Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is an American poet who lived through both the First World War and the Second World War, as well as the Great Depression. She not only observed the unemployment and poverty of millions in America, but also experienced it in her own life. This helps her to write poignantly about loss. ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’ explores similar subject-matter.
Though many of Bishop’s contemporaries wrote in the confessional mode (such as, her friend Robert Lowell), including details of their personal lives in their poetry, Bishop preferred to write in an objective, impersonal style. Thus the speaker in ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’ should not be assumed to be Bishop herself. Rather it is better interpreted as the collective voice of the American public, who were united in their struggle to survive in such a difficult financial situation.
The poem itself is written in the form of a sestina. That is, it consists of six stanzas of six lines each, and a seventh stanza composed of three lines.
In the first stanza, Bishop describes the setting of the poem. The speaker says that it was early in the morning, six o’clock to be more specific, and the sun was just beginning to throw its light on the river, thereby causing ripples to appear in the water, A crowd of homeless people like the speaker were waiting under a “certain balcony” waiting for some man’s charity, who they believed would provide them with coffee and bread.
In the second stanza, Bishop further elaborates on the hopes of the homeless crowd. Since the sun was not there to warm them, they hoped the coffee would be warm. In addition to this, they hoped that the crumbs of bread would turn out to be entire loaves, and that those loaves would be buttered. This implies that, in their hearts, they knew that nothing other than crumbs would be served to the homeless. However, crumbs cannot provide nutrition, so they kept hoping, where there was no hope, for something better.
The last line of the second stanza is continued in the third stanza. The speaker says that after an hour of waiting, a man appeared on the balcony under which the homeless were standing at seven o’clock. This man looked over their heads towards the river, as if their poverty had made them not even worth noticing, had rendered them unworthy of visibility. A servant then went on to offer this man breakfast. Here the word “miracle” is a metaphor for the man’s breakfast. His breakfast consisted of a single cup of coffee, and one loaf of bread. The man then started crumbling up that lone loaf of bread, believing it would feed all the homeless under his balcony.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker ridicules the man’s actions, and ironically asks whether he is crazy. Since he doesn’t know what he is doing, he only ends up giving one hard crumb of bread to every homeless man, and a single drop of coffee reaches their cups. Some of the homeless throw their crumbs into the river, knowing that such little food will only work to heighten their hunger. Others hold on to the coffee, still hoping for a miracle, that is, for a breakfast that will actually fill their stomachs.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker goes into a reverie while staring at her crumb of bread with one eye, and goes on to see an image of excess and plenty. She sees a riverside villa with a baroque white plaster balcony, where the sun provides its warmth and vitality. Moreover, the smell of hot coffee comes wafting out of the doors of that villa.
In the sixth stanza, the speaker continues her reverie. She sees galleries and marble chambers in the villa. The mansion that is there within her crumb was made by elements of nature, she says, like the river, and birds, and insects, from the beginning of time immemorial. Every day, at breakfast time, she sits on her balcony with her feet up on the table and drinks “gallons” of coffee. Of course, it is not possible for a single person to drink multiple gallons of coffee, but this is keeping with the kind of exaggeration she has indulged in right from the start of her reverie, in her description of the villa as well.
In the seventh and last stanza, the speaker returns to reality with a jolt, and eats her crumb of bread and her single drop of coffee. Then she sees sunlight shining across the river and falling on the window of some other house, and the miracle they had been hoping for, at least that of a sun to give their cold bodies some warmth, appears to be happening on the wrong balcony. That is, those who do not need the necessities of life are being given luxuries.