Cristanne Miller: On "Spenser's Ireland"

"Spenser's Ireland' (1941) would seem to be Moore's most specific poem about race since here she refers to the poem's "I" as "Irish," and since the poet's own multiple public and private references to her Irish heritage imply the identity of that speaker with herself. Yet the speaker knows Ireland only through reading and myth. The poem begins with its title: "Spenser's Ireland //has not altered;-- / a place as kind as it is green, / the greenest place I've never seen. / Every name is a tune." Mythical elements predominate even in the primary didactic statement of this poem, which occurs at its center:

[Miller quotes lines 30-37]

Typically for Moore, this didactic statement couches itself as a conditional description, contains a double negative (never . . . not free), and ends with a question that undercuts the speaker's stance--all aspects modifying the absolutism of its claim. Presumably, stubbornly independent people (all Irish?) do not know that their freedom lies in supreme belief, hence their "obduracy," continuous fighting, and dissatisfaction. In a more directly conditional query, the speaker previously asks

[lines 12-19]

But it isn't clear why the condition is necessary or who the recipient of the reinstating should be--today's Irish recovering their lost heritage? the rest of the world learning from mythically "[un]altered" Ireland? Moreover, she implies that even this heritage may be a mixed blessing. "Hindered characters / seldom have mothers / in Irish stories," Moore states, "but they all have grandmothers"; she then follows this generalization about loss by quoting a hopelessly bigoted ancestor:

[lines 23-30]

Irish heroes may need both to escape or "unlearn" such closed-minded "native genius for disunion" at the same time that they reclaim a heritage of almost magically skilled craft and kindness.

As racial portrait, this is myth-making par excellence. Moore's knowledge of earlier extreme discrimination against the Irish in the United States may contribute to her strong allegiance to that part of her heritage, but it does not enter the poem. Similarly, Moore's concern for the political and religious factionalization of Ireland and its continuing semi-colonial status appears nowhere in this poem, as it does in the earlier "Sojourn in the Whale." Instead, she identifies her speaker with a country of garrulously cantankerous individuals who live a life of antithesis to the rational materialism and selfishness characterizing the United States.

Nonetheless, the final lines of "Spenser's Ireland" emphasize the distance between the speaker and Ireland, even as they assert identity: "The Irish say your trouble is their / trouble and your / joy their joy? I wish / I could believe it; / I am troubled, I'm dissatisfied, I'm Irish." By rhyming "I'm Irish" with "I wish," by denoting the Irish "they" (rather than "we"), and by stating that she can't believe what "the Irish" do, Moore allies her speaker with the earlier skeptical "you" ("credulity you say?") rather than with the Irish themselves. The poet's acknowledged borrowing from Don Byrne's "Ireland: The Rock Whence I Was Hewn" in the 1927 National Geographic Magazine for much of the description of her poem further dislodges any claim to authority through identity (see "Notes," CP, 280). This is an intertextually constructed portrait, not a racially or culturally "inherited" one.

As with "Enough: Jamestown," I do not find that this poem accounts for all its own implications and detail--perhaps in this case because the poet has restricted herself to the mythological and personal, yet places the poem in a temporal context and thereby hints both at the country's history of strife and at its neutrality during a "world" war against fascism. "Sojourn in the Whale" more successfully combines the mythological, political, personal, and didactic in its representation of Ireland.

From Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Copyright 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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Criticism Overview
Title Cristanne Miller: On "Spenser's Ireland" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cristanne Miller Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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