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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Taffy Martin: On "No Swan So Fine" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Taffy Martin Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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