‘First Death in Nova Scotia’, first published in Questions of Travel in 1965, is a five stanza poem concerning the death of a small child in Nova Scotia, Canada. The poem is written in free verse, with no rhyme scheme. The lines are all similar in length, all-around seven to ten syllables in length. It has been speculated that the poem includes the childlike beliefs of Bishop herself as a young girl.
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Summary of First Death in Nova Scotia
Her mother has brought her to see the body of her recently deceased cousin. She observes the portraits of royalty hanging around the body and speculates that they have called him to you to be the youngest page in court. Also near the body stands a stuffed loon, sitting on a “marble-topped table.” The speaker describes how the body appears, how he was “all white, like a doll” and “Jack Frost had started to paint him.” At the conclusion of the poem the speaker expresses concern over how Arthur will make it to court with the royals with his “eyes shut up so tight.”
You can read the full poem First Death in Nova Scotia here.
Analysis of First Death in Nova Scotia
‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ begins with an introduction to the setting and location. The speaker’s mother has taken her to a “cold, cold parlor” in which the speaker’s young cousin, Arthur has been “laid out.” He has recently passed away, and she has been brought to see the body, to say goodbye, and to receive an introduction to death. The third line of the piece describes chromographs, beneath which Arthur is laid. Chromographs are colored prints, and in this case they are of royalty. The next three lines mention the names of important British Royalty that are looking down from their portraits,
Edward, Prince of Wales,
with Princess Alexandra,
and King George with Queen Mary.
The room gets further description and another secondary, and static character, a stuffed loon, is introduced. The speaker observes that below the chromographs sits a stuffed loon. The loon was shot by an uncle of the recently deceased Arthur, who’s name was also Arthur.
The next stanza is dedicated entirely to further description of the loon and his placement in the room. At this point, the reader is reminded on the speaker’s childish perspective as she states that,
Since Uncle Arthur fired
a bullet into him,
he hadn’t said a word.
She is imbuing the bird with the possibility of speech and action. This may be a childlike fantasy, imagining this animal with the ability to pass judgement, or have some sort of say about its own situation and that of Arthur, but it makes for a vivid image and emphasizes the speaker’s imagination. This imagination only becomes more evident as the stanza continues. The loon is said to, keep “his own counsel” on the white-topped table. the speaker describes this table as being like a frozen lake, she has given the loon a bit of it’s native environment back. It is now more at home sitting on top of the “marble-topped table.” The next four lines give greater detail to the physical appearance of his loon. His breast is said to be “deep and white.” It seems cold to the speaker, but also caressable. The next two lines, along with the previous two, give the reader a sense that the speaker is envious of the loon’s stoic features and frozen life.
His eyes were red glass,
much to be desired.
Even though he is cold, he is caressable, even though his eyes are red and made of glass, they are desired. This speaker is seeing a creature that appears to be untouched by death. The loon is frozen in time, untroubled by age or disease or emotion.
The third stanza begins with dialogue. The mother is speaking to the narrator of this peace, telling her to,
“come and say good-bye
to you little cousin Arthur”
The speaker was probably doodling in the back of the room, entranced by the loon, and the looming chromograph prints. The reader now comes to understand more about the speaker, she is a child, and a small one at that. She is life from the ground and given,
one lily of the valley
to put in Arthur’s hand.
It is unclear at this point in ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ whether or not this child feels any sadness at the passing of her cousin. Up to this point, it seems as if she is more moved by the idea of death itself, her relative. The lily of the valley is often used allegorically to symbolize death, it is a proper choice for a funeral.
The coffin that Arthur is laying in is described as being,
a little frosted cake,
It is being eyed by the loon from where he stands. The top of the coffin, most likely covered in some kind of material similar to the table on which the loon stands, resembles the frozen lake mentioned earlier in the poem closely.
Arthur is described in this stanza. He is said to be very small, appearing
…all white, like a doll
that hadn’t been painted yet.
This gives him the appearance of rough porcelain, unglazed, and matte.
The next line steps this comparison back some, saying that “Jack Frost” had started to paint him, but had forgotten after starting on his hair. The cousin Arthur will be left white forever.
The last stanza returns the reader to the royals on the wall. the speaker is speculating that the royal couples are warm in red and ermine fur, a stark contrast to the state that Arthur is in. They are wrapped up well in their coats and trains. This happy scene is the source of what the speaker believes to be an invitation directed to her cousin. He is being summoned to court to be the “smallest page.” While this is a happy turn of events for poor Arthur, the speaker then brings it back to earth by questioning how Arthur could possibly go with,
…his eyes shut up tight
and the roads deep in snow?
This can be interpreted as the young speaker, perhaps Bishop herself, questioning the existence of heaven and the possibility of going thereafter you are dead.
About Elizabeth Bishop
Born in 1911 in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Bishop had a turbulent childhood. Her father died when she was only a year old and her mother was committed to a mental institution when Bishop was five. Bishop had no contact with her mother for the rest of her life. She lived for a time in Nova Scotia, Canada, but then moved to live with her father’s parents in Massachusetts. After graduating from school she traveled throughout Europe and North Africa. Much of her poetry is influenced by this period. Her first volume of poetry was published in 1946, North and South. Her second volume, Poems: North & South/ A Cold Spring, received a Pulitzer Prize. In 1944 she moved to Brazil and lived there for 14 years. Bishop’s partner died in 1967 and she began spending more of her time in the United States, she would eventually take up a teaching position at Harvard in 1970, the same year she won the National Book Award in Poetry for The Complete Poems. After her death in 1979, her reputation only grew.