in this 1944 dossier is the nativist-national poem “Brazilian Land” (“O Brasil”), taken from Bilac’s collection entitled The Voyages (As Viagens). The translator is not identified. Here is what Bishop, who had no Portuguese then, would have read:

Hold! A new land shines before your eyes!
Stop! here, before the green shores,
the waves’ inclemency turns to caresses,
this is the kingdom of light, love and satiety!

Oh, Mariner! let your voice
accustomed to blasphemies and curses, tremble!
gaze at her standing there, pure virgin who surrenders to your kisses,
in the fullness of her beauty, her two breast[s] which, burning with desire, you sooths

Kiss her; the tropic-sun gave her that gilded skin,
the nest’s content, the rose’s perfume,
the coolness of the river, the splendor of the dawn!

Kiss her! This fairest of all nature’s flowers;
sate yourself with love in this fragrant flesh,
of first lover of the Brazilian Land!

Surprisingly, perhaps, the unnamed translator of Bilac’s sonnet (possibly Everaldo Dayrell de Lima) is cautious or reticent in two crucial places (lines seven and fourteen): Bilac’s phrase “virgem morena e pura” is rendered as “pure virgin” (dropping the crucial idea of the Brazilian male’s infatuation with the “morena” or “mulata”) and in the line “Ó desvirginador da Terra Brasileira” the idea of “deflowerer” is replaced, evasively, as “first lover of the Brazilian Land.” Bilac’s trope—the Brazilian land as dark virgin, awaiting her deflowerer—would have its telling echoes in one of Elizabeth Bishop’s own Brazilian poems published a decade and a half later but only after the poet had undergone other experiences and suffered myriad other influences.

“Paisagem Verde”, oil on canvas by Pedro Luiz Correia de Araújo.

“Paisagem Verde”, oil on canvas
by Pedro Luiz Correia de Araújo.

“The Portuguese image of Brazil was from the beginning erotic,” writes a modern historian; “as the legendary Portuguese phrase had it, ‘beneath the equator there is no sin.'” “Epicurean” was the word Amerigo Vespucci uses for some of the natives encountered in the New World. Gilberto Freyre puts it less evasively, as he states, without qualification, “The milieu in which Brazilian life began was one of sexual intoxication.”

The poem that had undergone several title changes — “January,” “January First, 1502,” and (inexplicably) “January 1904” — finally appeared as “Brazil, January 1,1502” in the New Yorker magazine on January 2,1960, fortuitously honoring the month and day the Portuguese expedition, having sailed from Lisbon in May 1501 for the purpose of exploring the Brazilian coastline, reached Rio de Janeiro.

As an epigraph for her poem Bishop chose words— “embroidered nature… tapestried landscape”—from Sir Kenneth Clark’s Landscape into Art. This, I think, was a poet’s ruse, intended to throw the reader off the track of the poem’s main thrust, at least initially. A more appropriate epigraph, to my mind—one that was closer to her subject—would have been something from Camões. What I have in mind, specifically, are those lines he devotes to the imaginary “Island of Love” in Canto IX. That timeless place, foreign to any chart or map, is imagined by Camões: “Pois a tapecaria bela e fina / Com que se cobre o rustico terreno, / Faz ser a de Aquemenia menos dina, / Mas do sombrio vale mais ameno.” Here is Leonard Bacon’s translation, published in 1950, available to Bishop well before she wrote her poem: “There is a tapestry most fair and fine / That covers over all the rustic place, / And Achemenian weave makes less divine, / Lending to the dark vale a sweeter grace.”

In fact, Camões’s suitability to Bishop’s poem goes beyond its anticipation of the word or two in the phrases the poet chose for her epigraph. It will be recalled that the vision of the fabled “Island of Love” and what will happen there are the rewards the goddess Venus bestows on the successful Portuguese mariners. In an episode of free and boundless sex, Vasco da Gama’s sailors mate with nymphs in a luxuriously pastoral setting.

Isto dito, veloces mais que gamos,
Se lancam a correr pelas ribeiras.
Fugindo as Ninfas vão por entre os ramos,
Mas, mais industriosas que ligeiras,
Pouco e pouco, sorrindo e gritos dando,
Se deixam ir dos galgos alcançando.

Here, once again, is Bacon’s rendition:

He spoke, and forthwith swifter than the hind
The heroes rushed the water-meadows through,
And the nymphos fled through branches intertwined,
But with less speed than purposeful ado,
Smiling the while, yet raising many a cry,
Till, bit by bit, they let the hounds draw nigh.

In Bishop’s poem the Portuguese mariners “came and found it all / not unfamiliar.” Although they found “no lovers’ walks, no bowers, / no cherries to be picked, not lute music,” what they found was familiar to them, “corresponding, nevertheless, / to an old dream of wealth and luxury / already out of style when they left home—/ wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.” Their old dream of riches and luxury—the latter as luxuria (lust) —would have had its literary source for the Portuguese in Camoes’s account of Gama’s sailors at their love-making on the “Island of Love.” But history meshes uneasily with imagination, even when romance is incorporated into an historical epic. This is certainly the case with the history imagined in “Brazil, January 1,1502,” which records that the sailors “ripped away into the hanging fabric, / each out to catch an Indian for himself—yet unable to catch “those maddening little women who kept calling / each to each other (or had the birds waked up?) / and retreating, always retreating, behind it. Always retreating in the sylvan scene—here again Bishop nods in the direction of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—that celebration of that paradox of an ecstatic stasis. Moreover, one must assume that outside of the “tapestry” of Bishop’s poem, rapes took place. What the poem does not allow for (recall that “always”) is that the Indian nymphs acquiesced in the way Camões’s “Does” (since they are “not so Swift as Artificial”) allowed the pursuing “Greyhounds” to gain on them. The Indian women in Bishop’s poem—if not in history or in the erotic island fantasy of Camoes—remain forever unravished like the nymphs on the frieze of the urn considered in Keats’s famous poem (104-05). In Camões’s poem it is very much different:

Outros, por outra parte, vão topar
Com as Deusas despidas, que se lavam;
Elas começam sú a gritar,
Como que assalto tal não esperavam;
Umas, fingindo menos estimar
A vergonha que a força, se lançavam
Uas por entre o mato, aos olhos dando
O que às mãos cobiçosas vão negando…

In Bacon’s English these lines read:

And others on that other quarter light
Where naked goddesses a-bathing lie,
Who sudden cry aloud in their affright,
As not expecting violence so high.
Some, feigning shame a less thing in their sight
Than force can be, all mother-naked fly
Into the thicket, yielding to the eyes
What virtue to the lusting hand denies.

“Brazil, January 1,1502” is among Bishop’s least autobiographical, least directly personal poems. In fact, as I have tried to show, it is a highly “literary” poem. By that I mean that although Bishop draws, as she usually does, on direct experience, that experience comes, as often as not, from written texts and paintings. It is a truism, of course, that the creations of someone else’s imagination and art can readily become part of the experience of those who read them or see them.

First page of Pêro de Caminha's Letter in 1500.

First page of Pêro de Caminha’s Letter in 1500.

“Brazil, January 1,1502,” it can be said, was a product of Bishop’s reading, more specifically of the research she did for the preparation of the book on Brazil she wrote for the Time Life series on the world’s nations. Included in that research were books on the European discovery of the New World, particularly Brazil. In Brazil she quotes from the foundational letter written on the first of May 1500 by Pêro Vaz de Caminha to King Manuel describing the land discovered on Pedro Alvares Cabral’s voyage of that year.

In her list of sources for her volume on Brazil, Bishop also lists Amerigo Vespucci’s spirited accounts of his own attendance on several journeys to Brazil, including the second Portuguese expedition in 1501-1502. It was on that journey that, sailing along the coast from north to south, the various landing places were named for the festive dates on which they were visited, reaching Rio de Janeiro on the first day of the year 1502. Curiously, this auspicious landing, although it is the subject of Bishop’s poem, goes unmentioned in her book Brazil and does not appear on his list of important historical dates in the same work. “Januaries, Nature greets our eyes,” begins the first stanza of “Brazil, January 1, 1502”:

Exactly as she [Nature] must have greeted theirs:
Every square inch filling in with foliage —
Big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,
Blue, blue-green, and olive,
With occasional lighter veins and edges,
Or a satin underleaf turned over;
Monster ferns
In silver-gray-relief,
And flowers, too, like giant water lilies
Up in the air—up, rather, in the leaves —
Purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
Rust red and greenish white;
Solid but airy; fresh as if just finished
And taken off the frame.

The thick growth and variegated, lush foliage characteristic of tropical Brazil in summer, so evident to the poet in this month of January, as in all past Januaries, including the one in which the Portuguese first laid eyes on the place they called Rio de Janeiro, is offered to us as the reality of the poet’s own day in the already very modern city of Rio in 1959-60.

If “Nature greets our eyes exactly as he must have greeted theirs,” it is unlikely that it would do so for the occupants of an eleventh-story apartment in Leme, the first section of beach at Copacabana. Nature’s lush show would still be available, perhaps, along the route Bishop would have taken to reach Samambaia in Petrópolis. I do not mean to quibble about this, but it does seem significant to me that the marriage of a natural setting in modern Brazil should be married in the poet’s imagination to the supposed Rio that awaited the Portuguese on their arrival in 1502. Such a marriage is for the sake of the poem, one concludes, and not for the sake of the factual history behind it. In fact, the actual experience of Nature in her fulsome vegetation enables Bishop to fill in the history that is recorded in the accounts given by Caminha and Vespucci, neither of whom possesses the poet’s ability to describe nature, or better, to reconstitute nature as if it were a work of human art. Bishop’s Nature is “solid but airy; fresh as if just finished and taken off the frame.” Whether the frame is the frame on which a tapestry is made or the frame on which (lace) curtains are stretched, starched, and dried (one suggestion of “fresh”), the language may also recall William Blake’s poem “The Tiger,” particularly the lines that ask the question: what power “dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” even as Bishop’s lines stress Shakespeare’s “airy” nothingness while recognizing the “solid” existence of nothingness.

That there is no Sin below the Equator is the burden of the second stanza to deny, for this display of fern, flower, and (now) bird, backed by “a blue-white sky, a simple web,” is but the background or scenery (pano fundo, if one considers this show as Nature’s tapestry or theatrical curtain) for what is in the foreground. For there, up front, is Sin, evidenced in “five sooty dragons” near “massy rocks,” “worked with lichen, gray moonbursts splattered and overlapping, threatened from underneath by moss in lovely hell-green flames.” (It is not without interest, that this imagery echoes the first stanza of Bishop’s love poem “The Shampoo,” a personal, sensual poem published in 1955: “The still explosions on the rocks, / the lichens, grow / by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.”

“Banhista”, oil on canvas by Pedro Luiz Correia de Araújo.

“Banhista”, oil on canvas by Pedro Luiz Correia de Araújo.

Sexuality shows forth in the gaze of the dragons (actually lizards, as it is soon revealed) — “all eyes” “on the smaller, female one, back to, her wicked tail straight up and over, red as a red-hot wire.” Bishop here makes the easy identification of sexuality-carnal knowledge — with sin. Surprisingly, this detail of lizards and sex is taken from personal observation. Before finding its place in the poem, this experience was described in a letter Bishop wrote in November 1959: “Watching the lizards’ love-making is one of our quiet sports here!, she writes, “the male chases the female, bobbing his head up and down and puffing his throat in and out like a balloon—he is usually much larger and much uglier. The female runs ahead and if she is feeling friendly she raises her tail up over her back like a wire—it is bright red, almost neon-red, underneath. He hardly ever seems to catch up with her, though—”

Bishop’s poem suggests that there is an analogy between the lizard’s ways of courtship and the recently arrived Christian’s sexual pursuit of the little, bird-like Indian women. He may be out to “catch an Indian for himself,” but the analogy tells us that he may only be able to do it if the Indian permits him to do so. Pêro Vaz de Caminha had written, “There were among them three or four girls, very young and very pretty, with very dark hair, long over the shoulders, and their privy parts so high, so closed, and so free from hair that we felt no shame in looking at them very well.” Indeed, nakedness and shame (or, more accurately, the lack of shame) is a persistent theme in Caminha’s account. There is no doubt that, personal voyeurism aside, Caminha knew that these matters mattered to the Court back in Portugal. Consider the following statements in Caminha’s letter:

1. They were dark, and entirely naked, without anything to cover their shame.

2. In appearance they are dark, somewhat reddish, with good faces and good noses, well shaped. They go naked, without any covering; neither do they pay more attention to concealing or exposing their shame than they do to showing their faces, and in this respect that are very innocent.

3. And then they stretched themselves out on their backs on the carpet to sleep without taking any care to cover their privy parts, which were not circumcised, and the hair on them was well shaved and arranged.

4. At that place there assembled at once some two hundred men all naked…

5. And then they brought him [the convict] back to us, and with him came the others whom we had brought. These were now naked and without caps.

6. Others wore caps of yellow feathers, others of red, others of green; and one of the girls was all painted from head to foot with that paint, and she was so well built and so rounded and her lack of shame was so charming, that many women of our land seeing such attractions, would be ashamed that theirs were not like hers. None of them were circumcised but all were as we were.

And the final example of Caminha’s repetitive observations:

7. There were also among them four or five young women just as naked, who were not displeasing to the eye, among whom was one with her thigh from the knee to the hip and buttock all painted with that black paint and all the rest in her own colour; another had both knees and calves and ankles so painted, and her privy parts so nude and exposed with such innocence that there was not there any shame. There was also another young woman, carrying an infant boy or girl tied at her breasts by a cloth of some sort so that only its little legs showed. But the legs of the mother and the rest of her were not concealed by any cloth.

Gilberto Freyre's "The Masters and the Slaves" (title-page).

Gilberto Freyre’s “The Masters and the Slaves” (title-page).

Pêro Vaz de Caminha’s account of what the Portuguese saw and did in Rio de Janeiro in 1500 has been widely accepted as objectively factual, at least as objectively factual as could have been expected at the time. Its authority is implicitly acknowledged by Gilberto Freyre, for example, though Freyre goes beyond his predecessor when he writes in The Masters and the Slaves (a book that Bishop characterized as “fascinating and depressing”): “It is known to be a fact that even Portuguese men of arms of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, possibly by reason of their long maritime crossings and their contact with the voluptuous life of Oriental countries, had developed all forms of lust.” In fact, Freyre adds, “Independently of the lack or scarcity of women of the white race,” wherever he went “the Portuguese always was inclined to a voluptuous contact with the exotic woman. For purposes of racial crossing, miscegenation.” The possibly benevolent aspect of this notion has become, in some quarters, something of a common place : “Pêro Vaz de Caminha betrays in those words [‘de as nós muito bem olharmos’] an attitude that would be, throughout history, perhaps, the basis of the mysterious plasticity of the Portuguese everywhere in the world: that racial co-fraternization that creates the roots of an understanding with the most diverse peoples, in the most eminent Christian sense, such as love for the next person.” Needless to say, this notion has also been, no more so than now, vigorously, sometimes ferociously, challenged.

Now Bishop’s Indian maidens are not exactly those free, easygoing, pliant, unashamed, unencumbered sexual beings of Caminha’s rosy account; but they are not so obviously or unambiguously the clear-cut victims that a parti pris ideological reading of the poem seems to demand that they be.

The final stanza of Bishop’s poem completes the structuring simile the poet has been constructing all along—the first term of which appears right off in the opening stanza (“theirs”):

Just so the Christians, hard as nails,
tiny as nails, and glinting,
in creaking armor, came and found it all,
not unfamiliar:
no lovers’ walks, no bowers,
no cherries to be picked, no lute music,
but corresponding, nevertheless,
to an old dream of wealth and luxury
already out of style when they left home—
wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.
Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L’Homme armé or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself—
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it.

Here the Christians behave exactly as if there were no Sin beneath the equator, though, if we are to believe the poem, Sin is hardly absent from this natural tropical world. There is violation here, but, oddly enough, it is violation of the scenery (“ripped away into the hanging fabric”). Of course, the easy equations are not to be made, for example, that the mail lizard equals the Christians, and the female lizard equals one of “those maddening little women.” It is the equation between the unspecified, perhaps ambiguous, attitude of the female lizard (is she keeping the other lizards at bay or is she sending out an invitation to one or more of them?) and the “retreating, always retreating” “maddening little women,” who keep retreating behind “the hanging fabric.” The question is crucial, especially given the tendency on the part of many readers to view this as an incipient rape scene. Of course, to be considered is the fact that in the self-enclosed world of the poem these women will never be caught, whether they wish to be caught or not. In this, they are like the pursuing man and the pursued woman in the sylvan scene of pursuit forever frozen in the frieze ornamenting the urn in John Keats’s great ode. It is of course unlikely that these Christians, “hard as nails, tiny as nails” in “creaking armor” will soon catch these probably unclad maidens unless they—the maidens—allow themselves to be caught. (Hence the point of the poet’s reference to the fifteenth-century masses based on the theme of L’Homne Armé and the lyrics of the chanson associated with those masses: “The armed man is to be feared. / Everywhere has the cry gone out, / That each one should arm himself/ With a coat of armour. / The armed man is to be feared.” ) Still, even the possibility of rape hovering over the scene as Bishop presents it questions the validity of the sweeping assertion by the American Waldo Frank, writing about slavery in Brazil and the growth of “Brazil’s mixed population”: “There was no rape; almost no case of it is known in Brazil’s history.”

Vitor Meireles's painting "A Primeira Missa."

Vitor Meireles’s painting “A Primeira Missa.”

The historical first and second “Masses” celebrated by the Portuguese in Brazil have had their depiction in art. There is Vitor Meireles’s “A Primeira Missa,” a painting now in the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, in which the Mass is depicted —frozen in medias res—with Portuguese sailors kneeling attentively and indigenous

Brazilian currency showing reproduction of Meireles's painting "A Primeira Missa."

Brazilian currency showing reproduction of Meireles’s painting “A Primeira Missa.”

Indians along the edges of the scene, milling about in various poses and strikingly different attitudes toward the unfamiliar behavior of the strangers newly come among them. What is entirely missing in this depiction of the natives is any sign of suspicion or fear of the Christians among the Indians. A naked Indian holds her child to her breast. Two Indians are perched in a tree, one of whom seems to be watching — expectantly. Another one sits on the ground, watching intently, his chin resting on his folded hands. Several others show surprise, fascination with the unfamiliar ritual playing out before them. The Christians attending the Mass—some of them in full armor—seem almost oblivious to the presence of the curious outsiders—the Indians. Of large national import, this painting has even found its way onto the verso of the 1000 cruzeiros bill of a generation ago that honors the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral.

Since it honors Cabral’s voyage in 1500, one that did not take him to the place that the second expedition—not led by Cabral—named Rio de Janeiro, the Mass depicted serves just as well to depict the one described by Pêro Vaz de Caminha as having taken place further north along the shores of the Atlantic. Still, this famous painting might well have contributed its share to Bishop’s imaginary, prompting her to imagine her own version of a mass in Rio on January 1,1502.

But while it is highly probable that Bishop was acquainted with “A Primeira Missa”—after all, Vitor Meireles’s painting of the first (or at least an early) Christian Mass in Brazil was on display at the Museu Nacional de Belas-Artes as well as reproduced on the nation’s currency— it is just as probable (perhaps even more so) that Bishop knew a second painting depicting the arrival of the Portuguese in Brazil, one by a painter with whom she seems to have shared affinities and friends. The painting I have in mind is “Conquistadores e Conquista,” a

Pedro Luiz Correia de Araújo's painting "Conquistadores e Conquista."

Pedro Luiz Correia de Araújo’s painting “Conquistadores e Conquista.”

1946 work by Pedro Luiz Correia de Araújo. The painting shows close-up in the foreground an Indian woman, head and shoulders, enclosed in tall green fronds that “separate” her and “protect” her from a scene revealing two non-Indians facing at a distance two naked Indian maidens. The Indian woman in profile, obviously attempting to keep herself hidden within a circle of large ferns or fronds, looking out suspiciously if not surreptitiously. Here is something more than the hint of pursuit, capture, and rape. Indeed while Meireles’s painting celebrates the European Catholic arrival in Brazil, Correia de Araújo’s painting is monitory in its depiction of Indian wariness and suspicion. He will not have you miss his point. He calls his painting, as you will recall, “Conquistadors and Conquest” (“Conquistadores e Conquista”). In making a single Indian woman the most prominent feature of his painting (pictorially foregrounding her—in place and size), Correia de Araújo may have been prompted by Pêro Vaz de Caminha’s voyeuristic observation: “Among all those who came to-day there was only one young woman who stayed continuously at the mass, and she was given a cloth with which to cover herself, and we put it about her; but as she sat down she did not think to spread it much to cover herself. Thus, Senhor, the innocence of this people is such, that that of Adam could not have been greater in respect to shame.” It is as if Correia de Araújo has taken over this woman and transformed her to make his point.

The argument that this painting is one of the principal sources feeding into Bishop’s conception of what the facts must have been on the shores of Rio de Janeiro on the first day of the year 1502 is enhanced, I think, by the fact that it is the work of Pedro Luiz Correia de Araújo, the husband of Lilli Correia de Araújo, Bishop’s very good friend and sometime lover in Ouro Prêto. During Bishop’s lifetime Mrs. Correia de Araújo was already the proprietor of the Pousada Chico Rei (Rua Brigadeiro Mosqueira, 90, if you will) in Ouro Prêto, the place where Bishop sometimes stayed on her visits to that small colonial city (when she did not stay with Lilli in her own home) before moving into Casa Mariana, Bishop’s own colonial house, named for her friend, the American poet Marianne Moore, and to acknowledge the fact, as she wrote to Moore, that “the house is on the road to a lovely little town about 8 miles away, called Mariana.”

The full particulars of the genealogy of “Brazil, January 1, 1502” can never be entirely known, perhaps, but the importance to that project of Pêro Vaz de Caminha’s letter and, to a lesser extent, Gilberto Freyre’s ground-breaking work, along with the seminal paintings of Vitor Meireles and Correia de Araújo seems to be undeniable. Of course, it should be pointed out, Bishop’s story of pursuit and intended rape—suggested by the title Correia de Araújo gave to his painting—is intended to replace, by way of irony, the conciliatory narrative suggested in Vitor Meireles’s painting— replete with unexamined details from Pêro Vaz de Caminha’s letter, such as the woman with baby—that he entitled “Primeira Missa.” One suspects that from Bishop’s point of view, Caminha’s letter to the king, Camões’s canto on the nymphs of love, Meireles’s painting of the first Christian mass in Brazil, Freyre’s explanations of the first impact of the Portuguese landing in Brazil, even Bilac’s allegorized patriotic verses of love encountered by Bishop in 1944— all these might be collected, in different circumstances, under Correia de Araújo’s plain-speaking rubric: “Conquistadores e Conquista.”

In Macunaima, Mario de Andrade’s defiant novel, the Amazonian emperor worrying about what would happen to him were he to go to Europe, says, “Without a doubt, European civilization would play havoc with our unspoiled nature.” Writing about Europe’s eruptive intervention in Brazil, in “Brazil, January 1,1502” at least, Bishop is pretty much in agreement.

In conclusion—it may be, as one of Bishop’s readers says, that “there is a pathos in these last lines [“those maddening little women who kept calling, / calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?) / and retreating, always retreating, behind it”] that derives partly from our knowledge that the women will not escape their hunters.” This is plausible, of course—if we extend them and their situation into the accumulated history we know (or think we know). But in Bishop’s poem as a thing in itself—as a free-standing artifact—these “retreating, always retreating” women are as safe from history as is Keats’s frieze-frozen “unravish’d bride”—no more, but hardly less.




George Monteiro, professor emeritus of English and of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University, is the author or editor of books on Henry James, Henry Adams, Robert Frost, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, Fernando Pessoa, and Luis de Camões, among others. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–São Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteen-Century Anglo-American Literature and Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A poetic Career Transformed. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot. More…

Other Posts by Professor George Monteiro

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