“The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop was written near the beginning of Bishop’s residence in Brazil and is a direct homage to her lover Lota. Bishop uses the mundane act of washing a loved one’s hair as the basis for a brilliant meditation on the nature and progression of time. In “The Shampoo” Elizabeth Bishop uses imagery, metaphor, and diction to compare the gradual movements in nature over time with the process of aging. Bishop draws a contrast between the process of aging and the timeless relationship she has with her partner.
The first stanza centers the poem in the specific observations Bishop makes in nature:
The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.
Bishop begins by admiring not her lover, but lichens, described as “still explosions on the rocks.” The lichens’ growth records the passage of time, and yet “they have not changed”. Lichen is a type of fungal organism that grows very slowly and gradually. Over time, the lichen can spread and overtake the surface it grows on. A metaphor describes how the lichen “grow by” means “spreading, gray, concentric shocks” in a pattern that can be compared to an “explosion[s]”. The idea of “gray” is used here to describe the pattern of lichen growth; it is repeated throughout the poem and echoed in the third stanza. Bishop uses a whimsical hyperbole to describe the meeting of the lichen with the “rings around the moon”. Lichens cannot actually grow far out enough to meet with an object in space, but Bishop exaggerates their growth to emphasize that they are taking their time. Bishop’s description of lichen meeting with...
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...here Bishop was situated during writing this poem, shiny tin basins are used frequently for bathing and are a feature of everyday life.
Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo” is often overshadowed by her brilliant villanelle “One Art” and is not her most frequently studied work. At a glance, the poem seems simplistic – a detailed observance of nature followed by an invitation to wash a “dear friend’s” hair. Yet this short poem highlights Bishop’s best poetic qualities, including her deliberate choice in diction, and her emotional restraint. Bishop progresses along with the reader to unfold the feelings of both sadness and joy involved in loving a person that will eventually age and pass away. The poem focuses on the intersection of love and death, an intersection that goes beyond gender and sexuality to make a far-reaching statement about the nature of being human.
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