Bonnie Costello: On "The Pangolin"

Moore admires the pangolin's armor for its usefulness and its beauty. Indeed, the language of "The Pangolin" moves between these two aspects, sometimes attending to the efficiency and sometimes to the elegance of this protective covering. The task of the poem is to discover their connection. She finds it in any interplay between synchronic and diachronic structures.

[Costello quotes lines 1-8]

The method and focus of this poem recall many of the earlier descriptive poems discussed in Chapter 3 [of Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions]. The poem sets out to describe the combative qualities of an "armored animal," and these invite comparison with man's combativeness. The poem also confronts the problems of accurate perception, introducing rival categories of description and contending impulses in the observer of what to watch, of whether to describe or compare. In making an analogy between pangolin and man, the poem confronts several other conflicts: between sign and meaning, between the two terms of the analogy, between the limited perspective of comparison and the multiplicity of the objects compared--all of which finally suggest a more fundamental conflict between subject and object, between the observer-writer and the object of her attention. What Moore shows us in the struggle of the pangolin is repeated in her own poetic behavior. The problem the poem poses, in part, is how to stabilize the struggle, how to make it graceful, and the pangolin becomes the model for her solution.

The speaker of the poem rushes to identify the object before her, and immediately her attention is divided between the visual qualities of the surface and the meaning of that surface. The very act of calling the pangolin's scales "armor" interprets their qualities, but whereas armor ordinarily evokes ideas of aggression, the speaker immediately becomes interested in design, in the "spruce-cone regularity," the "artichoke"-like organization of the scales. Design suggests a designer, the "artist-engineer" Leonardo Da Vinci, so that the pangolin is seen as a replica both of the artist-struggler and of his symmetrical art. The poem opens with this deluge of descriptive images not yet unified.

We expect an analogy to develop between the pangolin and some aspect of man's life, but at this stage the poem seems more to oppose than to associate the two sides of the analogy. Man moves from dawn to dusk, the pangolin from dusk to dawn.

[lines 9-14]

Already Moore has placed not only metaphors but kinds of language, metaphoric and scientific, in uneasy conjunction. The poem is constructed of dichotomies and oxymorons. The pangolin is "a true anteater, not cock-roach eater." Though "serpentined about a tree" he is "unpugnacious," his "hiss" is "harmless." These are examples of power restrained. And as if to imitate this concept the speaker's aggressive acts of interpretation cease and she becomes careful to make distinctions before leaping forward too eagerly. As the pangolin "rolls into a ball" we sense that the creature is both literally and figuratively drawing into himself and that the speaker's "efforts to unroll it" are in vain. The language becomes curt and matter of fact; all analogy drops out, or seems, to. Apparently in the battle between subject and object (the speaker of the poem imposing the definitions and the object resisting them), the object has won the first round. Here the pangolin seems to be his unique self, not like anything else.

[lines 30-33]

Trying to find out what the pangolin "entails" the speaker finds it all the more "intailed."

As analogy ceases to function on one level it is restored on another: the interiority of the pangolin is both literal and figurative. Similarly the elaborate twistings and counterbalances earlier in the language of the poem made a design not unlike the wrought-iron vine the pangolin resembles. Now, as we look at the speaker looking at the pangolin, the animal's withdrawal becomes an emblem or analogy for the very breakdown of analogy (the retreat of the object into its individuality). In these terms the process of making analogies itself is the mode of attack the pangolin defends himself against. The creature will not be "set aside."

In the first section of the poem the speaker moved from testing out human comparisons and definitions of the pangolin to delighting in the sheer process of circumspection, the curves and counter curves of that study. But now that the pangolin has "darkened" himself and left the speaker literally speechless over his ingenuity, the speaker transfers her energy from description and definition to pure admiration. The poem and its objects are disengaged for a moment. It is a declaration of impotence, of the inviolability of things, but the tone is excited, not disheartened:

[lines 34-37]

The "vileness" to which this stanza refers is not only man's martial instinct but also his intellectual one. The pangolin escapes both our physical and our interpretive grasp. But this is admiration not only of the pangolin, the apparent subject of the poem, but of all the images that have been brought in; "sun and moon and day and night and man and beast" were all part of the scenes described above. And curiously, man is on both sides of the concern, as intruder and object of intrusion. What has this ejaculation to do with the poem, a description of the pangolin? Perhaps it has some relation to acts of association and observation. To make analogy genuine, the speaker must go through a phase of self-examination, finding the example of man in his own behavior.

After the contraction, of the pangolin and of the language, comes another expansion. In the next stanza the speaker again sallies forth with description but with more images that suggest his own activity. From a temporary cheerful defeat, a temporary retreat into self-reflection, the speaker, like the pangolin, prepares for the next onset. The pangolin that was primarily an object of a is now an advancer:

[lines 38-44]

Here we have not only a return to the description of the pangolin (and to the double armor-artichoke image used to describe him) but more images for the action of man and specifically for the writing of the poem, the tail reminiscent of the quivering pen, though nonetheless a tail. Like the pangolin, the writer "engulfs what he can," the form of his poem "quivering" as the recalcitrant details on the pangolin's reality "swarm on him."

[lines 50-61]

Simpletons (and reductivists) impose their theories on the subject and err. Now the language of description, in an act of relative modesty like the pangolin's, approximates the observation; it is a "not unchain-like machinelike form." But like the pangolin, the poem is made graceful by adversities. The series of efforts and errors promises to leave a graceful pattern.

It is difficult to establish a hierarchy of interests in this poem. No single principle of comparison seems to dominate. Rather, associative links are local and various, some sound-determined, some visual, some conceptual, and these do not immediately reinforce one another. The pleasure of the poem is in its overlappings, like the scales of the pangolin it sets out to describe. The notion of "grace," for instance, suggested by the pangolin's movement and appearance, diverts the speaker's attention to other modes of grace, specifically with regard to artistic creation:

[lines 61-73]

The transition from the grace of the pangolin to the grace of the church seems an unwarranted digression. On the slim axis of "grace" the poem inverts the terms of the analogy. The speaker has completely abandoned her original task of description and turned to another topic. And yet as she proceeds to quite another subject the same method of description recurs. The image of the pangolin is gone but its figurative and formal traces remain. Early the pangolin was compared to the Abbey gate. Now the poem focuses fully on the Abbey itself, recalling in its description the contours of the pangolin. The grace of the pangolin's scales and its graceful attitude are now the formal and moral grace of a human construction, the church. Is this the fulfillment of the implied promise of an unpugnacious human armor, offered earlier? Man's art is like the pangolin's form (a comparison already hinted at, playfully, not only in the Da Vinci analogy but in the repetitions of the term "artichoke"). The pattern of the pangolin's scales is like the repetitions in the stone mullions and relief sculptures on the cathedral. And just as the pangolin's scales are the shield he uses in his struggle to survive "from dusk to dawn," these architectural forms provide a kind of "shield" for man against the vicissitudes of time.

The "grace" of the cathedral is not purely formal and static. It is a "sign" of man's struggle and of intervening grace. The pattern of the scales becomes the factor of resemblance throughout the rest of the poem. It unites the grace of the architecture (patterned as "a monk and monk and monk") and the grace of the poem (with its pattern of repetitions). But what is initially a spatial metaphor becomes a temporal one as well. That is, the repetitions of the pangolin's scales and the church mullions stand for temporal repetitions, for a process. Now it is clearer why Moore continually played off temporal and spatial qualities. At the end of the poem we are introduced to the architecture of human history ("and new and new and new") played against the spatial arrangement of "monk and monk and monk." This encompassing "process" of adversity (human struggle) includes the struggle of creation, specifically that of writing. The sense of temporal struggle and the sense of spatial design are finally united in the poem when the speaker suggests that "that which is at all" "is forever." What is trial and error from a temporal point of view is symmetry from a spatial point of view, as each monk lives and dies and lines up along stone mullions. As we view these monks "branching out across the perpendicular" we are reminded that Moore's notion of grace is bound to the Christian paradox embodied in the cross as the intersection of time and eternity. But she writes entirely from the human perspective, in which the struggles of life are only symbolically resolved into harmonies.

Art provides a kind of double shield, for when we consider the imperfections of any human form we can imagine a process that may correct those imperfections, "time in which to pay a debt." Conversely, when we become exhausted with the sense of endless trial and error, of endless process, we can consider the pattern our lives have established, can imagine a spatial stability in repetition. Both perspectives imply a notion of grace, however, and grace is an ambiguous word here. Is it grace from without or grace generated by the patterns? In any case these are "ingratiating" forms.

As we read it becomes clear that the phrase "to explain grace requires a curious hand" is more than a suspended comment or superficial link; rather it is a governing principle of what has come before and what will come after. Both "grace" and "curious" are reciprocal words, providing a kind of connective link between the various orders of concern in the poem. The pangolin is curious to us and curious himself, just as the hand that defines the pangolin is itself observing and observed. Similarly "grace" itself has two meanings in friction with each other which are reconciled (two points of view, divine and human, which describe an alternating subject-object relation). The adversity between a writer and his object, a pangolin and his object, is reconciled in the pattern of repetitions that action itself produces when viewed as a whole. Grace occurs when that process can be conceived of as a totality. So the grace of the author becomes the grace of his product, given the grace of the reader in allowing that transmission. Subjectivity and objectivity become as two sides of the same coin, or two pangolin scales side by side defining a symmetry. So too the Abbey is both a symbol of man's limit (his need for intervening grace) and his power (as a graceful "artist-engineer"). He makes the best of conflict, he creates dialectical compositions. The mortal monks take their place among immortal stones. If we now recall the initial conflict of associations of armor and design in description of the pangolin scales, we can see that though these seemed to move in opposite directions, they are now reconciled.

We have seen the analogy of the pangolin with man pivoting in a description of a cathedral. Now the poem moves directly into the second term of the analogy, man and his struggles. As the pangolin embodied both synchronic and diachronic structures, the church architecture embodies the human version of synchronic ones, and Moore now turns to man in series, in history. But in shifting her weight to the second term of the analogy, she still totters.

[lines 73-87]

The rest of the poem will directly concern man, but the pangolin is transfused in the description of man just as man was earlier transfused in the description of the pangolin. Indeed, man is described in terms of the animal world: "there he sits in his own habitat." The poem itself has "capsized" its subject matter, but not in disheartenment. The expression of failure here provides the materials for success. This is a poem about trial and error:

                    Bedizened or stark         naked, man, the self, the being we call human, writing- master to this world, griffons a dark      "Like does not like like that is obnoxious"; and writes error                                                                                 with four r s.

The "struggle" draws directly into questions of writing, of this writing, which is based on "likeness." But the sense of man's fallibility does not discourage the speaker because "among animals, one has a sense of humor." The central embarrassments of writing are met with this consolation: that we can stand aside and look at our errors even if we cannot avoid them in action. The poem does not conclude in precise definition or in resignation, only in the celebration of process. Similarly Moore celebrates the pangolin's adventures, for which his scales are a sign and protection, and the struggle of "monk and monk and monk" now "laid out across stone mullions" in a monument to their efforts and to intervening grace. Throughout the poem she assumes the possibility of some intervening force that can steady her in the flux of life and thought.

                                            The prey of fear, he, always 

curtailed, extinguished, thwarted by the dusk, work partly


says to the alternating blaze,

    "Again the sun!

        anew each day; and new and new and new, 

    that comes into and steadies my soul."

The poem opens and closes in exclamatory language, creating a kind of arc between. Though the speaker's work of interpretation remains "partly done," she can rejoice at the process of vision and revision she has pursued. (It is worth noting that this is a willful perspective whose opposite is "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.") Finally life can be seen as a grand composition, and this becomes a "steadying" influence.

"The Pangolin" is a long circuitous poem with an elaborately disguised structure. My argument about it, in following its curves, has also been long and circuitous. It will be useful to summarize the relationships among some features of the poem, keeping in mind that they are not experienced reductively. Explicitly and implicitly the poem is about armor and about grace--its task is to find the union of these. In the image of the pangolin we find the union in seeing the scales at once as a sign of the animal's maneuvers and as aesthetically pleasing in themselves. We move to finding the maneuvers aesthetically pleasing, the adversities of combat repeating temporally the permanent pattern of the scales. Adversities are seen as conversities, and moral and aesthetic perspectives are brought together in a notion of grace. The double perspective on the pangolin is followed by an analogy with man, who must incorporate armor and art. Man's struggle through life (or with any specific effort) establishes a pattern which art encompasses as a monument to life. Temporal and spatial patterns converge in our experience.

But for Moore to make such an assertion complacently would be to deny the very process of assertion and contradiction she explicitly identifies as human at the end of the poem. She avoids complacency in several ways. She balances the equation of pangolin and man so that neither side of the analogy seems dominant. Man must determine her ultimate perspective, of course, but by inverting the analogy she leaves ambiguous our attitude toward man's efforts. He is simultaneously a graceful and an ironic creature. By variously making the pangolin analogy bear on her writing (on its action and shape) she includes herself in the group "made graceful by adversity, conversity." She does not settle for a dialectic of aesthetic and martial interests resolved in a figure that fuses them. We do not take the analogy of pangolin with man for granted. Rather, the dialectic forces its way into the very terms of the analogy so that even the bond between pangolin and man is revealed as a tentative, highly artificial one, making the assertions of the poem similarly tentative and contingent. But while the resemblance between man and pangolin is placed in doubt, the pattern of differences that formed it is maintained even by seeing them as rival orders. That is, the perspectives that prove the pangolin unlike man work in relation to those that prove him like man, to make a poem of counterbalances, just as the conflicts in the pangolin's adventures are told as a story in the scales, and the conflicts in man's adventures are told as a story in the design of his cathedrals.

In "The Pangolin" both the extremes of heroism and the extremes of tragedy are absent. The dichotomies in man's nature are not violent. Man has, after all, been described through the analogy of the pangolin, so that the paradoxes of his existence are lightened. The poem is not fully given over to the flux it celebrates, for beneath the rapid movement from one image or subject to the next there is a highly organized conceptual base, which is reinforced by unaccented rhyme, rhythmic repetitions, and syllabic form. Again, the formal harmonies promise to resolve the flux and contradiction within the referential function of the poem. Indeed, part of the excitement of poetry is this play between synchronic and diachronic structures. It is the only place where time and eternity are one and loss is gain.

All the poems I have discussed in this chapter deal with modes of combat, and all suggest ways of converting combat to a positive end, thus converting anxiety to gusto. As Burke suggested of his own work, "it is a book such as authors in those days sometimes put together, to keep themselves from falling apart." As Moore once commented in a reading, "art can't resolve human tragedy--it's a defense against it."

While Moore insists continually that the imposition of forms is in need of resistance, we see that they can also be the means of mitigating the experience of flux, can be the means of self-possession and self-location. Objects are thrown against our advance; it is through collision that we learn of them. Moore's ambivalence about conquest is revealed most clearly in her style, which presents a superficial appearance of flux and free association and disguises an elaborate thematic and formal structure. All the poems I have discussed here are inconspicuously rhymed, their stanzas ordered by syllable count. Antithesis, pun, parallelism, further unite formal and thematic structures. Certainly the principle of recalcitrance is everywhere alive in these poems, in guarding against too rigid a formal or thematic frame (through unaccented rhymes, inverted syntax, inverted analogies, and omitted connectives, for instance). But the recalcitrance is granted authority by the very demonstration of control in the poems' unities. Finding herself unable to order experience, Moore makes failures of order a life-supporting good and produces orders that both define this position and provide respites from it.

Moore made this relationship between struggle and harmony explicit in her comment on universal harmony in aesthetics, which I quoted in the first chapter. While artists struggle with each other they are confirming a unified, enduring tradition, and while the artist struggles with his medium he is creating harmonious forms. Determination with resistance," for Moore, always "results in poise," at least in art, for "wherever there is art there is equilibrium."

From Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. Copyright © 1981 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.


Criticism Overview
Title Bonnie Costello: On "The Pangolin" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Bonnie Costello Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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