Austin Allen at Poetry Magazine:
One January evening 50 years ago, Elizabeth Bishop wrote from Rio to her beloved friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell. Into their usual mix of personal and literary tidbits—an upcoming trip to Ouro Prêto, the premiere of an Edward Albee play, the completion of a jigsaw puzzle (“took four evenings!”)—she dropped a solemn note:
I am sure you feel very badly about Eliot; and I’m very sorry, too. [I won]der why on earth he was still in London at this time of year? And [the] picture I saw of him at the time he received that medal showed him [loo]king very sick, I thought. Poor Valerie.
The unfortunate Londoner, of course, was T.S. Eliot, who had died of emphysema three days before.
Humble as this squib is, it conjures up a wealth of biographical context: the assumption of shared mourning for their famous acquaintance, whose death was being reported worldwide; the common reference point of “that medal” (the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an extraordinary honor for a poet); the intimacy implied in the clucking over Eliot’s choice of winter residence—and yet the difference in formality accorded “Valerie” and her husband “Eliot,” who was 38 years older and already a legend.