One of the enduring themes of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems and stories is the idea and actuality of home. Home was a complex reality for Bishop, filled with nostalgia and ambivalence. Late in life, she asked, “Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?” This line from “Crusoe in England” was cast on a bronze plaque and placed on the St. James United Church in Great Village, N.S., in 1992. The church sits across the road from Bishop’s childhood home, a house which it can be argued marks the centre of her real and imagined universe; a house she evoked many times in her poems and stories. The house has changed since her time there in the 1910s and 1920s, but only somewhat. Much of what she knew, loved and questioned remains.
The Nova Scotia poet Anne Simpson writes that visiting this house is a distinct experience: “How strange, yet oddly reassuring, to be part of the place she describes in her stories and poems: it was as though I’d been plunked down inside her imagination.”
Elizabeth Bishop House
According to the History of Great Village, part of this house originally stood on Mount Pleasant (Scrabble Hill), along the road to CumberlandCounty. Elizabeth Bishop believed it had been “an old wayside inn of ‘ill repute’ that my grandfather had moved to the village – about 200 years old.” Exactly when the move occurred is not known, but William Bulmer (Bishop’s maternal grandfather) bought the property from Hibbert McLellan in 1874, as the place for his growing family to live. During the next several years he acquired various properties for his tanning business, including the tannery across the road (where the current Fire Hall is located), which he operated for decades.
Bishop’s connection to this house began early in her life. One of her first memories was of learning to walk in her grandmother’s kitchen. By April 1915 she and her widowed mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, were resident in the village. In this house Bishop experienced the most formative event of her life, the breakdown of her mother in 1916: “She stood in the large front bedroom with sloping walls on either side, papered in wide white and gold-dim stripes. Later, it was she who gave the scream.”
The house was the centre of Bishop’s world until October 1917, when she was taken back to Worcester, Massachusetts (where she had been born), by her paternal grandparents. This removal resulted in serious illness. Bishop was sent to recover and live with one of her maternal aunts in Revere, Massachusetts. In 1919 her family brought her back to the village and the house, and she returned every year, usually for long summer vacations, until she entered VassarCollege in 1930.
Upon the deaths of William and Elizabeth Bulmer (1930 & 1931), the house was sold to Norman and Hazel Bowers. When Hazel Bowers died in 1996, the house was bought by Paul Tingley, who had it designated a Provincial Heritage Property in 1997. Paul lived in and cared for the house until 2004.
In November 2004 a group of Nova Scotians and Americans, all devoted fans of Elizabeth Bishop’s work, came together and purchased the house, which is now called the Elizabeth Bishop House. The house remains a private dwelling, but the co-owners are committed to sharing it with other Bishop fans and with artists of all disciplines. This artists’ retreat is part of a long-standing tradition in the village. Ever since her death in October 1979, residents of Great Village have welcomed visitors coming in search of Bishop’s childhood home and the village about which she so frequently wrote. Bishop pilgrims have been knocking on the door of the Elizabeth Bishop House since 1980, wanting to experience that sensation of stepping into part of this great poet’s imagination.
Bishop knew that things changed. She was resigned to and interested in change. The Elizabeth Bishop House does not seek to recreate exactly her childhood environment. This house has always been simply and directly a house, a home, which undergoes natural evolution with the passage of time. What it seeks to do is provide a space for new creativity, in the tradition of expression which has always been a part of its existence.
In 1978 Bishop told Alexandra Johnson in an interview, “I’ve never felt particularly homeless, but, then, I’ve never felt particularly at home. I guess that’s a pretty good description of a poet’s sense of home. [S]he carries it within [her]” (102). After 1930 Bishop returned to Great Village only occasionally (in 1946, 1947, 1951 and throughout the 1970s). But as she moved out into the world, she took her experiences of Great Village with her as touchstones. What Elizabeth Bishop carried within her was a vivid sense of space and time, shape and colour, a multi-dimensional perspective, a layered memory, which emerged first in Great Village, and which helped her navigate the world. Somewhere inside her mind, her childhood home, an “inscrutable house,” endured as an aesthetic template, anchor and exemplar.
Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983.
Elizabeth Bishop, The Collected Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.
Alexandra Johnson, “Geography of the Imagination,” in Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, ed. George Montiero. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 1996, 98-104.
Anne Simpson, “Word at Play,” The Marram Grass: Poetry & Otherness. Kentville, N.S.: Gaspereau Press, 2009, 101-125.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Great Village: A Self-Guided Tour. Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia (printed by Gaspereau Press, Kentville, N.S.), 2005.