Elizabeth Bishop’s Sandpiper is concerned with the particular. Through a controlled tightening of focus, like the turn of the lens on a telescope, Bishop draws our attention ever closer to the minutiae of existence, of which the bird is solely conscious: from the water glazing over its feet, to its toes, to the spaces between its toes, to the grains of sand, and finally to the very nature of each grain, their precise colours and the stones and minerals that constitute them.
But while it is concerned with the specific, the poem makes us very much aware of the larger stuff that is outside of this focus. The sea is referenced in a way that we, unlike the sandpiper, cannot completely ignore. Its roaring is the first thing that the poem announces, along with the fact that ‘every so often the world is bound to shake’. The roaring and the shaking are not trivial events. And it is not merely water, or even the sea, but that gigantic ocean the ‘Atlantic’ that drains between its toes.
By drawing attention to that which is ignored, the poet foregrounds the apparent oddity of a consciousness that can shut out something as vast and imposing as an ocean. It provides a kind of irony throughout the poem, that beside something all-encompassing one can focus on something so minute.
It also highlights ‘particularity’ at another level, that of language. The sandpiper ignores the sea, but the poet names it; this isn’t any sea, it’s the particular sea known as the ‘Atlantic’. Likewise, the bird isn’t just any bird, it’s a sandpiper. Or just ‘sandpiper’, as the poem’s title has it, minus the definitive article.
It is common to the point of cliché in literary criticism to state that a poem is about poetry itself, but here this inference can’t be ignored, for we are surely meant to see the type of ‘the poet’ in the qualities of the sandpiper. The reference to Blake is part of this characterisation, with both the Romantic artist and the bird sharing the oxymoronic quality of ‘controlled panic’. The connection between the two is continued through the focus on grains of sand, which echoes Blake’s lines from the Auguries of Innocence: ‘To see the world in a grain of sand.’ It also captures another oxymoron of Blake’s; that the world is both ‘vast and minute’. It is this strain of thought that suggests the tide may be higher and lower at the same time, or at least the difference no longer matters.
But it is surely not the point of this poem to draw our attention to the similarities between a sandpiper and William Blake. The fact that the medium of this message is poetry can only serve to highlight the connections between all poets, and particularly the poet named Elizabeth Bishop, to the subject of which she writes. This impression is driven home by the lightly comic references to the fussiness of the bird, running across the sands, ‘finical, awkward’. Bishop’s tone here suggests that she is only too familiar with these personality traits, not merely from a knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of William Blake but from an awareness of her own character. Read in this way, there is something slightly smug about the poem’s tone, a faux self-deprecation in the line ‘Poor bird, he is obsessed!’ It’s the sort of thing one hears from a certain type of middle class lady who says, ‘Look at me, I’m so scatty’, when what she’s really saying is ‘Look at me, I’m so creative.’
The central meaning of the poem is clear. Bishop is saying that a sensitivity to minute details constitutes a poet’s special view of the world. Or to coin it as another literary cliché, the poet finds generalities in particularities.
Formally the verse is beautifully handled. The random accentuation of the first two lines provide a sense of stasis: ‘The roaring alongside he takes for granted, and that every so often the world is bound to shake’. This is contrasted with the pattering pentameter of ‘He runs, he runs, to the south, finical, awkward’, and in its rhythm we feel the darting movements of the bird.
Other aspects of the form, such as the rhyme scheme and regular syllable count of each line, provides further contrast to the scattered stress patterns, dramatising the sandpiper’s condition – the poem’s organised chaos reflecting the bird’s ‘controlled panic’.
It is, in the end, a highly effective poem, tightly controlled and vividly realised. Only the image of the beach that ‘hisses like fat’ is out of place, a metaphor that bears no relation to the rest of the poem and therefore stands out for the wrong reasons.
Finally, it is the ambiguity behind the sandpiper’s actions that strikes us most forcefully; the sense of mystery that we can all relate to, of ‘looking for something, something, something’. The trochaic metre of this line creates a fitting contrast to the iambic that dominates the poem. The poem ends with a contemplation of the finest detail of the scene, as if to suggest that we can find beauty and truth in the smallest particles, in contemplation of ‘quartz grains, rose and amethyst’.