Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sestina: A Miracle for Breakfast by Elizabeth Bishop


At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
like kings of old, or like a miracle
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb
his head, so to speak, in the clouds—along with the sun

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb
which some flicked scornfully into the river
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river
I saw it with one eye close to the crumb—

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony


A sestina is a rather complicated form of poetry, comprised of thirty-nine lines in seven stanzas. The first six stanzas are six lines long with the seventh stanza having three lines. The last word of each line in the first stanza, is repeated in varying order in the next five stanzas, ending with a three line "envoi"/tornada involving all six repeated words. This word-repitition creates a rhythm to a sestina that is similar to a rhyme scheme.

Bishop wrote A Miracle for Breakfast, after reading Sir Philip Sidney's double sestina "Ye Goatherd Gods." Supposedly inspired by a winter morning in 1935 during the Great Depression, when food for breakfast was scarce. A friend of Bishop's suddenly introduced her to "Wonder Bread" and the ironic name sparked her imagination. It inspired Bishop to create her sestina around the kind of miracle a physical object (food), can bring to someone who is suffering without it. In the sestina, she repeats the words coffee, crumb, balcony, miracle, sun and river, to tell the story of the speaker who waits for a charitable breakfast while fantasizing over an extravagant life where coffee and bread are in abundance.

In the first stanza the setting is alluded to but only vaguely, "At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee/waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb/that was going to be served from a certain balcony...like a miracle." The unspecific "certain balcony" becomes a symbol of power and a high place in society, simply because it it above all those waiting for a handout of food and because it is the place where the food is distributed. The "coffee and charitable crumb" are the scraps of food offered at soup kitchens during the depression. I felt that these could symbolize a kind of religious aspect, like the wine and bread given by jesus (i think thats how it goes but idk i've never been to church). "At seven a man stepped out on the balcony/He stood for a minute alone on the balcony/looking over our heads toward the river/A servant handed him the makings of a miracle." This could be a metaphor for jesus when he stands above his followers before giving them the gift of food. The background of the sun and river is symbolic towards the nature of life in its pure form.

Towards the end of the sestina, you realize the speaker has shifted narrating from their point of view to creating an exaggerated scene of their breakfast within their imagination. The shift comes with the reference to a miracle, "I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle/A beautiful villa stood in the sun/and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee/In front, a baroque white plaster balcony." The image before the speakers eyes transforms from cold and grey to elegant and warm. Where food is in abundance and the people waiting have no worries. The speaker then speaks directly,"My crumb my mansion, made for me by a miracle/...Every day, in the sun/at breakfast time I sit on my balcony/with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee." This shows the speaker enjoying the miracle or wonder (see: wonder bread) of endless food and freedom from the depression. Bishop connects her inspiring introduction to Wonder Bread with the speaker in the sestina, who enjoys imagining a place where bread and coffee weren't rationed.

Ending with the envoi, Bishop includes all of her repeated words and arranges them to show the speakers acknowledging the miracle of breakfast. "We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee/A window across the river caught the sun/as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony," showing the speaker knows the scenario is obviously a fantasy. I like the form of a sestina where the envoi, contains all the repeated words throughout the poem and seems to connect the theme and meaning of the poem as a whole. 


FOOD FOR THOUGHT? (Soo witty! i know)

* Do you believe that Bishop's sestina has a religious undertone? Do you agree that  A Miracle for Breakfast, is a social commentary on the Great Depression? (Hint: connect to the title) 

4 comments:

nabeel said...

I completely believe that this poem has a religious undertone. But rather than Jesus I feel that the poet is referring to a creator through the man on the balcony. This man is described as a very passive character, not even truly aware of the scraps he is giving to the public. He much resembles the god in "Portrait", "paring his fingernails"
I do think that this poem also provides a social commentary on the great depression and the desperation plaguing the nation during this era. The breakfast is merely crumbs and drops of coffee, yet it is described as a phenomenon that inspires hope to those without. In this way the social commentary connects to the idea of religious faith, stating that faith rewards with hope.

eggplanteer said...

Thank you for this great background info. The poem had me stumped on the first and second reading. Your comments help a lot.

lee woo said...

Learning is the beginning of wealth. Learning is the beginning of health. Learning is the beginning of spirituality. Searching and learning is where the miracle process all begins. See the link below for more info.


#miracle
www.ufgop.org

Cindy Dy said...

Thank you for putting an effort to published this article. You've done a great job! Good bless!

Yong
www.gofastek.com