There will be crumbs and coffee for breakfast. As someone who doesn’t think much of coffee and enjoys eating too much to be satisfied by crumbs, I’m left hungry by Elizabeth Bishop’s “A Miracle for Breakfast.” Seeing the title of this poem, one can be expected that a religious reading will not be difficult, although the results might not suit the pious.
The word miracle will appear at least six times in the six stanzas of the sestina, so this reading might well begin by examining what nature of miracles Bishop presents.
In the first stanza, the “breakfast” will be served from a balcony “like kings of old, or like a miracle.” Here the miracle is not definitely a miracle. It might be royal or miraculous. And it is not a miracle per se but like a miracle.
The second stanza’s miracle is merely hoped for. Those waiting for this free meal hope that the coffee will be hot and that the crumbs will miraculous expand not only to entire loaves of bread but to buttered bread, “by a miracle.” The third example comes when the man on the balcony is handed “the makings of a miracle,” the coffee and the roll.
In the fourth stanza, after the receipt of the actual “breakfast,” “one rather hard crumb” and “one drop of the coffee,” some of the group stand “awaiting the miracle.” Next, we are informed that the following image, the vision of another villa, “was not a miracle.” Continuing the description of this other villa in stanza six, Bishop claims the crumb and the mansion, both of which “made for me by a miracle.” Yet this miracle is a decidedly naturalistic one involving water, bugs, birds, and a great deal of time.
Finally, in the envoi, we have it suggested that the miracle is a mistake, “working, on the wrong balcony.”
What shall we make of all this miracle talk? My initial response is to believe that Bishop is warning readers away from miracles. Miracles, in this poem, are fickle things. They disappoint us, suggesting a hopeful loaf of buttered bread and providing only a hard crumb that some flick into the river.
But is the promised/delivered miracle truly to be read as a religious miracle. Is the man on the balcony to be read as God? Given the use of the term “miracle” as well as the somewhat Eucharist-inflected imagery of bread and wine–or rather coffee–one would first assume the religious miracle, but might the man on the balcony just as easily read as Mussolini standing on his Roman balcony, addressing the crowds, throwing down bread crumbs and making the trains run on time? More broadly, why must we read the disappointment wrought by the “man on the balcony” as coming from God when actual humans, either on actual balconies or in other elevated positions, promise and fail to provide just as often.
Could the poet actually be reflecting just as critically on those huddled under the balcony awaiting their unnourishing crumbs and coffee? In the third stanza, the poet asks “Was the man crazy?” yet perhaps it is those who wait on him, those who “stood around, waiting for the miracle” who were crazy.