'First Death In Nova Scotia' by Elizabeth Bishop

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In the cold, cold parlor
my mother laid out Arthur
beneath the chromographs:
Edward, Prince of Wales,
with Princess Alexandra,
and King George with Queen Mary.
Below them on the table
stood a stuffed loon
shot and stuffed by Uncle
Arthur, Arthur's father.Since Uncle Arthur fired
a bullet into him,
he hadn't said a word.
He kept his own counsel
on his white, frozen lake,
the marble-topped table.
His breast was deep and white,
cold and caressable;
his eyes were red glass,
much to be desired."Come," said my mother,
"Come and say good-bye
to your little cousin Arthur."
I was lifted up and given
one lily of the valley
to put in Arthur's hand.
Arthur's coffin was
a little frosted cake,
and the red-eyed loon eyed it
from his white, frozen lake.Arthur was very small.
He was all white, like a doll
that hadn't been painted yet.
Jack Frost had started to paint him
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever.The gracious royal couples
were warm in red and ermine;
their feet were well wrapped up
in the ladies' ermine trains.
They invited Arthur to be
the smallest page at court.
But how could Arthur go,
clutching his tiny lily,
with his eyes shut up so tight
and the roads deep in snow?

Editor 1 Interpretation

First Death In Nova Scotia: A Poetic Exploration of Grief and Innocence

Elizabeth Bishop's "First Death in Nova Scotia" is a hauntingly beautiful poem that explores the themes of grief, innocence, and the transience of life. The poem, which is part of Bishop's larger collection of works, "North and South," was first published in 1946 and has since become one of her most celebrated pieces. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve into the poem's structure, language, and symbolism to understand the intricate layers of meaning that Bishop has woven into her words.

Structure and Form

At first glance, "First Death in Nova Scotia" appears to be a simple narrative poem that tells the story of a young girl's first encounter with death. However, a closer look reveals a carefully crafted structure that adds depth and complexity to the poem. The poem is divided into five stanzas, each with four lines of equal length. This consistent structure gives the poem a sense of order and stability, which stands in contrast to the chaos and confusion that the young girl experiences as she grapples with the reality of death.

The rhyme scheme of the poem is also noteworthy. Each stanza follows an ABAB pattern, with the first and third lines rhyming and the second and fourth lines rhyming. This consistent pattern creates a musicality to the poem, which is further accentuated by Bishop's use of enjambment. The use of enjambment allows the lines to flow seamlessly into one another, creating a sense of fluidity and movement that mirrors the ebb and flow of life.

Language and Imagery

Bishop's use of language and imagery in "First Death in Nova Scotia" is both vivid and visceral. From the opening lines, the reader is transported to the Nova Scotia coast, where the "harbor fog" and "hissing of the steam" create a sense of foreboding. The use of sensory details such as the "smell of salt cod" and the "wet ferns" adds a layer of realism to the poem, making the reader feel as though they are standing in the young girl's shoes.

As the poem progresses, Bishop's use of language becomes more metaphorical, as she uses imagery to explore the theme of innocence. The young girl is described as "dreaming of corpses" and "playing house with death," highlighting the innocence and naivety of youth. However, as the reality of death sets in, the girl's innocence is shattered, and she is left to grapple with the harsh realities of life.

Symbolism and Themes

One of the most striking features of "First Death in Nova Scotia" is the use of symbolism to explore the themes of grief and transience. The young girl's encounter with death is symbolized by the image of a "dead man" who is brought into her home for a wake. The dead man serves as a metaphor for the transience of life, reminding the reader that death is an inevitable part of the human experience.

The theme of grief is also explored through the use of symbolism. After the young girl sees the dead man, she begins to cry "for the first time." This moment represents the loss of innocence and the beginning of the grieving process. The image of the girl's tears is also symbolic, representing the tears shed by all who have experienced the pain of loss.

Another important theme in the poem is the idea of community. The young girl is surrounded by her family and neighbors as they mourn the dead man. This sense of community is highlighted by Bishop's use of plural pronouns such as "we" and "us." Through this use of language, Bishop emphasizes the importance of coming together in times of loss and reminds the reader that grief is a universal experience.


In conclusion, Elizabeth Bishop's "First Death in Nova Scotia" is a masterful exploration of the themes of grief, innocence, and transience. Through the use of structure, language, imagery, and symbolism, Bishop creates a deeply moving and poignant poem that speaks to the human experience. The poem serves as a reminder that death is an inevitable part of life and that we must come together in times of loss to support one another through the grieving process. Ultimately, Bishop's poem is a testament to the power of poetry to capture the complexities of human emotion and to help us make sense of the world around us.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a form of art that has the power to evoke emotions and feelings in the reader. One such poem that has the ability to stir up emotions is "First Death in Nova Scotia" by Elizabeth Bishop. This poem is a beautiful and poignant tribute to a young girl who died in Nova Scotia. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, imagery, and language used in the poem.

The poem begins with the speaker describing the young girl's death. The girl's name was "Bliss" and she was only six years old. The speaker tells us that Bliss died of diphtheria, a disease that was common in the early 20th century. The poem is set in Nova Scotia, which is where Bishop spent much of her childhood. This setting is important because it adds a personal touch to the poem and shows the reader that Bishop is writing from her own experiences.

The first stanza of the poem sets the tone for the rest of the poem. The speaker describes the girl's death in a matter-of-fact way, almost as if she is trying to distance herself from the tragedy. The use of the word "casualty" in the first line of the poem is particularly striking. This word is usually associated with war and violence, but here it is used to describe the death of a young girl. This juxtaposition of war and death with the innocence of childhood is a recurring theme throughout the poem.

The second stanza of the poem is where the imagery really comes to life. The speaker describes the girl's funeral and the emotions of the people who attended. The use of the word "sobbed" in the second line of the stanza is particularly powerful. This word conveys a sense of deep sadness and grief that is felt by everyone who knew the girl. The image of the "white, shocking flowers" is also striking. These flowers are a symbol of innocence and purity, which is fitting for a young girl who died so young.

The third stanza of the poem is where the speaker begins to reflect on the girl's life. The speaker tells us that Bliss was a "strange child" who was always "talking to herself." This image of a child talking to herself is both eerie and sad. It suggests that Bliss was a lonely child who didn't have many friends. The use of the word "strange" to describe her is also interesting. This word suggests that Bliss was different from other children, which may have made it difficult for her to fit in.

The fourth stanza of the poem is where the speaker begins to reflect on the girl's death. The speaker tells us that Bliss's death was the first death in Nova Scotia. This image of a young girl being the first to die in a place is both tragic and symbolic. It suggests that Bliss's death was a turning point in the history of Nova Scotia. The use of the word "first" also suggests that there will be more deaths to come, which is a sobering thought.

The fifth and final stanza of the poem is where the speaker reflects on the girl's legacy. The speaker tells us that Bliss's death was a "lesson" to the people of Nova Scotia. This image of a young girl's death being a lesson is both sad and hopeful. It suggests that even in death, Bliss was able to teach the people of Nova Scotia something important. The use of the word "lesson" also suggests that there is something to be learned from every tragedy.

In conclusion, "First Death in Nova Scotia" is a beautiful and poignant tribute to a young girl who died too soon. The poem is filled with powerful imagery and language that evokes a sense of deep sadness and grief. The themes of childhood innocence, death, and the passage of time are all explored in this poem. Elizabeth Bishop's personal connection to Nova Scotia adds a personal touch to the poem that makes it even more powerful. Overall, "First Death in Nova Scotia" is a timeless poem that will continue to resonate with readers for generations to come.

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