Morris Bishop

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For a leader of Grenada, see Maurice Bishop.

Morris Gilbert Bishop (April 15, 1893 – November 20, 1973) was an American scholar, historian, biographer, author, and humorist.

Early life and career[edit]

Raised in Canada and New York, Bishop attended Cornell from 1910–1913, earning a Bachelor's in 1913 and then a Master of Arts degree in 1914. He then worked in the advertising industry and served in the army in World War I, returning to Cornell afterward to begin teaching in 1921[1] and to earn a Ph.D. in 1926.[2] He was associated for the whole of his adult life with Cornell University, as alumnus, Kappa Alpha Professor of Romance Literature and University Historian. Bishop wrote the preeminent history of the university, A History of Cornell.


Bishop wrote biographies of Pascal, Champlain, La Rochefoucauld, Petrarch, and St. Francis, as well as his 1928 book, A gallery of eccentrics; or, A set of twelve originals & extravagants from Elagabalus, the waggish emperor to Mr. Professor Porson, the tippling philologer, designed to serve, by example, for the correction of manners & for the edification of the ingenious, which profiled 12 unusual individuals. His 1955 Survey of French Literature was for many years a standard textbook (revised editions were published in 1965 and, posthumously, in 2005). During the late 1950s and early 1960s his reviews of books on historical topics often appeared in The New York Times. His 1968 history of the Middle Ages is still in print under the title The Middle Ages. He was a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (in France), taught as a visiting professor at the University of Athens and Rice University and served as president of the Modern Language Association. He was the author of nearly 30 books including the comic mystery The Widening Stain.[1] An expository look into Bishop's perspectives on American history can be found in his frequent contribution of articles to American Heritage Magazine. While he possessed extensive knowledge on the subject, his writings, particularly those concerning the Iroquois, are not without considerable ethnocentric bias.[3]

Comic poetry[edit]

Bishop's obituary in The New York Times mentions that he was a very facile composer of limericks, and notes, "Among Professor Bishop's other distinctions was his perception of the literary talent of Vladimir Nabokov, whom he brought to Cornell in 1948 as a teacher at a time when the Russian-born novelist was just making his mark in this country. Mr. Nabokov considered Professor Bishop as one of his closest friends in the United States and as a sort of spiritual father. They shared a fondness for exactitude in language and for japery as well as a common commitment to literature."[2]

Bishop's comic poems appeared in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, and Life. They were collected in two volumes, Paramount Poems (subtitled "If it isn't a PARAMOUNT it isn't a poem"), and Spilt Milk.

"How to Treat Elves," probably his best-known poem, describes a conversation with "The wee-est little elf." When asked what he does, the elf tells the narrator "'I dance 'n fwolic about,' said he, "'n scuttle about and play.'" A few stanzas describe his activities surprising butterflies, "fwigtening" Mr. Mole by jumping out and saying "Boo," and swinging on cobwebs. He asks the narrator "what do you think of that?" The narrator replies:

   "It gives me sharp and shooting pains
      To listen to such drool."
   I lifted up my foot and squashed
      The God damn little fool.

Taking up Trevelyan's challenge to write didactic poetry, like Virgil's Georgics, on a modern subject, Bishop produced "Gas and Hot Air." It describes the operation of a car engine; "Vacuum pulls me; and I come! I come!" cries the gasoline, which reaches

   [T]he secret bridal chamber where
      The earth-born gas first comes to kiss its bride,
   The heaven-born and yet inviolate air
      Which is, on this year's models, purified.

"Ozymandias Revisited" reproduces the first two stanzas of Shelley's poem verbatim, then closes:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Also the names of Emory P. Gray,
Mr. and Mrs. Dukes, and Oscar Baer
Of 17 West 4th St., Oyster Bay.

Bennett Cerf's Houseful of Laughter (1963) included Bishop's 15 April 1950 The New Yorker composition "Song of the Pop-Bottlers", also compiled in A Bowl of Bishop (The Dial Press, Inc., 1954):

Pop bottles pop-bottles
In pop shops;
The pop-bottles Pop bottles
Poor Pop drops.
When Pop drops pop-bottles,
Pop-bottles plop!
Pop-bottle-tops topple!
Pop mops slop!
Stop! Pop'll drop bottle!
Stop, Pop, stop!
When Pop bottles pop-bottles,
Pop-bottles pop!

Bishop also wrote a poem about special relativity, entitled E = MC2, which appeared in The New Yorker, October 26, 1946, p. 34:

What was our trust, we trust not;
What was our faith, we doubt;
Whether we must or must not,
We may debate about.
The soul, perhaps is a gust of gas,
And wrong is a form of right;
But we know that Energy equals Mass
by the Square of the Speed of Light!
What we have known, we know not;
What we have proved, abjure;
Life is a tangled bowknot,
But one thing is still sure.
Come little lad; come little lass;
Your docile creed recite:
"We know that Energy equals Mass
by the Square of the Speed of Light!"


  1. ^ a b "About the editor," A Classical Storybook, Cornell University Press, 1970.
  2. ^ a b Whitman, Alden (1973): "Morris Bishop, Scholar and Poet, Dies." The New York Times, November 22, 1973, p. 40.
  3. ^ Bishop, Morris (1969): The End of the Iroquois" American Heritage Magazine, October, 1969, [1]
  • Bishop, Morris (1962) A History of Cornell (1st ed.), Cornell University Press; reprinted in 1999, ISBN 0-8014-0036-8.
  • Bishop, Morris (1968) The Horizon Book of the Middle Ages, Houghton Mifflin; reprinted several times under the title The Middle Ages, current published by Mariner Books, ISBN 0-618-05703-X
  • Harding, Gardner (1929): "Men Who Cultivated Their Eccentricity" The New York Times, March 17, 1929, p. BR5

External links[edit]