‘View of the Capital from the Library of Congress’ by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop sounds like an austere landscape painting, but the poem gently mocks the seriousness of its surroundings.
Bishop is maybe most famous for her poems of place: she spent much of her life living in South America and she wrote collections called Questions of Travel and Geography III (there was no ‘1’ or ‘2’). ‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ was written while working at the Library of Congress in Washington, in an office which looked across to the vast white wedding-cake ‘Capitol’ building which houses the US House of Congress — the capitalised ‘Dome’ of the poem. The poem does what it says. It is both what Bishop sees and her experience of seeing it.
Moving from left to left, the light
is heavy on the Dome, and coarse.
One small lunette turns it aside
and blankly stares off to the side
like a big white old wall-eyed horse.
‘View of the Capitol’ starts with a description of sunlight moving across the dome and it’s a light airy poem. Bishop apparently called it ‘trivial’. I like it as much as any of her serious ones, which I often struggle to follow. There may be trivial or non-trivial American allusions I don’t pick up here too. Who cares! There are some similarities with MacNeice’s ‘Snow’: the use of ordinary, unpoetic language, the touch of the surreal in the imagery. The lunette’ — a kind of window? — is compared to a horse. Until the final stanza there is a regular, unbroken metre of four beats to a line. But Bishop deliberately undermines it. ‘A big white old wall-eyed horse’ feels a beat too long (it’s not). Why? Because, I suppose, there are four adjectives where you expect three, while the gap ‘old’ creates between the two ‘wh’ sounds slow you down. It’s ugly.
On the east steps the Air Force Band
in uniforms of Air Force blue
is playing hard and loud, but – queer –
the music doesn’t quite come through.
The ‘Air Force’ band is dressed in ‘Air Force’ blue. The repetition of the word is kind of faux naivety: you’re not supposed to repeat words. Here it contributes to the ease with which the poem moves forward. It helps that the word itself is light and breezy. Air doesn’t sound like anything, but the word ‘air’ hardly exists either. There are no hard consonants in ‘force’. In the next stanza we learn ‘the music doesn’t quite come through’. It comes in snatches, caught in the ‘giant trees’ like ‘gold dust’. The next stanza paints an even more pathetic picture: the leaves wave ‘limp stripes’ of sound into the air. The metaphor itself is a bit limp. It stretches too far. What’s in strips, the sound? Yet, in the last stanza, the set up comes good:
Great shades, edge over,
give the music room.
The gathered brasses want to go
boom — boom.
Bishop asks the trees to ‘edge over’. The ‘gathered brasses’ of the band (which makes them sound like something natural) want to ‘boom — boom’. ‘Boom — boom’ is kind of pathetic, too. If you’re not supposed to repeat words, you’re definitely not supposed to just print out the sounds. These rules may just be a product of my id — I don’t believe in them, but I’m sure someone does. The brasses sound pathetic too: they ‘want’ to make an impressive sound but the stilted rhythm undermines them. ‘Boom’ is deliberately childish. Bishop brings the military band down to size: the climax is an anti-climax.
If the brasses are brought down to size, the ‘great shades’ are promoted. Bishop asks them, politely, if they could ‘edge over’. The act of asking, like the notion that the brasses could ‘want’ to boom, isn’t just playful: this is how it looks and sounds. I am sitting at the window with Bishop. I can imagine, from here, willing the trees to just edge over a bit, I can see the sound of the brasses trapped in the leaves, feel the distances.
Another American poet, Ben Lerner, has a theory that all poems are failures because they attempt to represent the ‘perfect’ poem which we all have in our head and this isn’t possible (I paraphrase). I don’t agree. It is enough to capture an experience as best you can. The experience here is the playfulness of seeing and you can’t fail at that. If you could, you wouldn’t be playing.
This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.