18 pages 36 minutes read

Elizabeth Bishop

Crusoe in England

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1971

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Summary and Study Guide


Though Bishop published only four original volumes of poetry in her lifetime, she is one of the most important 20th-century American poets. Bishop’s original perspective and carefully crafted poems allow her work to outlive the work of many of her contemporaries. Sometimes described as “telescopic,” Bishop’s poetry presents its subject simply in the first few lines before zooming in on the subject’s details. While many of Bishop’s contemporaries, such as her close friend Robert Lowell, wrote autobiographical, confessional poetry, Bishop obscured herself in her work.

Bishop’s last collection, 1976’s Geography III, turns toward formal experimentation. Poems in the collection, such as “One Art” and “Crusoe in England,” engage with forms and subjects unknown in Bishop’s earlier work. In “Crusoe in England,” Bishop occupies the mind of Robinson Crusoe, the cast-away hero of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Bishop imagines Crusoe’s inner life and solitude upon his return to England after a 28-year period as a castaway on a Caribbean island.

Poet Biography

Elizabeth Bishop was born on February 8, 1911. Her family lived in Worcester, Massachusetts. Bishop’s father died when Bishop was eight months old. Her mother, Gertrude May Bishop, was placed in a psychiatric hospital when Bishop was five. Bishop lived with her maternal grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia, until her father’s family took custody of her and she returned to Worcester.

Bishop was sick and unhappy in Worcester. Concerned for her health, Bishop’s family sent her to live with her maternal aunt, Maude Bulmer Shepherdson. Bishop rarely attended school due to poor health, and Shepherdson took over her education. Shepherdson served as Bishop’s introduction to poets such as Thomas Carlyle and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

In 1929, Bishop attended Vassar College with hopes of becoming a composer. While in college, a librarian introduced Bishop to Modernist poet Marianne Moore, who later became one of Bishop’s mentors. Bishop graduated Vassar in 1934 with a bachelor’s degree. Bishop’s father left her a substantial inheritance, providing Bishop financial independence. She used these funds to support travel across Europe and North Africa. She travelled with Louise Crane, a friend form college. Bishop’s first poetry collection, 1946’s North & South, describes scenes from these travels. The collection won Bishop the Houghton Mifflin Prize for poetry. Her second volume, 1955’s Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring, was an expanded version of her first collection. This second volume won Bishop the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1951, Bishop moved to Brazil with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares. After Soares took her own life in 1967, Bishop spent more time in the United States lecturing to supplement her inheritance. Bishop’s last volume of poetry, Geography III, was published in 1976. Geography III focuses on themes of solitude and loss, but it is also one of Bishop’s most experimental collections. Some of Bishop’s most famous works, such as “Crusoe in England,” were first collected in this final volume. Bishop died from a cerebral aneurysm in 1979 and is buried in Hope Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Poem Text

Bishop, Elizabeth. “Crusoe in England.” 1976. Poetry Foundation.


“Crusoe In England” opens with the speaker, Robinson Crusoe, describing the eruption of “A New Volcano” (Line 1) that he reads about in a newspaper. This eruption leads to “an island being born” (Line 3). The speaker contrasts this new, named island with his “poor old island” (Line 8) that is “un-renamable” (Line 9). In the second stanza, Crusoe describes the “small volcanoes” (Line 12) that populate his old island. He remembers standing atop the land formations to “become a giant” (Line 21). His mind then turns to clouds, the “overlapping rollers” (Line 24) that roll toward his island. He begins the third stanza calling the island a “cloud-dump” (Line 30) because of the sheer number of clouds that congregated there. He then thinks of the turtles and “folds of lava” (Line 40) that hissed on contact with the sea water.

Crusoe considers his mental state in the fourth stanza. He says he “often gave away to self-pity” (Line 55) while on his island. That pity grows to be associated with the island. In the fifth stanza, Crusoe returns to describing his island, how it “had one of everything” (Line 68). Here he focuses on a particular species of tree, “a sooty, scrub affair” (Line 72), and the snails that climb over it. He remembers the snails as “beds of irises” (Line 75). Crusoe proceeds to discuss his “home-made flute” (Line 82) and other objects on the island.

In the sixth stanza, Crusoe struggles with his lack of knowledge. He says the books he “read were full of blanks” (Line 93), before failing to recite two lines of a poem. Crusoe describes more of the island’s fauna in the seventh stanza, including goats and gulls. He articulates the creatures’ “questioning shrieks” (Line 107) and “equivocal replies” (Line 107) and positions them among the previously mentioned hissing sound. He then describes various interactions with the animals, including “dye[ing] a baby goat bright red” (Line 125).

The eighth stanza relates Crusoe’s dreams. He dreams of “other islands / stretching away from” (Lines 134-35) his. In these dreams, he “had to live / on each” (Lines 138-39) island. Crusoe, in the ninth stanza, discusses his relationship with Friday and how he wishes “[Friday] had been a woman” (Line 147). After mentioning his escape from his island in the 10th stanza, Crusoe then describes England as “another island” (Line 154) in the 11th. He acknowledges that England “doesn’t seem” (Line 155) like an island, but he cannot help the association. Crusoe describes his uninteresting life in England before focusing on the “knife there on the shelf” (Line 161) that was once important to him. “The local museum” (Line 171), Crusoe states in the 12th and final stanza, wants him to donate the artifacts of his island survival. Crusoe wonders how “anyone wants such things” (Line 180) and ends the poem with Friday’s death “seventeen years ago” (Line 182).

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