First Death in Nova Scotia

Bishop, Elizabeth

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Feb-07-2001


We visualize Cousin Arthur's wake through a child's eyes. It is winter in Nova Scotia, the parlor is cold, and above the coffin are photographs of two royal couples, "Edward, Prince of Wales, / with Princess Alexandria, / and King George with Queen Mary." A stuffed loon sits on the marble topped table. The dead cousin "was all white, like a doll / that hadn't been painted yet."

The child's mother lifts her up to the coffin, so she can place a lily of the valley in the dead boy's hand. The two royal couples look like they are inviting Arthur to accompany them as "the smallest page at court, " but how can he go with them because the snow is so deep and his eyes are shut? [50 lines]


Elizabeth Bishop was a poet's poet who published relatively few poems during her long life. This poem arises from her experience as a child living with relatives in Nova Scotia. The imaginative perception here is exquisite. The dead boy and the "dead" room come alive for the reader, as does the dilemma faced by the living child.

The signs and symbols of immortality beckon--the heavenly royal images await Cousin Arthur's entrance into a new, more glorious life--but even at her tender age the girl is aware of problems. The dead boy, like the stuffed loon, seems really dead. Maybe the dead don't go anywhere. Maybe the dead are just dead.

For another poem evoking a child's wake through another child's eyes, see Seamus Heaney's Mid-Term Break in this database.

Primary Source

The Complete Poems, 1927-1979


Farrar, Straus & Giroux: Noonday

Place Published

New York