Taffy Martin

Taffy Martin: On "Spenser's Ireland"

"Spenser's Ireland" makes no direct reference to the subject of "Sojourn in the Whale," but it portrays an even more subtle and evasive power. The poem concludes with its speaker's admission that "I am troubled, I'm dissatisfied, I'm Irish," but it has already offered a solution to the alleged dissatisfaction by portraying freedom and success as states of mind rather than as action. We learn, for instance, that dull perseverance which

        again and again says, "I'll never give in," never sees

that you're not free     until you've been made captive by      supreme belief

If the eccentricities of Ireland thus seem merely fussy--and Moore's language itself is deliberately fussy when making the point--she has her own suggestion for a method of escape:

                                    Erie-- the guillemot     so neat and the hen of the heath and the linnet spinet-sweet--bespeak restlessness? Then they are to me     like enchanted Earl Gerald who     changed himself into a stag, to  a great green-eyed cat of  the mountain. Discommodity makes      them invisible; they've dis- appeared.

"Spenser's Ireland" thus shows that imagination offers escape both from discouragement and, on a whim, from discommodity.

From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by Uviversity of Texas Press.

Taffy Martin: On "Sojourn in the Whale"

"Sojourn in the Whale," a poem that is anything but modest and deferential, offers more direct insight into the person behind the poems and into the fictive discourse at the core of those poems. The title of the poem is significant in itself since it is the same one Moore gave to her serial account (in letters to her brother) of a trip to New York City in 1915. Determined to succeed as a poet and to meet whoever might help her to achieve that goal, Moore prepared for the task as diligently and deftly as though she were "trying to open locked doors with a sword." The poem opens with those words, but goes on to show that such impossible tasks seem to accomplish themselves. Power and success follow from essential confidence. The poem is ostensibly addressed to Ireland, whose tasks have included "threading the points of needles" and "planting shade trees upside down." "Swallowed by opaqueness," Ireland has "lived and lived on every kind of shortage" and has "been compelled by hags to spin / gold thread from straw." But Ireland's most impressive qualities are tenacity and inward calm. Speaking directly to Ireland, Moore identifies the secret of that country's power. It is clear that Ireland stands for a person as well as a country: . . .

"Spenser's Ireland" thus shows that imagination offers escape both from discouragement and, on a whim, from discommodity.

From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by University of Texas Press.

Taffy Martin: On "Marriage"

In "Marriage," an all-seeing speaker catalogues pain and confusion. The poem ends pessimistically by equating artificially regulated promises with closed books and empty gestures. "An Octopus" records another sort of confusion. Rather than denying the fear involved in facing the unknown, the poem argues that the fear itself can become a positive adventure.

"Marriage" begins by categorizing its subject with unremitting equanimity and precision. The poem's subject, identified in its title, will be dismissed as

This institution,

perhaps one should say enterprise 

out of respect for which 

one says one need not change one's mind 

about a thing one has believed in, 

requiring public promises 

of one's intention

to fulfill a private obligation

Moore continues the attack by piling one devastating anecdote upon another. Marriage is both preposterous and painful. As in "Melancthon," Moore ridicules insincere attempts at communication. Here, however, the mistaken approach leads to warfare. Instead of conversing, the participants in that war exchange mechanical nonsequiturs.

"I should like to be alone";

to which the visitor replies,

"I should like to be alone;

why not be alone together?"

Beneath this "conversation" lurks a subsurface of churning passion that recognizes beauty but distorts the perception.

Below the incandescent stars

below the incandescent fruit,

the strange experience of beauty; 

its existence is too much; 

it tears one to pieces

and each fresh wave of consciousness

is poison.

Indeed, overwhelming passion so distorts perception that even pristine beauty leads to disaster. Such is the case in the lines describing the poem's occasionally nameless "he," who in this case becomes Adam.

        he has beauty also;

it's distressing--the O thou

to whom from whom,

without whom nothing--Adam; 

"something feline, 

something colubrine"--how true! 

a crouching mythological monster 

in that Persian miniature of emerald mines, 

raw silk--ivory white, snow white, 

oyster white and six others—

that paddock full of leopards and giraffes—

long lemon-yellow bodies 

sown with trapezoids of blue.

Alive with words,

vibrating like a cymbal

touched before it has been struck, 

he has prophesied correctly--

the industrious waterfall,

"the speedy stream

which violently bears all before it, 

at one time silent as the air

and now as powerful as the wind."

This same vibrant Adam, "Treading chasms / on the uncertain footing of a spear," finally becomes so self-absorbed that his "formal customary strain" of speech and thought allows no intrusion of undesirable fact. Beauty disintegrates and turns sour as Adam inevitably

perceives what it was not

intended that he should;

"he experiences a solemn joy

in seeing that he has become an idol."

"She" is no less attractive and no less able to resist her own charm. In each case, the excess arises from a common error.

The fact forgot

that "some have merely rights

while some have obligations,"

he loves himself so much,

he can permit himself

no rival in that love.

She loves herself so much,

she cannot see herself enough--

a statuette of ivory on ivory,

the logical last touch

to an expansive splendor

earned as wages for work done:

one is not rich but poor

when one can always seem so right.

Wrong from the start, then, any attempt at marriage, "this amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility," will be doomed to failure. Moore's criticism has been impartially distributed since each participant in the union shares the same faults. Her attack becomes even more successful because she reinforces this impartiality with relentless dispassion. The poem offers neither a death blow nor an alternative to the institution but a depressing version of half success. The partners are sentenced to "cycloid inclusiveness," a "striking grasp of opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity. . . . " Moore's argument that there can be no respite in this struggle intensifies throughout the poem until she asks a question to which she already knows the answer.

What can one do for them--

these savages

condemned to disaffect

all those who are not visionaries 

alert to undertake the silly task 

of making people noble?

Since nothing can be done to aid the self-deluded, Moore ruthlessly concludes that this naive but mistaken belief in the efficacy of "public promises ... to fulfill a private obligation" dictates that "the statesmanship / of an archaic Daniel Webster / persists to their simplicity of temper / as the essence of the matter." Meaningless contradiction, a passive symbol of church or state, and the withdrawal of personal contact close the poem and become Moore's enigmatic representation of "the essence of the matter."

'Liberty and union

now and forever';


the Book on the writing-table;

the hand in the breast-pocket,"

One can claim to be attempting liberty and union, but the combination is a farce. A book on a writing table may block as many thoughts as it inspires, and if the capitalization in "Book" signifies the Bible, a book Marianne Moore certainly knew well, the passive image is even more damaging. A hand in the breast pocket cannot offer to shake another nor can it signal any other traditional pledge of disarmament. The posture is unequivocally closed and defensive. The institution has been dismissed. The issue is closed.

"Marriage" is an unusual poem in the Moore canon because its treatment is more openly personal than that of most of her poems. More important, Moore's treatment of passion, confusion, and deluded vision is undeniably negative. The fact that her sensuous language vividly captures the attraction of one party to another only intensifies the shock of the rest of the poem. In most poems, Moore treats such confusion and deluded vision as positive qualities, as opportunities for wordplay or enjoyment.

From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by the University of Texas Press.

Taffy Martin: On "No Swan So Fine"

Several years in the making, the poem grew out of two newspaper clippings, one reporting on the sale of a pair of Louis XV candelabra and another on the restoration of the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. From the second, which appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Moore copied Percy Philip's whimsical note that the statues on the Versailles grounds seemed to be protesting the dullness of their surroundings without the courts of the Kings Louis. To that clipping, Moore added the caption from an accompanying photograph, which showed the temporarily stilled fountains: "There is no water so still as the dead fountain of Versailles." Moore changed the quotation slightly and used it to open the poem. But, without any guide to indicate the context of the quotation and therefore its tone of voice, one cannot be certain whether Moore's next sentence is meant to be naive, ironic, or regretful.

"No water so still as the

    dead fountains of Versailles." No swan, 

with swart blind look askance 

and gondoliering legs, so fine

    as the chintz china one with fawn-

brown eyes and toothed gold

collar on to show whose bird it was.

Although the second sentence begins forthrightly enough, it quickly confuses itself. The water of the fountain seems serene, even appealing, and the real-life swan rather clumsy by contrast. But the "chintz china" swan, which ought to be as appealing as the formal fountains, ends up being trapped by the control and ownership that its "toothed gold collar" represents. Moore's second stanza promises to rectify this ambivalence when it goes on to describe the elegance of the setting in which this lifeless swan resides. Once again, though, Moore undercuts this response as skillfully as she creates it.

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth

    Candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-

tinted buttons, dahlias,

sea urchins, and everlastings,

    it perches on the branching foam 

of polished sculptured

flowers--at ease and tall. The king is dead.

What does "The king is dead" mean? And what does that reveal about the dead fountains and about why the real-life swan is not "so fine as" its artificial counterpart? On one level, the poem reads as an outraged indictment of artifice and stasis. In this case, the second sentence reads ironically and defends the real-life swan not in spite of but precisely because of his imperfections. The elegant setting of the china swan, amidst "polished sculptured flowers," becomes a prison. Its beauty lacks spirit, just as the king lacks life. In this scenario, the opening quotation reveals the anonymous observer's misguided nostalgia and romantic reverence for whatever has been controlled, stopped, and in this case deadened by artifice. Responding to that speaker's erroneous viewpoint, the rest of the poem reads as a defense of the candelabra's artifice. Admittedly, the waters of the fountains, like the king, are lifeless; but artifice guarantees continued recognition beyond any organic life cycle. It creates the elegance of the china swan perched with ironic detachment "--at ease and tall" in its excessively decorative and controlled surroundings. That same artifice continues to elicit awe, even when its beauty is reduced to static potential. Initially such artifice excludes the mundane imperfections and "the swart blind look askance" of passing moments. Ultimately, it outlasts its vulnerable creators. The poem thus argues effectively for each point of view.

The double nature of Moore's argument is unusual, especially in light of William Butler Yeats's treatment of a related type of ambivalence. Moore's "No Swan So Fine," published in 1932, five years after Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium," captures the allure of that poem's "artifice of eternity," but does not capitulate to its temptations. When Yeats's speaker vows to escape from the place that "is no country for old men," he expects the retreat, whatever its limitations, to succeed.

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make 

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling 

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake; 

Or set upon a golden bough to sing 

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Never one to assure or coddle her readers in any way, Moore hints at the same lure of escape, deftly questions its efficacy, and then steps aside without offering any conclusion. She repeats that practice frequently, but the puzzle of no conclusion is the only common feature in the various poems in which she does so.

The two-sided message of "No Swan So Fine" thus serves as Moore's response to Yeats's thwarted dream in "Sailing to Byzantium." In the Yeats poem, the golden bird's escape is at best partial and imperfect. Even if in the "artifice of eternity" Yeats's singer achieves its desired form "Of hammered and gold enamelling," its song might serve as trivial a purpose as keeping a "drowsy Emperor awake." Or it might sing only "Of what is past, or passing, or to come." Unable to sing of real-world creatures, whether "Fish, flesh, or fowl," its song can be heard only by those "lords and ladies of Byzantium," removed as they are from the world of "Whatever is begotten, born and dies." Moore's answer is both a regression and a progression, just as she intends it to be. "No Swan So Fine" does not solve Yeats's dilemma. In fact, it refuses to long for one of Byzantium's alternatives. Moore sets up a dialectical opposition and refuses to resolve it. One longs for strict forms capable of containing and controlling the complexity of the age, but a form that hopes to control the chaos automatically becomes suspect.

From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright 1986 by University of Texas Press.

Taffy Martin: On "The Fish"

In "The Fish," for instance, Moore employs a typically intricate stanzaic pattern along with evocative, sensual language to create a scene as unfathomable as it initially seems specific. The first three sentences are clear enough. The fish "wade through [the] black jade" of a sea where "submerged shafts of the // sun ... move themselves with spotlight swiftness." Nevertheless, even within those sentences, Moore has hinted at the broken vision to follow. She describes the movement of one of the "crow-blue mussel-shells" with curious indirection. The movement of the sand helps a viewer to infer rather than to observe directly the broken movement of the shells. We know only that "one keeps / adjusting the ash heaps, / opening and shutting itself like // an / injured fan." The rest of the poem develops this hint of submerged movement and emphasizes its potential for violence: "The water drives a wedge / of iron through the iron edge / of the cliff" and the cliff itself shows "external / marks of abuse," both natural and deliberately inflicted. Having developed the apparent specificity of the poem to this point, Moore dissolves the scene in a flood of ambiguity. One side of the cliff provides a sheltered pool for sea life. In describing it, Moore begins a new stanza with a new sentence, a technique which, in her poems, often foretells dissolution.



    marks of abuse are present on this 

    defiant edifice-

        all the physical features of




    of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and 

    hatchet strokes, these things stand 

        out on it; the chasm side is




    evidence has proved that it can live 

    on what it can not revive

        its youth. The sea grows old in it.

Contradiction dominates these images. "Lack of cornice," if it means a natural curve to the edge of the cliff, is certainly a physical feature of accident; but "dynamite grooves, burns, and / hatchet strokes" are just as surely not accidental. They are human interventions that "stand out" on the cliff. Thus, it should not be surprising that "the chasm side is dead." That announcement, however, makes the next two sentences entirely incomprehensible. If the chasm side is dead, ravaged as it clearly has been by the force of the water it contains, how does it live on the barnacles that adhere to its surface, on the shifting mussel shells that may or may not contain live mussels, and on the rest of the sliding mass of sea life that it shelters? Finally, why does the sea, clearly the most active and powerful force in this scene, grow old within this teeming shelter? Moore not only does not answer these questions, she does not even admit that she has asked them. The poem pretends that it works visually, whereas it should warn readers that images in poems are not always what they seem to be.

From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by University of Texas Press.

Taffy Martin: On "An Octopus"

As if to counter the dismal effect of "Marriage," Moore follows the shock of her conclusion with another long, dense poem, "An Octopus," which begins somewhat ominously and quickly turns that mood into joyful appreciation of the indecipherable density of Mount Tacoma's glacier. Every specimen of disarray offers a form of delight, precisely because of its inherent and unfathomable contradiction. A visitor to the glacier finds that its density of growth makes vision difficult, even misleading; but he enjoys the opacity, which he finds


under the polite needles of the larches

"hung to filter, not to intercept the sunlight"—

met by tightly wattled spruce-twigs

"conformed to an edge like clipped cypress

as if no branch could penetrate the cold beyond its company"


It is thus contrarily pleasant to discover that "Completing a circle, / you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed." The confusion "prejudices you in favor of itself." Throughout the poem, Moore holds in suspension and demonstrates the simultaneous presence of the two opposing qualities of the glacier. Although "damned for its sacrosanct remoteness," it attracts those who damn that remoteness while engaged in attempts to "'conquer the main peak of Mount Tacoma.’" Nevertheless, combined with that remoteness, "Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus / with its capacity for fact." Offering partial shelter, the mountain "receives one under winds that 'tear the snow to bits / and hurl it like a sandblast / shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.'" It also challenges its visitors' perceptions, producing questions such as this one.


Is "tree" the word for these things

"flat on the ground like vines"?

some "bent in a half circle with branches on one side

suggesting dust-brushes, not trees;

some finding strength in union, forming little stunted groves

their flattened mats of branches shrunk in trying to escape"

from the hard mountain "planed by ice and polished by the wind"--


The poem ends with an explosion of motion that finds mysterious calm and self-possession on the mountain, even in the midst of unpredictable violence. The "symmetrically-pointed" octopus survives the violence of an avalanche because of its "curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall." Moore wants us, in the words of another poem of impossible opposites, to "believe it / despite reason to think not."

From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright 1986 by U of Texas Press.