The last book Elizabeth Bishop published before her passing in 1979, Geography III features such distinguished poems as “In the Waiting Room”, “The Moose”, and, of course, “One Art”. Rather than praise the already renowned and bask in my own insignificance, I thought I’d discuss in this review one of the less famous pieces in the collection, “Crusoe in England”, partly to demonstrate the intricacy of even her more obscure work, partly because it references Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, one of my favourite novels about which to ramble.
First, though, a bit of context: in 1962, as part of Vatican II, the Catholic Church changed its position regarding suicide, absolving those who take their own lives from what was once perceived as their final sin. The Church reasoned that suicide was a mental illness and that suicide victims could not be held accountable for their actions because their unstable minds confused the notions of life and death. I mention all this because “Crusoe in England” pertains to a psychologically destabilised man with a warped perception of existence.
The speaker is Robinson Crusoe from Defoe’s aforementioned novel. Crusoe doesn’t mention suicide, but he is in a state of depression: “I’m old./ I’m bored, too”; “The living soul has dribbled away./ My eyes rest on it and pass on.” Crusoe lives in the past. Nine stanzas, more than half the poem, are spent depicting his days on the deserted island. This part of his life is a miserable one: “I often gave way to self-pity”; “the more/ pity I felt, the more I felt at home.” Yet he undeniably misses this former existence, recalling “each nick and scratch by heart”.
It’s Crusoe’s loneliness that makes his time on the island so painful: “Beautiful, yes, but not much company.” It nearly drives him mad: “The questioning shrieks/ the equivocal replies/ over a ground of hissing rain/ and hissing ambulating turtles/ got on my nerves.” In need of companionship, Crusoe attributes human characteristics to the surrounding fauna: “His [the goat’s] pupils, horizontal, narrowed up/ and expressed […] a little malice.” Even in his dreams, he confuses animals with humans: “I’d dream of things/ like slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it for a baby goat.”
On the brink of insanity, Crusoe finally finds company in Friday. His joy is so great that he can’t fully express it: “Friday was nice.” The statement is so bland that one suspects Crusoe is hiding something about the relationship, perhaps a sexual aspect: “I wanted to propagate my kind, / and so did he, I think, poor boy”; “Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.” Crusoe seems to be in love with Friday. This is why he lives in the past. He can’t go on without Friday, and this part of his life is “un-rediscoverable”: “And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles/ seventeen years ago come March.”
If you’ll allow me one more digression, I’m reminded of Sylvia Plath’s “The Hanging Man”, in which the speaker does commit suicide, perceiving death as a painful elevation and life as confusing and dark. Life is usually associated with light, and death with darkness, but here the symbols are inverted, as in Bishop’s “Crusoe in England”. Crusoe may not have died yet, but, like the hanging man, he’s stopped living a long time ago. Both works feature speakers with tired spirits and ill minds.
More to the point, the whole of Geography III deals with warped perception, exploring how loss and pain distort our understanding of life. Featuring ten similarly themed poems, the collection remains the most celebrated in Bishop’s career, and I can’t help but wonder what fascinates us so about existential melancholy. Is it, as the Catholic Church suggests, a spiritual disease that gears some of us toward oblivion, or is it rather that the cure lies in our common ability to share this feeling of isolation, even with a poet gone over forty years ago?