Repeatedly identified in self-reflexive language, the trope of the octopus of ice is complete as the curtain of snow, the avalanche, coincides with the white page. The failure of discrete statements to accommodate this majesty ("of which the visitor dare never fully speak at home for fear of being stoned as an imposter") is a topos of sublimity, as Elizabeth McRinsey has shown.
Both Burke and Rant emphasize natural spectacles (though for Rant they become tropes) producing the effects of terrified rapture and of mental expansion, what Moore refers to as "eyes that can dilate . . . hair that can rise if it must." The opening of "An Octopus" is designed precisely to produce these effects:
of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies "in grandeur and in mass"
beneath a sea of shifting snow dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
made of glass that will bend—a much needed invention—
comprising twenty-eight ice fields from fifty to five hundred
of unimagined delicacy.
"Picking periwinkles from the cracks"
or killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python,
it hovers forward "spider fashion
on its arms" misleadingly like lace;
its "ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool." (71)
As Emily Mitchell Wallace has shown, the octopus itself has been associated with sublimity since pre-Homeric times, considered god or monster depending on the attitude toward the sea. Pound and H.D. join Moore in using the octopus as an image of the mind. But Moore makes the most extensive and the most affirmative use of the image.
The sublime is a drama of consciousness thrown off balance by an object which exceeds its mastery. Moore's strategies of paradox (glass that will bend, 28 icefields from 50 to 500 feet thick of unimagined delicacy) force the boundaries of sense and sensation. Moore stresses physical force in the "crushing rigor of the python" (71). The association of monarchic power (first like American royal families) reinforces this impression. Added to these images of force and power are gothic images of instability, ephemerality, transience. All objects are fugitive. There is a "ghostly pallor" in the pool; she notes the eerie movement ("spider fashion") of the glacier's arms. Obscurity (the larches filter the light, the gusts of a storm obliterate the shadows of the fir trees) which to Burke was a major feature of the sublime, persists on this mountain despite the poem's passionate display of its plenitude. Indeed, detail often contributes to obscurity: the horses are "hard to discern" among the birch trees, ferns, lily pads and other flora. The details themselves set up a momentum of infinity. In this, Moore joins the transcendentalists for whom, as Lawrence Buell argues in Literary Transcendentalism, such catalogue rhetoric provides "the closest verbal approximation they were able to achieve to the boundless vitality of nature; it creates a literary analogue for the speaker's initial bafflement when faced with the rich mysteriousness of nature" (Buell 221). Moore, like Thoreau rather than Emerson, hones to the particular, resisting the logic of totality, of the universal. Moments of mastery are repeatedly undermined, rhetorically and imagistically. The goat who "stands its ground" is confronted with erupting Fujiyama. Moore offers no simple transcendence to restore the sense of power to the perceiver. This is not the egotistical sublime of Wordsworth, in which nature disappoints until the infinite expectations of the beholder are matched by a transcendent signifier. The beholder in Moore's sublime remains overwhelmed by the disorienting prospect of the mountain and the sacrosanct remoteness of its details. Scope eludes her, except as it is established in the poem itself.
From "Marianne Moore and the Sublime." SAGETRIEB 6.3
In any case, William James' description of the octopus—"such flexible intensity of life in a form so inaccessible to our sympathy"—complements Moore's own "octopus of ice" whose "Neatness of finish" is finally unfathomable. What I am suggesting is that Moore may have found a natural analogue for Henry James' temperament and aesthetic in the image of the octopus.
William James' description of the cuttle-fish is also reminiscent of the accounts of octopuses Moore read about in the London Graphic and the Illustrated London News in August of 1923—the summer she began composing "An Octopus." The article she read in the London Graphic nicely captures the gentle otherness of these "timid" yet all-reaching, destructive animals:
Graphic August 15, 1923
The Octopus in the Channel Islands
. . . No little consternation has been caused from time to time when it is reported that there is an influx of octopuses in these warm channel waters, and letters to the papers ensue. . . .
The octopus is really a timid creature and makes his home in the rock pools in quite an innocent fashion. Off the Breton coast he is undoubtedly very destructive to all kinds of shellfish, actually sucking lobsters and crabs empty in the pots. . . The big arms double rowed w 140 suckers each are of amazing strength + unimaginable delicacy combined w extreme delicacy of touch. . . It can pick a periwinkle out of a crack, or crush large prey w the grip of a small python. . .
In this description—one that Moore drew on for certain phrases in her poem—the octopus is often concealed in its rock pools; yet it can appear unexpectedly, wreaking destruction. Moore seemed particularly drawn to animals, particularly those of the sea, who appeared to be both accessible and inaccessible—who enjoyed the ability to advance and then to retreat. In October of 1923, while visiting her brother, Warner, in Bremerton, Washington, she wrote to Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler about "an enormous barnacle" she and Warner had discovered:
One day after the hull of the Mississippi had been scraped, Warner and I explored the bottom of the dry dock and picked up an enormous barnacle which advanced and withdrew like a disappearing gun, the edges of its mouth tourquoise blue with an inner border of light scarlet and a set of curling fern like feelers which it folded and unfolded in a kaleidoscopic manner which reminded me of the marine marvels in the Illustrated News and The Natural History Journal.
Moore's enormous phallic barnacle "which advanced and withdrew like a disappearing gun" is not unlike the octopuses ("the marine marvels" she alludes to) who could appear unexpectedly ready to consume, with their far reaching all powerful arms, everything in their paths.
Like Moore's barnacle who "advanced and withdrew" and the octopuses she read about, James, by his own account in A Small Boy and Others, enjoyed the same economy of advancing only to withdraw, or of concealing himself only to disclose his "subterfuge." In her 1934 essay, Moore acknowledges James' predilection for this sort of self-presentation when she cites his "meeting" with Dickens or his hiding under the "drooping tablecloth" while one of his cousins read David Copperfield to his family.
In "An Octopus," Moore also endorses James' aesthetic of disclosure and concealment. David Kalstone once said "the whole poem is about Henry James." Before looking at the direct allusion to James at the end of the poem, let me suggest some of the ways Moore prepares us to see that James' "Neatness of finish" like Mt. Ranier's is finally to be celebrated because, to quote William James, it is "in a form so inaccessible to our sympathy."
Moore's "reading" of this landscape's conflicting energies prepares us for her conflation of the glacier—"An Octopus / of ice"—with James. The appearance of James' "Neatness of finish" is present in the first "glimpse" we are given of the glacier:
of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies "in grandeur and in mass"
beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes; (71)
Moore shows us how deceptive ,this glacier's "neatness" is; the glacier appears to be stationary—"it lies 'in grandeur and in mass'"—and yet it is surrounded by the motion of "a sea of shifting snow-dunes"—an image of unpredictability. Far from being stationary and predictable, this glacier of "unimagined delicacy" (71) can kill "with the concentric crushing rigor of the python" (71). "Its arms" (71) which are "misleadingly like lace" (71) are always moving—always forcing the poet to shift her own perspective.
Moore fixes her eye on the objects in this landscape which disclose and conceal contrary energies. The fir trees on this mountain conceal as much as they reveal:
The fir-trees in "the magnitude of their root systems,"
rise aloof from these maneuvers "creepy to behold,"
austere specimens of our American royal families,
"each like the shadow of the one beside it.
The rock seems frail compared with their dark energy of life," (71)
Even the perfect balance of the line—"the ermine body on the crystal peak" (73)—is undermined by the destructive energy inherent in the images which follow:
the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene
dyeing them white—
upon this antique pedestal,
"a mountain with those graceful lines which prove it a volcano,"
its top a complete cone like Fujiyama's
till an explosion blew it off. (73)
The ermine body, whose shoulders have been dyed white, becomes an image of living death as it is transformed into an ash of while heat. The unbridled energy of the sun, which might be celebrated in another context, is associated with the ominous and powerful hydrocarbon, acetylene. The mountain's seemingly accessible facade—"those graceful lines" of the mountain with "its top a complete cone"—becomes inseparable from the momentarily concealed forces "which prove it a volcano."
Another part of the poem which seems to anticipate James' and Mt. Ranier's "neatness of finish" is Moore's description of the Greeks:
The Greeks liked smoothness, distrusting what was back
of what could not be clearly seen,
resolving with benevolent conclusiveness,
"complexities which still will be complexities
as long as the world lasts"; (75)
In one of the most extensive readings of the poem to date, Patricia Willis perceptively maintains that "the behavior of the Greeks is oddly juxtaposed to that of Henry James" ("The Road to Paradise: First Notes on 'An Octopus'" 259). John Slatin argues, on the other hand, that "Neatness of finish" "is like the 'smoothness' of which the Greeks were so fond; indeed, it is like Greek itself, ‘"that pride-producing language"’ whose speakers are '"Like happy souls in Hell"’—persuaded that they can resolve the unresolvable" (163). Moore, it seems to me, praises James' "finish" not because it gives the appearance of being accessible, but because it is unfathomable—because it conceals beneath its surface forces that defy neatness.
Moore fully fuses her aesthetic with James' when she actually compares the mountain's "remoteness" and "Neatness of finish" to his:
if one would "conquer the main peak of Mount Tacoma,
this fossil flower concise without a shiver,
intact when it is cut.
damned for its sacrosanct remoteness—
like Henry James "damned by the public for decorum";
not decorum, but restraint;
it is the love of doing hard things
that rebuffed and wore them out—a public out of sympathy
Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact. (75-76)
Moore defends James' necessary distance from his readers—his "sacrosanct remoteness." She wants us to see that James' finish (like the "finished business" Strether confronts in the figure of Chad in The Ambassadors) can only be partially known or tentatively approached; it is finally, like the "self" Chad offers Lambert Strether, both accessible and inaccessible.
"Neatness of finish" is then of a piece with "this octopus" who
"Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,
its arms seeming to approach from all directions,"
it receives one under winds that "tear the snow to bits
and hurl it like a sandblast
sheering off twigs and loose bark from the trees." (76)
We come full circle to the initial image of the glacier as "deceptively reserved." If the glacier is reserved, it is also (like James) reserving and conserving energy. In "An Octopus" Moore pays homage to James by taking us through a landscape in which "things" "glow, flush, glimmer, vibrate, [and] shine." Giving us only "a shattering first glimpse" of this octopus of ice, Moore endorses a Jamesian epistemology in which things are known through partial disclosures.
From "Towards a Poetics of Discolusre: Marianne Moore and Henry James." Sagetrieb Vol. 6, No. 3.
One need only peruse Moore's notes to her poems and her reading notebooks to see how thoroughly their collages of quotation commingle the exotic and the mundane. "An Octopus" (1924), written after Moore participated in a climbing expedition on Washington's Mount Rainier, provides one of the more fascinating examples of Moorish plunder. Its quoted fragments derive from many sources, including Richard Baxter's The Saints' Everlasting Rest, Cardinal Newman's Historical Sketches, Clifton Johnson's What to See in America, two different articles on cephalopodia (octopi), one from The London Graphic, the other from The Illustrated London News, and even a casual comment overheard at the circus. Aside from direct quotation, much of the imagery of the poem, which details the natural landscape and animal occupants of the mountain from the many viewpoints of the climber, can be traced to Moore's reading at the time, extensively documented in her notebooks for 1921-22. This reading includes books and articles on architecture, fashion, advertising, marriage, poetics and natural history, among them The Psychology of Dress by Frank Parsons, The Art Of Courtship by W. L. George, A Book of Old Embroidery edited by Geoffry Holme, several articles about D. H. Lawrence's ideas on women and marriage, Sidney's Apologie for Poetrie, Shelley's "Defense of Poetry," a review of Ford Madox Ford's A Blunt Old Tory: Women and Men, Sheridan's The Rivals, Spenser's "Amoretti," reviews of works by Roger Fry and Gordon Craig, an article on South American archaeology, and Henry James's The Golden Bowl.
The primary sources for the poem's details about wildlife, weather and rock formations are the photographs Moore took during the climb, the postcards she purchased at the time of the climb and one year later on a return trip to the region, and the 1922 Department of the Interior Rules and Regulations, Mt. Rainier National Park pamphlet. This 52-page pamphlet, co-authored by a park ranger and a Department of Agriculture biologist, among others, was admired by Moore for its phrasing and for its precise descriptive details: the title of the poem is taken from the pamphlet, which describes Mt. Rainier as a "glacial octopus," and much of the poem was pieced together from phrases which Moore underlined in the pamphlet's text, notes and bibliography, and which she later wove together with her own words, and the words of Newman, Ruskin, and others. The poem, which Moore began drafting in the margins of the parks pamphlet, mingles paraphrase with quotation, sometimes set off by quotation marks and sometimes not. As Margaret Holley notes in her discussion of "An Octopus," "As often as not, we are dealing with quotation as a formal appearance rather than as a literal practice. Quotation in Moore's text looks like repetition but often is really revision; it looks like transcription but is, in fact, transformation" (66). That is, it may look like "probity," to use Moore's word, but is more often deliberate mistake.
The result is a poem which blends the naturalist's passion for precise lists of characteristics together with the poet's (and the park ranger's) propensity for startling analogy, as well as the tourist's interest in the mountain as a public facility, one regulated by human rules and marked by human uses. Clearly this poem's borrowings do not function as Stewart claims allusive quotations do, "to point to the abstract exchange value of printed works, their value as statements of membership and class" (36). There is nothing particularly elite, or recognizable, about most of the poem's sources. Neither can this kind of quotation be said to participate in any of the dynamics of literary inheritance, influence, haunting or echo by which we traditionally understand poetic intertextuality. Indeed, it is precisely such indebtedness which Moore was attempting to forestall when, in an earlier period, she began writing rhymed, syllabic lines: her rejection of traditional English metrics, particularly the pentameter, was meant to innoculate her poetry against unconscious echo (and it is remarkable, in fact, how seldom Moore's poems quote poetry). Similarly, her complex rhyme patterns work to ward off a strong tendency to mimic admired prose (see Slatin 87-88). Moore's borrowings from non-literary sources, as well as those from less than recognizable portions of recognizable authors' works, may also function to protect the poems against uncontrolled influences. Thus Moore's formal choices are designed to preclude both Bloomian influence and Hollanderish revisionary echo, and her explicit quotations--her marking, displaying, and indexing of other texts and voices within the poems--involve her in a dynamics of authority distinct from that of traditional allusion. Moore's poems do not, as a rule, accrue resonance and complexity by metonymically calling up a recognizable context; rather, they forego the nostalgia of restoration, opting instead for the construction of new meaning through extraction and arrangement, organization and cataloging. For this reason, it is the collection with its invented context, the point of which is not remembering, but "forgetting--starting again in such a way that a finite number of elements create, by virtue of their combination, an infinite reverie" (Stewart 152) which provides the model for Moore's eclectic constructions. As Stewart says with reference to Walter Benjamin, such collections of quotations "illustrate the infinite and regenerative seriality of language itself" (156).
"An Octopus / of Ice"
I want now to explore such multiplications of perspective and their relevance to what I am calling enhanced vision by a closer look at "An Octopus," in which the sublime spectacle of Mt.Rainier is telescoped into a series of semi-detached details, destructive of scale, and ultimately blinding in their disorienting complexity. "An Octopus" was in early draftings a part of "Marriage," Moore's parodic rewriting of Paradise Lost, but was later broken off and set down in its own post-Adamic "paradise." "[T]his amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility," "This institution, perhaps one should say enterprise / out of respect for which / one says one need not change one's mind" is marriage ("Marriage," Poem 63); but in early drafts marriage is "a road uphill" and it is Mt. Rainier which is said to be "enterprising" (Rosenbach VII:04:04-1251/7, 10; 27-28). The "interesting impossibilit[ies]" of "Marriage" become possible in the world of "An Octopus," and "chang[ing] one's mind" becomes, not a prohibition, but an obligation, in response to a mountain which is itself "Maintaining many minds" (Observations 85). Like the mind which "feel[s] its way as though blind," yet "walks along with its eyes on the ground" in "The Mind is an Enchanting Thing," exactitude of perception in Moore's poems has at its furthest reach a blindness in which that classic instance of meticulous detailing--the "white on white" which we have already seen in "The Paper Nautilus" and which reappears in poems such as "New York," "Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns," and "Marriage" -- threatens to dissolve discrimination and undo perceptual certainty.
The poem's opening description of the glacier makes it a little harder to see:
Of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
It lies "in grandeur and in mass"
Beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
Dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
Made of glass that will bend--a much needed invention--
Comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred feet
of unimagined delicacy.
"Picking periwinkles from the cracks"
or killing prey with the concentric crushing vigor of the python,
it hovers forward "spider fashion
on its arms" misleadingly like lace;
its "ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone starred pool."
The glacier is, in these lines, something deceptive in it multiple likenesses--an octopus, a python, a spider, "[d]eceptively reserved," "misleadingly like lace"--and at the same time, something "clearly defined," measurable in inches and feet, "a much needed invention" like bendable glass -- or like a distorting lens. The glacier's inherent multiplicity -- its capacity to deceive as well as what the poem later calls its "capacity for fact"-- is paralleled by the poem's own many-armed embrace of borrowed utterance; fully two-thirds of the poem is quotation. There is both precision and deception at work here, for Moore's quotations are themselves often not what they seem; she fails to set quotation marks around some of what the poem quotes, while placing marks around much of what has been rephrased, or telescoped into more workable rhythms. The poem's construction reflects a tension between the found and the usable, the natural and the man-made, which renders it comparable to the mountain. The glacier's twenty-eight ice-fields are echoed in the twenty-eight sentences of Moore's poem. Further, the octopus's eight glass arms, at once capable of crushing like a python and "'Picking periwinkles from the cracks,'" bear some relation to the glass-shelled paper nautilus whose eggs are "Buried eight-fold in her eight / arms" (Poems 121), and who embodies a specifically feminine formidableness. Perhaps we, like the "devil-fish['s]" "freight," will be "hindered to succeed," made to circle about the mountain until we "have been deceived into thinking that [we] have progressed" (Observations 84). The poem aligns the reader with the tourist who is said to "'doubl[e] back and forth'" (86) along the mountain trail, circling around and viewing from many angles the glacier whose own "arms," in a phrase lifted from the parks pamphlet, are said to "'approach from all directions'" (89).
The Rules and Regulations pamphlet which Moore used as a verbal screen or lens through which to view Mt. Rainier is itself preoccupied with the difficulties of accurate perception, and the insufficiency of language to perceptual experience, in this case the experience of sublime multiplicity and sublime grandeur. The illustrations with which the pamphlet begins suggestively prefigure the problems of perspective which inform the pamphlet's written descriptions, and of which Moore made note throughout her annotations. On the cover is a photograph of Mt. Rainier taken from its base, with the spectacle neatly dividing itself into three fields: in the foreground are meadows dotted with variegated grasses and flowers; in the middle distance thick stands of firs; in the background the mountain's rocky, ice-capped peak. This three-part vision is echoed in the conclusion of "An Octopus," which describes the mountain with "the lightning flashing at its base, / rain falling in the valleys, and snow falling on the peak" (90). The opening section of the pamphlet, however, sets against such photographic realism (and conventional pictorialism), with its reproduction of a viewpoint potentially accessible to park visitors, an aerial geological map of the mountain showing, in detail, the distribution of its major ice fields, and featuring at its center the mountain's gigantic crowning glacier looking very much like an octopus or a symmetrically-petaled flower. This view is, of course, made available only through the combined efforts of the aerial photographer and the cartographer; it is not a part of the visual experience of the ordinary tourist. It is this image which seems to have inspired the pamphlet's description of the glacier as "an octopus of ice," the phrase which Moore borrowed for her title; it may also have suggested the poem's description of the glacier as a "fossil flower" (89). Thus the pamphlet begins by offering the tourist/reader two powerful, and incompatible, pictorial images of Mt. Rainier (as well as several names: Mt. Rainier, Mt. Tacoma--The Mountain That is God), suggesting that in order to see the mountain one must look simultaneously from a variety of perspectives, all more or less mediated by prior observations, human and mechanical.
The poem's viewpoint shifts without transition between the two perspectives represented by the pamphlet's illustrations, the one looking up towards the peak from the meadows below, the other looking down at the glacier from directly above. It also incorporates a third perspective: that of the climber with a close-up view of the mountain's surface minutae--birds, fungi, flowers and water-stained rock. No one perspective can be said to be truer than another and each, as they appear in the parks pamphlet, depends upon some type of translation or technological mediation--the camera aided, in the first instance, by the photographer's knowledge of composition (and, presumably, of painterly conventions for representing the sublime); in the second, by the airplane and the cartographer's skilled "translation" of the photograph.
Perspectival multiplicity and mediation control the unfolding descriptions of "An Octopus." Though neither the poem nor Moore's notes towards it explicitly mention the pamphlet's illustrations, these provide a pictorial demonstration of the paradox which preoccupies Moore throughout the poem and which shapes her response to both the pamphlet and the mountain. Winding her way through the pamphlet, "hunting without a rifle" for the living elements of her poem, Moore levels her sights on the mountain through the lens of the pamphlet itself, treating the visitor's guide as one piece of necessary equipment, like the amber-colored glasses which it tells us are issued to climbers at the mountain's base, which makes it possible to view the potentially blinding splendor of the peak. Moreover, Moore's use of the pamphlet as primary source for the poem's language prevents her from being blinded by prior poems, in particular those which pit their linguistic powers against similar summits, such as Shelley's "Mont Blanc" or The Prelude's famous descriptions of Simplon Pass. Scrawling her nascent poem between the lines of the park ranger's prose, Moore treats the naturalist's account much as the poem treats the mountain--as a remakable or a rewritable thing. Yet, as Hugh Kenner argues, Moore's relation to natural objects is not that of the romantic eye which "half perceives and half creates," but rather that of a scientific eye seeking "a way to cope with the perceived world's multifarious otherness," not by abolishing that otherness, but by bringing it intact into the space of the poem (95; 116-17). Paradoxically, in her emphasis on the always already mediated status of the natural, Moore manages to multiply its qualities of otherness rather than suggesting its domestication. Perhaps this is because language itself remains as strangely other to Moore as nature is. Her poetry "compels our minds to move across an opaque and resistant surface, that of the printed language, in emulation of the eye's experience moving across the contours of a pangolin's armor," or a glacial octopus (Kenner 117). "An octopus" provides evidence of the extent to which nature perpetually escapes human attempts to harness and explain it; the otherness of nature persists and is intensified by all the signs of human endeavor which encrust it, and all the ways in which it seems to mimic us. On Moore's Mt. Rainier, a glacier mimics an octopus, which behaves in strangely human fashion; a road mimics a snail shell; beaver and birds mimic the behavior of men; spotted ponies seem to wear calico; a lake looks like the imprint of a human's left foot. In other poems, a pangolin resembles "the Thomas- / of-Leighton Buzzard Westminster Abbey wrought-iron vine" (Poems 117); a jerboa stands upright like the "foot" of a Chippendale chair (Poems 15); and a monkey puzzle tree is a "curio" "contrived in imitation of the glyptic work of jade and hard-stone cutters," resembling a monkey, tiger, dog, or lion--an "interwoven somewhat" (Poems 80).
Though "the visitor is invited to leave a record of his climb upon the mountain," according to the parks pamphlet, Moore inscribes the record of her climb upon a record of the mountain instead, thus suggesting not only that the pamphlet itself is a sort of landscape to be worked over and imprinted with the traces of one's reading, but also that the mountain is already a text, an illustration, a visual and verbal tapestry--itself "an interwoven somewhat"--and that to climb it is to practice a method of reading. The footprints of the reader are all over Moore's mountain, from its base in Paradise Park (where she and her family spent the night at an inn before their climb), to the road on which one toils upward, past the words of Greek philosophers towards the crowning figure of Henry James, to the final "curtain of snow" which anticipates the blankness of the page and which mimics, in reversed fashion, the "cloud of ink" released by real octopi in making their escapes (a fact gleaned by Moore from an article in The Illustrated London News).
5. "THE CAVALCADE OF CALICO"
What Moore elsewhere calls, quoting Henry James, the tourist's "accessibility to experience" (Poems 54) parallels the mountain's own "relentless accuracy ... / with its capacity for fact" (Observations 89). The poem catalogs the mountain's appearance with "relentless accuracy," expounding lists of flowers, minerals, animals and those other ubiquitous creatures, the "mountain guide evolving from the trapper" and the "business men ... requir[ing] ... recreation" (85, 86). These catalogs fail to distinguish between natural or indigenous elements and the sights and sounds of human habitation, just as Moore's treatment of her materials fails to distinguish between direct observation and the depictions offered by guidebooks and postcards. In fact, the failure to distinguish one thing from another is the experience most thoroughly documented by the poem: for example, each fir tree is "'like the shadow of the one beside it'"; the fields of flowers are like precious stones set in same-colored enamel--rubies in red, diamonds in white; and the spotted pack ponies are
hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns and lily pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paint-brushes,
bears' ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the mossbeds like moonstones in the
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American menagerie of styles (86-87)
The difficulty of perceiving borders and margins and the relation of the particular to its context figures the poem's alertness to the deceptions of the eye and the "'collision of knowledge with knowledge'" (88) which occurs in its multiplications of fact and viewpoint. To handle as many facts--and as many texts--as this poem does is to come face to face with the elusiveness of true knowledge, its dissolution within a menagerie of styles and observations.
The poem collects its sights as a series of details, cataloged close-ups of a peak whose "grandeur and mass" might have suggested sublime spectacle, but which is reduced instead to a collection of minutae by the poem's telescopic (or microscopic) reductions of perspective. The distance from Milton's paradise to Moore's Paradise Park can be measured in the distance between a classical, and implicitly masculine, rhetoric of sublimity and a "decadent," and implicitly feminine, rhetoric of ornament. The discourse of the sublime in the eighteenth century and after was, as Naomi Schor argues, "a masculinist aesthetic designed to check the rise of a detailism which threatens to hasten the slide of art into femininity" (22). "[T]he invasion of the barbaric or upstart feminine detail" "entails a dangerous blurring of the line between the principal and the incidental event," a disruption of proper perspective and hierarchy (21). What is primary and what is secondary, what is central and what is peripheral, is made impossible to see in the riot of detail with which Moore blankets the mountain/poem. As Stewart says, too much detail violates "the social convention of adequacy," and threatens us with the possibility of infinite digression, "of remaining forever within the detour."
Instead of offering the reader transcendence, the digression blocks the reader's view, toying with the hierarchy of narrative events. What counts and what doesn't count must be sorted. The digression recaptures the tedium of the journey, the incessant and self-multiplying detail of landscape, a detail which nearly erases the landmark by distracting the reader's attention. (30)
Moore's reading notebooks from the period of the poem's composition are filled with quotations from accounts of art auctions and books on architecture, embroidery, and fashion. That Moore had in mind something like the complex texturing of embroidered fabric or heavily detailed objets d'art as a way of thinking about both the mountain's appearance and the poem's language is evident in early drafts of the poem which begin with comparisons of the glacier's "pseudopodia" to a piece of "tailor's cloth," or a garment with "rosettes around the waist / & rosettes on the shoulder" (Rosenbach VII:04:04-1251/7, 5) and references to "cross stich" (sic), "needlepoint," "wool embroidery" and "crystal chalices encrusted with big pearls" (Rosenbach VII:04:04-1251/7, 53, 61, 65). Traces of such imagery appear in the poem's instances of "Japanesey" detail: the "'irregular patches'" of "indigo, pea-green, blue-green, and turquoise" in the middle of the wind-rippled lake; the "'blue forests thrown together with marble and jasper and agate'" (84); the "conspicuously spotted little horses" (86); the "cavalcade of calico" (87) produced by the mountain trail's visual riot of plant-life; the "Larkspur, blue pincushions, blue pease, and lupin" like "Persian designs of hard stones with enamel" (87); the bears' dens "Composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars / topaz, tourmaline crystals and amethyst quartz" (84); and the "black spots balanced with black /... where fires have run over the ground" (87). One might say that in the mountain Moore details in "An Octopus" has not only "decorum" (it is "'damned by the public for decorum,'") but also something like "decor" or "decoration." To borrow a term which Remy Saisselin uses to characterize the collecting practices of women in turn-of-the-century America, Moore accomplishes the "bibelotization" (53-74) of the mountain--and the poem.
The image of the glacier as "misleadingly like lace" probably has its origins in the parks pamphlet's description of the strange action of the mountain's volcanic interior upon its icy exterior, in which "Jets of steam melt fantastic holes in the snow and ice" (8), resulting, one presumes, in a pattern of openwork in which the snow alternately covers and reveals the mountain's surface or, more precisely, the vaporous expulsions originating deep within. These internal fires unite with occasional external fires to produce the visual complexity of Mt. Rainier's surface, the variegations of which document temporal patterns of erosion, destruction and accrual. Likewise, "the mountain guide evolving from the trapper," one figure for the poet within the poem, wears "'two pairs of trousers, the outer one older, / wearing slowly away from the feet to the knees'"(85) which give him the "lacy" look of an animal shedding its winter coat. As the inverted commas reveal, most of these phrases descriptive of visual "embroidery" participate as well in the poem's verbal variegation by which discrete patches of language are rendered visible behind, within, or among the poem's "own" words. The quotations might themselves be perceived as part of the poem's ornamental surface or textured fabric; they too pose the problem of the proper relation between figure and ground. Moreover, the inverted commas and quotation marks which riddle the visual field of the poem serve, like the ornamental stitchings on a quilt, to both yoke and conspicuously divide. Like the "inch of canvas and acre of embroidery" (James, qted. by Moore, Prose 317) which was Henry James's decorative style, Moore's patchwork elaborations proceed through fancy stitching to play her own words off and around scraps of borrowed text. Her handwriting between the lines of the original parks pamphlet at the Rosenbach Museum begins the work of "making over" its "rules and regulations" into the fancy garments of poetry.
Significant among the instances of objects lost among the mountain's, and the poem's, "'menagerie of styles,'" and indicative of Moore's reworking of the traditional imagery of the sublime, is the profusion of white figures all but lost against white backgrounds or behind vaporous foregrounds (and reminding one of the "ivory white, snow white, / oyster white and six others" of "Marriage," (Poems 63). The glacier is enveloped in "a sea of shifting snow-dunes" (83); the white rhododendron flowers are set against leaves whitened by ice (87); the white mountain goat "stands its ground / on cliffs the color of the clouds" (85); and the poem concludes with the "crystal peak" obscured behind "'a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall'" (90). Indeed, playing as they do around the edges of an obliterating blindness and setting up "a momentum of infinity" (Costello, "Sublime" 10) in their proliferation of minutely differentiated details, such images suggest a version of Edmund Burke's sublime obscurity. Yet the insistence on the detail as such in Moore's catalogs, rather than as a means towards the grandeur of transcendent vision, suggests, as Bonnie Costello has argued, that Moore is not a practitioner of either a Wordsworthian or an Emersonian egotistical sublime. "Moore offers no simple transcendence to restore the sense of power to the perceiver.... The beholder in Moore's sublime remains overwhelmed by the disorienting prospect of the mountain and the sacrosanct remoteness of its details. Scope eludes her, except as it is established in the poem itself' ("Sublime" 10). Moore's details remain within the realm of a fallen world, where refracted vision is not a condition to be transcended through dramatic acts of dissolution and recovery, but rather a permanent state. If Moore is practicing any version of the sublime (and Costello argues that she is), it is one closer to Hazlitt's "gusto" or Keats's "negative capability," a "being in mysteries and uncertainties without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" ("Sublime" 11). For Moore, transcendence is always hindered by the splitting of vision, by the microscopic reduction of a potentially sublime whiteness to the decorative detailing of "white with white spots, / 'as satin needlework in a single color may carry a varied pattern'" (Poems 54). As Costello says, "There is something mock-heroic about this humanized sublime" (Possessions 83).
6. "INCAPABLE OF THE SHUT DOOR IN ANY DIRECTION"
"An Octopus" ends in an avalanche of contradictory imagery which links the octopus itself to Henry James, that "characteristic American," and allows us glimpses of The Golden Bowl somewhere behind the parks pamphlet as a substratum of the poem:
this fossil flower concise without a shiver,
intact when it is cut,
damned for its sacrosanct remoteness--
like Henry James "damned by the public for decorum";
not decorum, but restraint;
it was the love of doing hard things
that rebuffed and wore them out--a public out of sympathy with
Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus with its capacity for fact.
the white volcano with no weather side;
the lightning flashing at its base,
rain falling in the valleys, and snow failing on the peak--
the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed,
its claw cut by the avalanche
"with a sound like the crack of a rifle,
in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall." (89-90)
The appearance of Henry James just prior to the falling of the poem's white curtain may suggest that one of the things the poem's language simultaneously covers over and reveals is its debt to The Golden Bowl. James's novel is only one of several books which Moore was reading in 1921-22 on the subject of marriage, but a number of images suggest that it was central to the way she approached this theme in "Marriage" and "An Octopus": the novel features an American Adam in the figure of Adam Verver, the collector; the golden bowl which symbolizes the marriage of Maggie Verver and Prince Amerigo is really a piece of cracked crystal covered with gilt, possibly one source for Moore's image of marriage as a "crystal-fine experiment" with a flaw; the significance of silence as a sign of impassioned feeling in The Golden Bowl connects it to the "restraint" of the mountain in "An Octopus" and to the many silences of "Marriage"; and Moore's copying into her notebook of a passage from the novel describing Prince Amerigo as carrying about him a tropical "green light" (Rosenbach VII:01:03, 81-82) links him to the "'green metallic tinge of the octopus in her poem. Most of all, one thinks of the curtain of snow by which James's Italian prince represents to himself the obscurities of the American mind:
He remembered to have read as a boy a wonderful tale by Allen Poe, his prospective wife's countryman--which was a thing to show, by the way, what imagination Americans could have, the story of the shipwrecked Gordon Pym, who drifting in a small boat further toward the North Pole--or was it the South?--than any one had ever done, found at a given moment before him a thickness of white air that was like a dazzling curtain of light, concealing as darkness conceals, yet of the color of milk or of snow. There were moments when he felt his own boat move as upon some such mystery. The state of mind of his new friends ... had resemblances to a great white curtain. (56)
The "deceptively reserved" nature of the Americans in The Golden Bowl, the obliqueness of their speech which seems always to circle about hidden reservoirs of meaning, their obscurities, their "motives behind motives" (Burke 89), suggest something of Moore's own strategies of displacement and concealment. Indeed, it is possible that this allusion at one remove to a classic American scene of sublimity is merely meant to "put us on the scent" (Poems 45) of another such scene, one with more immediate relevance to "An Octopus." I have in mind the appearance of the "strange spectre" of the squid (cuttlefish or octopus) in Moby Dick, a creature whose appearance is "deceptive" enough to invite confusion with the white whale himself.
In the distance, a great white mass lazily rose, and rising higher and higher, and disentangling itself from the azure, at last gleamed before our prow like a snow-slide, new slid from the hills.... It seemed not a whale; and yet is this Moby Dick? ... Almost forgetting for the moment all thoughts of Moby Dick, we gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have....
This mountainous octopus is, like Moore's octopus mountain, "stealth[y]" and snake-like, "ghostly" (Observations 83) and grasping easily mistaken for another sort of creature altogether. The "sailors who look upon this white ghost" (Melville 1089) with "no perceptible face or front" have only "the most vague ideas concerning" its "true nature and form," much as the visitor to Moore's mountain can find "no weather side" and must watch as the mountain eludes all attempts to fix it or label its attributes ("Is tree the word for these strange things / 'flat on the ground like vines,'" 89). Starbuck says of the "portentous" "great live squid," that "few whale-ships ever beheld [it], and returned to their ports to tell of it" (1089). The visitor to Mt. Rainier, though not likely to be engulfed by the octopus glacier itself, may be rendered equally incapable of "telling," for the peak is "distinguished by a beauty / of which 'the visitor dare never fully speak at home / for fear of being stoned as an imposter'" (85). The poem's abundance of language risks identifying its poet as "an imposter," as its multitudinous indirections evade a threatened silence. Once again we see how Moore's "nested effects" (Prose 399) of citation, her multiple removals of the poem from potentially silencing sources, reveal "motives behind motives"--Melville by way of Poe, compliments of James. Moore permits Melville's snow hill/squid to lurk somewhere behind Poe's "great white curtain," like an "Octopus / Of ice" "beneath a sea of shifting snow dunes" (83), but she invites it to keep its distance as well.
That The Golden Bowl should make its oblique influences felt more in "An Octopus" than in "Marriage" is itself another sign of Moore's tendency to displace subject matter and veil debts (although one might also think of the dialogic structure of "Marriage," in which both Adam and Eve get their say, as owing something to the two-part structure of The Golden Bowl, in which the first part of the story is told from the Prince's perspective, and the second from Maggie's). While Prince Amerigo is said to be "a perfect crystal," and an "authentic" piece (James 138-39), Moore takes as the centerpiece of "An Octopus" the figure of the cracked crystal echoed in the "cut claw" of the glacier, indicating that the poem's realm is that of flaws, deceptions, obscurities and fakes rather than perfections, clarities and "real things."
Moore portrays the mountain as a reserve of passionate feeling and a site of danger though disguised in the cloak of its austere beauty, what the poem calls its (and James's) "decorum." The parks pamphlet assures visitors that "it is entirely safe to visit" this volcanic peak (8), but Moore's own marginal note to the effect that "It's now only dormant, one gets on / & gets off" casts doubt upon such complacency. Decorum, or rather "not decorum, but restraint," is the mark of passionate, perhaps even volcanic, emotion -- or gusto -- as we learn from two poems which Moore was developing in her notebook alongside "An Octopus." In "Silence," we are told that "'The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence but restraint'" (Poems 91); and in "The Student" that the student can appear untouched "not because he / has no feeling but because he has so much" (Poems 102). Hence, the mountain's very dormancy is, in Moore's emotional vocabulary, the sign of its explosivity, the signal of danger which invites one to both "get on" and "get off." "Marriage" makes reference to Paradise, or perhaps to marriage itself, as "that experiment of Adam's / with ways out but no way in" (Poems 65), and Moore's working draft of the poem contains a note to the effect that "we are looking out for a garden with ways in but no way out" (Rosenbach VII:04:04-1251/7, 42). However, Moore's comments on the art of poetry which, as Darlene Erickson argues, she considers in the light of a magician's trick, imagine the garden/poem as something more ambiguous than either safe haven, prison, or lost Paradise, something resembling a garden with a revolving door. Discussing "intentional anticlimax" in the essay "Feeling and Precision," Moore quotes Kenneth Burke to the effect that "'the hypnotist has a way out and a way in" (Prose 399, emphasis added). Anticlimax, despite its appearance as a fall or a falling off, may serve very well to get us out of a poem, or out of Poetry itself, that territory which Moore is perpetually drawn to visit, but never quite willing to call home.
"An Octopus" invites visitation, not residency, as does the speaker of "Silence" who slams that poem shut with the announcement that "Inns are not residences" (Poems 91). Paradise Park is not Paradise, but a later edition, one written over with human history, and allowing, unlike that first paradise, both "a way out and a way in." The mountain "receives" us only to violently expel us: "'Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth, / its arms seeming to approach from all directions,' / it receives one under winds that 'tear the snow to bits / and hurl it like a sandblast. . .'" (89). A living contradiction, "intact when it is cut," "with no weather side" (89, 90), approaching us from au directions as we take our circular approach to it, the octopus mountain fits James's definition of the American, which Moore applied to James himself: "'intrinsically and actively ample, . . . reaching westward, southward, anywhere, everywhere,' with a mind 'incapable of the shut door in any direction'" (Prose 322). And just as "it is over-difficult for Henry James, in his portrayals of us, not to be portraying himself" (Prose 316), so it is difficult for Moore to speak of James without finding in him a figure for herself. The glass octopus cut "'with a sound like the crack of a rifle'" figures the shattering of that crystalline garden where "Adam was alone" and everything was "plain to see and / to account for" (Poems 41). "[I]ncapable of the shut door in any direction," and acting upon an "instinct to amass and reiterate" (Prose 316), Eve as "characteristic American" writes her way out of the sublime enclosure of Adamic language into the welcome multiplicities of a fallen tongue, a writing "reaching westward, southward, anywhere, everywhere" for which eight arms are just barely enough.
Excerpted from "The Many Armed-Embrace: Collection, Quotation and Mediation in Marianne Moore's Poetry." In Sagetrieb 12:2 (Fall 1993).
"An Octopus" is in part the result of two trips Moore made to the Northwest, the first in July 1922 and the second the following summer of 1923, to visit her brother Warner, a chaplain in the navy stationed at a base near Seattle. During the first of her two stays, Moore traveled with her family up to Paradise Park, a large alpine meadow on Mount Rainier that overlooks the grand eight-pronged Nisqually glacier--"an octopus of ice." Moore began compiling notes and collecting materials for "An Octopus" between her two trips to Washington, but she did not begin to craft the poem in earnest until the late summer of 1923. Moore's work on "An Octopus" thus cocoincides with both her review of Harmonium, begun and completed in November of 1923, and her study of Shelley, ongoing during both 1922 and 1923. Moore's thoughts on both Stevens and Shelley find their way into her poem. An address to a high, white, glaciercd Mount Rainier "damned for its sacrosanct remoteness", "An Octopus" constitutes Moore's response to Shelley's romantic quest for ultimate knowledge in "Mont Blanc." Like Shelley, Moore approaches her mountain in search of the intelligence or "hidden power" that may or may not order the everlasting universe of things. Probing the mountain with her mind, Moore tries her best to understand its nature and discern its agency, only to find, like both Shelley and Stevens, that attempts at stable or unifying vision are, for the poet of particulars, inherently slippery.
"An Octopus" begins with a difficult view of the glacier that, as Patricia Willis puts it, combines "land and sea, rock and cephalopod." As Moore's opening lines suggest, Mount Rainier, like Mont Blanc, does not easily give up its secrets:
Viewed from a distance and obscured by blowing snow, the glacier at first appears static and featureless--a "geographical blank," as Moore terms it in her notes, that supplies no ready evidence of a controlling intelligence or a connection to human concerns. Yet, Moore states that the glacier's flatness and reserve are "deceptive"; the mass of ice may seem empty, but as her opening lines suggest, some hidden and mysterious force lurks within. Adopting the pose of a cartographer, Moore attempts to describe and delineate the glacier--to determine the nature of its power--in a way that consciously reveals the difficulty of her task. From the scientist's point of view, the tentacles of the octopus glacier seem "clearly defined," as transparent and potentially revealing as window glass. The whole of the massive formation may be charted and plotted and counted--"twenty-eight icefields from fifty to five hundred feet thick." Moore quickly implies, however, that such easy definitions are a delusion. Comprised of "glass that will bend," the glacier may, Moore suggests, constitute a kind of fun-house mirror that merely gives back distorted pictures of the human observer's thoughts and categories. The "clearly defined" feet of the glacier become, in Moore's paradoxical juxtaposition, (pseudo)podia--false forms that bear no genuine relation to the clear surface definitions they suggest. On the heels of her numerical calculations of the glacier, Moore states that, despite such attempted reductions, the mountain remains a place of "unimagined delicacy," a site of exquisite rarities and intricacies beyond the reach of the human mind. Turning her attention to the glacier's motion, Moore displays the strength of the ice even as she questions her ability to name or define its power. Unstoppable in its flow, Moore's glacier moves like an octopus, a spider, or a python; it hovers and crushes indiscriminately and instinctually, a brute inhuman force utterly alien to human intelligence and potentially hostile to human life itself. "Its 'ghostly pallor changing / to the green metallic tinge of an anemone starred pool,’" the glacier refutes its deadness but proves its strength in a way that gives little comfort. Moore's "geographical blank" becomes a place of stars, a small reflection of an even vaster universe that we can never truly know.
The ontological and epistemological questions Moore confronts in the opening of "An Octopus" thus resemble what Harold Bloom terms the subjects of "Mont Blanc": "the relation between individual mind and the universe, and also the problem of what rules the universe, and to what moral end. Like Shelley, Moore pictures her mountain as a beautiful but potentially unknowable thing whose dangerous power may teach only an "awful doubt" of any benevolent design in nature. Moore's imputation of the mountain's inaccessibility, however, only makes her all the more eager to plumb its depths. Abandoning the role of the cartographer, Moore dons instead the hat of the naturalist and embarks on a quest for knowledge--an intellectual tour of the living particulars of the glacier that considers just how close the mind can come to sharing the mountain's secrets. As Patricia Will's notes, Moore guides the reader through two separate visual journeys in "An Octopus," each from the forest floor to the top of the surrounding peaks . On her first trip up the mountain, Moore examines the glacier's fauna as her expedition moves from the property of the porcupine and the rat at the base, to the habitats of the beaver and the bear, to the goat who stands at the summit on "cliffs the colour of clouds." Returning to the forest floor, Moore climbs the mountain a second time to conduct a study of its flora that begins with the low-lying ferns and birch trees and ends with the Calypso orchid--"'the goat flower . . . fond of snow’"--that clings to the glacier's highest ledges. Rather than answer ontological questions, however, Moore's efforts to catalog the mountain consciously resist the quest for complete or ultimate knowledge.
Throughout both legs of her expedition, Moore encounters the glacier's rampant living diversity--a profusion that denies the all-too-human desire to find an order or a pattern to the universe of things. A place with "merits of equal importance / for bears, elk, deer, wolves, goats, and ducks," the ever-higher climes of the mountain constitute a complex environment full of agents and motions that humans cannot fully understand or, despite their best efforts, predict. The "'thoughtful beavers'" may fashion drains that "'seem the work of careful men with shovels,’" but Moore denies the appearance of discernable design in her following image of bears that make their way "unexpectedly" into the poem. Moore conducts the same sort of careful refusal in her description of the bears' den:
Composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars,
topaz, tourmaline crystals, and amethyst quartz,
their den is somewhere else, concealed in the confusion
of "blue stone forests thrown together with marble and jasper and agate
as if whole quarries had been dynamited."
"Concealed" and crystalline, the bears' den reflects the rich, beautiful interior of the mountain’s deeper secrets that the mind can never truly know. Imagining the den as a gorgeous place artistically "composed" of gems and "pillars," Moore admits that such an ordered vision overstates her knowledge and belies her experience. Such an ideal image of design, however pleasant, cannot stand in the face of the visible violent "confusion" of rocks and trees "thrown together" by the mountain's haphazard and destructive forces. The den must remain forever "somewhere else," off the map and beyond the reach of human intelligence.
Moore thus undercuts her desire for stability and deconstructs the image of order that she presents, an act she repeats again for the sake of intellectual honesty on the mountain's highest peak. As the naturalist moves further up the mountain in her quest for knowledge, she enters icy and forbidding realms that, while less and less hospitable to human life, seem to offer access to a transcendent vision of the mountain's hidden truths:
On the highest ledges of the glacier, the naturalists field of vision changes from one of physical particulars to the "perspective of the peaks," a scope that seems to promise the panoramic completeness of a better view. The farther up Moore's eye travels, however, the more rarified her vision of the universe of things becomes. In the poetic "perspective of the peaks" physical laws of gravity and entropy have no power. The waterfall does not fall, the goat becomes an idealized and ageless statue welded on an "antique pedestal," the borders between heaven and earth, cliffs and clouds, dissolve as the mountain becomes an image of eternal being. The glacier's "confusion" resolves into a beautifully composed order that Moore finds "scintillating" and "dazzling." Yet, as her verse connotes, she also finds such a sublime perspective inherently dangerous. Idealizing vision, in denying confusion and change, denies life itself. The goat on the summit stands frozen in "stag-at-bay" position, the very image of a creature trapped by hostile forces. Moore suggests that the poet who attempts to keep the world's confusion endlessly "at bay" is, like the proprietor of Bluebeard's tower, a hunter who kills his subjects by turning them into beautiful objects. Like Bluebeard, the poet on the peak "dyes" his subject to match his beliefs, a word that aurally suggests the deadly nature of his imposition.
Moore's journey to the top of the mountain thus results in an intriguing paradox. The "perspective of the peaks" that promises a better view of the mountain--that is, a knowledge of its hidden power-in fact destroys the poet's ability to see the mountain at all. By Moore’s account, the poet who fashions the glacier into a symbol of eternal presence and claims to see more and more of its "true" meaning in fact sees less and less of the mountain's substance. Dyeing the goat, the clouds, and the cliffs a gleaming and empty white, the poet on the summit erases the very objects she meant to contemplate. Moore dismisses the poet's supposed vision of the mountain's higher truths as a vacant artistic fantasy. Choosing the confusion of the unknowable over the ordered stasis of false and blinding belief, Moore ultimately rejects the "perspective of the peaks" in another violent image of mutability and ends her vision of the goat with a volcanic explosion that destroys the imagination's petrifying abuses. The squirming facts of the mountain's disordered physical presence exceed the squamous mind, and Moore ends her ascent by falling back down to the mountain's base:
Maintaining many minds, distinguished by a beauty
Of which "the visitor dare never fully speak at home
for fear of being stoned as an imposter,"
Big Snow Mountain is the home of a diversity of creatures ...
"Distinguished," or made separate by an undefinable, unknowable, and unspeakable power, the mountain's mysteries remain hidden from the minds that perceive its surface. Moore fiercely deconstructs her own insufficient moment of fixed, singular, transcendent fiction and returns to a chaos of "many minds," a skeptical disorder of ideas that negates the notion that human knowledge can ever be complete.
Opting to dwell in an honest confusion of "nothing that is not there," the empty world that Stevens's snow poet finds after all imaginative imposition has been stripped away, Moore returns to an account of the particulars of the physical mountain and seems to reach a resting point in the welter of experience. Yet, no sooner does Moore complete one thwarted trip up the mountain in quest of an ultimate idea of order than she begins another. Turning her attention upward to the circling flight of "the eleven eagles of the west," the naturalist comments: "They make a nice appearance don't they, / happy seeing nothing?" The eagles' "nothing" rings of the "nothing" in the last line of Stevens's "The Snow Man"--"the nothing that is." Untroubled by the ontological questions that wrack the speaker, the eagles live at peace in a natural presence--an "isness"--that the human mind interprets as utter absence--a "nothing." The implication that the natural world, deprived of governing intelligence, is empty of human meaning drives the naturalist back up the mountain in search of answers.
Shifting her attention from the glacier's animals to its plants, Moore makes a second bid for the summit and constructs another catalog of the living mountain that attempts to tap its riches. Once again, Moore's journey reveals a struggle between the mountain's shifting diversity and the mind’s desire for discernable design. At the start of her second journey, the naturalist perceives the fungi on the glacier as a "cavalcade of calico" whose color competes with the "original American 'menagerie of styles'" present in the flowers:
Larkspur, blue pincushions, blue peas, and lupin;
white flowers with white, and red with red;
the blue ones "growing close together
so that patches of them look like blue water in the distance":
this arrangement of colours
as in Persian designs of hard stones with enamel,
forms a pleasing equation--
a diamond outside; and inside, a white dot;
on the outside, a ruby; inside, a red dot;
black spots balanced with black
in the woodlands where fires have run over the ground ...
The naturalist breaks off her scientific catalog of the different types of wildflowers and, intrigued or diostracted by the thought of the glacier as a homespun quilt, begins to consider the "arrangement" of the colors rather that the particulars of the plants. The living flora suddenly become "patches" of red, white, and blue--a vision of domestic order that implies the controlling touch of a careful and caring hand. Seduced by her own image of beauty and comfort, the naturalist eventually transmutes the glacier's confusion into a hard-and-fast mosaic design, an idea of order that, like her vision of the goat--static on the mountain’s summit, changes living things into static works of art. Once more, however, Moore insists that the glacier cannot be contained by such a picture, no matter how "pleasing" the "equation" between mountain and mosaic and its implication of a guiding intelligence in nature. The black spots in the design are, in fact, the random products of rampaging forest fires that have run loose over the ground. Moore's reference to the destructive and chaotic power of nature undermines the all-too-easy notion of the glacier as carefully and benevolently composed.
Upon reaching the sublime "perspective of the peaks" a second time, Moore admits that the mind's search for the mountain’s ultimate truths has been misguided. Atop the cold glacial ledges, Moore finds the Calypso orchid or "goat flower," the floral counterpart to the goat that inhabits the same peak. Named for the seductive sea nymph Calypso, who offers Ulysses refuge and immortality on her magnificent isle, the snowy orchid suggests that the "perspective of the peaks" offers merely a pleasing and potentially dangerous retreat rather than the honest end to a quest. Those who claim access to transcendental absolutes indulge in easy illusions that Moore deems solipsistic reveries. Glancing back to the opening of the poem, Moore makes a connection between the goat flower, the goat in "stag-at-bay" position, and the part of the glacier called "The Goat's Mirror-- / that lady-fingerlike depression in the shape of the left human foot, / which prejudices you in favour of itself." Like the Goat's Mirror, each subsequent summit view of the goat image invites the naturalist to read some trace of human intelligence in the landscape. To interpret the mountain as a footprint of cosmic order, however, merely leaves us gazing, like Narcissus, at our own mirrored reflection.
Thoughts of Ulysses and Calypso inspire Moore to thoughts of the ancient Greeks, the founders of Western philosophy and the first in a long line of metaphysical questioners. Despite their obvious wisdom, Moore reads the Greeks as mirror gazers, hopelessly duped by the neat intellectual products of their own making. Assured of the power of the mind and disliking confusion, the Greeks chose to live on the transcendental mountaintop and adopted the static and prideful perspective of the peaks. "The Greeks liked smoothness," Moore explains,
distrusting what was back
of what could not be clearly seen,
resolving with benevolent conclusiveness,
"complexities which will remain complexities
as long as the world lasts…"
A people of conclusions rather than curiosity, the Greeks closed themselves off from nature's chaos and mentally resolved the mysteries of existence that Moore insists are, for the truthful poet, unknowable quantities. Moore's critique of the Greeks leads her, through a reference to Milton, back to Shelley's "A Defence of Poetry." "All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient," writes Shelley in "A Defence," and he follows his claim with an exemplary quote from Satan in Paradise Lost: "'The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’" Recalling Shelley's comment on perception, Moore casts the Greeks as "happy souls in Hell." Content to spin neat and static abstractions to explain the mountain’s power, the Greeks remained blissfully ignorant of nature’s unruly and unresolvable particulars. In Moore's view, the Greeks made a heaven of the hell more skeptical intelligences, alive to the pangs of doubt and committed to doing hard things, cannot escape.
Disgusted with the impudent knowingness of the Greeks, Moore turns upon them and the present-day public who also desire easy answers, with the violence she wields against her own creations throughout the poem. "Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!" Moore exclaims in frustration, "Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus / with its capacity for fact." As Moore has proved to her own growing dissatisfaction throughout the poem, "neatness" and "accuracy" are antithetical terms. Moore's phrase "neatness of finish" implies that those who intellectually resolve the world's confusion merely apply a surface coating to experience that ignores the complexities beneath. While it is the nature of the glacier to be relentlessly accurate--that is to forever resist such errors of human vision--it is equally the nature of the mind to impose reductive designs on what it perceives. As if attempting to wipe all trace of "neatness" from her sight, Moore ends "An Octopus" with a final, terrifying vision of the mountain’s chaotic and unfathomable power:
"Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,
its arms seeming to approach from all directions,"
it 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."
Is tree the word for these strange things
"flat on the ground like vines"?
some "bent in a half circle with branches on one side
suggesting dustbrushes, not trees. . . "
The mind here does not receive or take mental possession of the mountain but rather is "received" by the mountain on its own chaotic terms. Moore pictures the glacier's violent winds and snow as a "sandblast," an air-driven stream of sand specifically designed to remove an unwanted coating from an object and clean its surface. The poet who strips away all "neatness of finish" from the mountain, however, enters an alien landscape of disordered impressions that "approach from all directions" and threaten to bury the poet alive. Lost in the mountain’s strange and mindless whiteness, the poet lacks the power to express what she sees. The mountain’s true nature, Moore concludes, lies beyond language itself. Words become just one more "neatness of finish," an intelligible abstract surface of the mind's making that can never reach the truth beneath. Convinced of the ultimate folly of her attempt to plumb the mountain's secrets in a poem, Moore ends "An Octopus" with a final violent image that again denies the mind's desire to see the glacier as a product of design:
the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed,
its claw cut by the avalanche
"with a sound like the crack of a rifle,
in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall."
Moore's image of the glacier's ordered geometric symmetry ends in a chaotic avalanche. Ringing the curtain down on the poem itself, Moore violently unmakes her own fiction and leaves the mountain as she found it--a geographical blank that the mind must fill once again.
Moore thus joins both Stevens and Shelley in composing a great poem of romantic winter vision. Like Stevens's speaker in "The Snow Man," Moore's poet attempts to remove the imagination's neat finish from the world and confront nature in all its relentless accuracy. The quest to see "nothing that is not there," however, leads the poet to a cold, white space beyond human reason where all efforts to create meaning, including language, break down. Moore thus asks the same question of Mount Rainier at the end of "An Octopus" that Shelley poses to his peak at the end of "Mont Blanc": "And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind's imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?" Moore's implied answer echoes Stevens's reply to Shelley's query in "The Snow Man": the mountain without the imagination is "nothing" since only the mind can assign value and transform the mountain into something more than an indifferent and destructive waste of confusion. "The deep truth," Shelley states, "is imageless," and Moore agrees.
The question that remains for Moore at the end of "An Octopus," then, is how do we live in such a world? Moore concludes that to see a benevolent pattern in nature, however attractive, is to indulge an unsupportable and impudent fantasy. Any claim of access to transcendent truth, an idea of order most Plantagenet and most fixed, remains a lie. By the same token, however, to approach the world without the imagination leaves the poet alone in a hostile and destructive "universe of things." Throughout the poem, Moore travels back and forth between these poles in search of what will suffice. Dissatisfied by the world without imagination, she climbs to the height of beautiful transcendent vision, only to blast such notions apart as all-too-easy fancies. Each violent moment of unmaking, however, leads to the growth of yet another idea of order. The poem as a whole presents a relentlessly skeptical imaginative cycle that demands humility and negates the prospect of ever knowing anything of the mountain's deeper mysteries. "Completing a circle," Moore writes of her travels on the glacier, "you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed." The imagination can only wax and wane, it cannot discover absolute truth.
Moore thus betrays the same sort of skeptical contrary motion (creative/ decreative) in "An Octopus" that she claims for Stevens in "Well Moused, Lion." Indeed, looking back to Moore's essay through the lens of "An Octopus," it seems that Moore's changing image of Stevens as a troubled skeptic reflects her own growing sense of creative impasse. Wedded to the notion of the imagination's balm and desiring lofty spiritual visions to "tranquilize the torments of confusion," Moore, like Stevens, recognizes the egotistical sterility of such comforting ideals. Moore's assessment of "Sunday Morning" as a poem that "gives ultimately the effect of the mind disturbed by the intangible; of a mind oppressed by the properties of the world which it is expert in manipulating" relates to the difficult motions of "An Octopus" as well. Like Stevens, Moore is "disturbed" by the potential stasis of the world with imagination and "oppressed" by the sheer disorder of the world without imagination. Each time Moore ascends to the heights in "An Octopus," her own transcendent escape becomes, as she says of Stevens's wilder moments, "uneasy rather than bold," a reflection of her own doubts about the imagination's potentially stifling powers. Moving from forest floor to visionary mountaintop and back again, Moore betrays that she too lacks the "masterly equipoise" that she finds missing in Stevens's verse. Unable and unwilling to rest content in images that "tranquilize the torments of confusion," Moore, like Stevens, writes a poetry of the snake's body that wriggles through an endless series of violations, its coils moving in contrary ways.
From The Web of Friendship: Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. Copyright © 1995 by The University of Michigan Press.
"Neatness of Finish!"
In the spring issue [of the Marianne Moore Newsletter], the editors ask whether the expression "neatness of finish" in "An Octopus" came from Henry James. I think it more likely that the origin of this phrase is to be found in William Carlos William's Kora in Hell in Section XXI, 2:
Neatness and finish, the dust out of every corner, you swish from room to room and find all perfect. The house may now be carefully wrapped in brown paper and sent to a publisher. It is a work of art.
The larger context in which this passage occurs also has some interest in connection with the lines in "An Octopus." It is characteristic of MM to have changed the quotation from "neatness and finish" to "neatness of finish!" She had reviewed Williams' Kora in Hell for the magazine Contact in 1921, not long before the time when she wrote the poem.
Bryn Mawr College
From the Marianne Moore Newsletter, Volume I, Number 2 (Fall 1977).
[Comparing Moore’s "An Octopus" and Elizabeth Bishop’s "Florida"]
Like journalists, the speakers of "Florida" and "An Octopus" do not reflect upon themselves or their relation to the landscape, but focus on providing information--not the comprehensive or "useful" knowledge one might acquire from an encyclopedia, but those remarkable facts likely to awaken in readers a sense of wonder. In both poems the narrator is present as a lively but impersonal reporting voice.
Nonetheless, the poems' opening lines also hint of significant differences between the two artists' sensibilities. In "Florida" Bishop immediately draws attention to the aesthetic character of her subject and suggests a personal attachment; it is "the state with the prettiest name." Moore's fascination with the glacier that is her subject in "An Octopus" derives from a more intellectual interest in its physical characteristics; in her opening lines she notes the remarkable thickness of the ice fields and the anomalous flexibility of that ice. As is her common practice, Moore emphasizes the prosaic character of her subject by employing scientific jargon and quoting from unlyrical "business documents and / / schoolbooks"--in this case, the "Department of Interior Rules and Regulations" and "The National Parks Portfolio." In "Florida" Bishop follows Moore's example of including facts or statistics, informing us that enormous turtles leave "large white skulls with round eye-sockets / twice the size of a man's" and that the alligator "has five distinct calls: / friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning." She thereby achieves a Moore-like impression of reportorial accuracy and specificity, but both the facts and the manner in which she presents them are more conventionally poetic and more emotionally suggestive than Moore's. Humans are ominously dwarfed in Bishop's fierce and death-littered landscape.
In order to impress upon us that they are reliable witnesses and guides, Bishop and Moore in their descriptive passages insist on careful discriminations. For example, the opening lines of "Florida" record the distinction between the appearance of mangrove roots when living and their appearance when dead:
The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrove roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The technical result of such fastidiousness, in this passage as in much of Moore's work, is that descriptive phrases tend to accumulate at length until the thread of the syntax almost breaks under the stress of great extension. Like Moore's images, Bishop's surprising simile comparing hummocks and cannon-balls jars the reader while delighting with its visual exactitude. Moore, however, would be unlikely to use as vehicle a fantastic metaphor-within-a-metaphor such as cannonballs sprouting grass, and she probably would not describe a state as floating in brackish water unless it were literally afloat. Bishop is less committed to the "relentless accuracy" of "fact," more interested in the dreamier truths of the imagination.
As is typical of Moore's poems (and of the feature article), the point of view in "Florida" could not realistically represent the experience of any single observer. Instead, it shifts freely between sweeping overviews and minute close-ups, noting intriguing pieces of information or describing picturesque sights. The time evoked is a generalized, seemingly eternal present (whether day or night), since the poem, like so many of Moore's, presents features and events that are characteristic and recurrent. Like "An Octopus," Bishop's poem follows an apparently random course, moving from descriptions of birds, to turtles, to trees and rain, to coastal shells, to swamp life. The poem shares the easy inclusiveness of Moore's work; there is room for information about weather, geology, plants, animals, and traditional lore. As in "An Octopus," no obvious transitions are provided; the poem's unity derives from the large subject within which all these phenomena exist.
In both poems general facts are scattered among particular poised moments or vignettes, and detailed descriptions of single objects are interspersed with more comprehensive lists. In these catalogues both Moore and Bishop demonstrate simultaneously the naturalist's delight in factual accuracy and the poet's pleasure in remarkable names. For example, Bishop lists "fading shells";
Job's Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies' Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess's skirt;
and Moore describes little spotted horses as
hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns, and lily-pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paint-brushes,
bear's ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the moss-beds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American menagerie of styles.
Both catalogues emphasize the poetic and metaphorical character of America's botanical names, but again, Bishop's more aestheticizing sensibility is evident in her avoidance of markedly technical terminology and her selection of more precious names.
While their shared methods of acute observation and painstaking reporting impress upon the reader their reliability as neutral witnesses, both Bishop and Moore in fact slide easily from detached observations into more subjective and fanciful interpretations. For example, Moore first presents an antelope by noting objectively its "black feet, eyes, nose, and horns" but then moves into more figurative description--"engraved on dazzling ice-fields, / the ermine body on the crystal peak; / the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene, dyeing them white -- / upon this antique pedestal." Similarly, Bishop notes first the "S-shaped birds, blue and white" but then more imaginatively describes "unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale / every time in a tantrum." Sometimes Bishop's imposition of her subjectivity is less subtle than Moore's, as when she attributes embarrassment and a desire for "fun" to her tanager and pelican. (I shall return to this distinction later.)
In the works of both poets, subjective interpretations and imaginative additions, whether obvious or not, are essential to poetic meaning; both women present nonhuman nature in ways inviting comparison with human situations and behavior. Thus, Bishop's cannon-ball simile assumes new significance when one reaches the conclusion of "Florida." There, after having presented the most ornamental characteristics of Florida seen by daylight, Bishop uncovers the corruption, the primeval energy of Florida "after dark." The simile provides a preparatory suggestion of violence in nature that is absent from Bishop's descriptions of clowning pelicans, mild turtles, and decorative shells. Moreover, as a reminder of human ferocity, the cannon-balls link the violence in the landscape to that in human nature. Similarly, the terms by which Moore conveys her approbation of the energy and intricate variety of all that the "deceptively reserved and flat" glacier encompasses prepare for the concluding section of "An Octopus." There the glacier becomes an implicit model for the kind of poetry Moore admires--"unegoistic" work characterized by "restraint," "a love of doing hard things," and an apparently limitless "capacity for fact." While the older poet's moral is more explicit, both poets employ the descriptive mode to move toward ethical evaluations that carry implications beyond their immediate subjects.
From Re-making it New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Cambridge University Press.
Her sensitivity to detail might suggest an interest only in surfaces, but she had a clear sense of the limits of detail and an awareness that not all external marks could be so clearly seen. In "An Octopus," for example, which moves through eight pages toward the compliment that "Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus / with its capacity for fact," Moore was more interested in capaciousness than in accuracy. Over and over, she insisted that there is no way to accurately measure the twenty-eight ice fields she detailed. At the start, the "octopus" is described as "deceptively reserved and flat"; "Completing a circle" around it, she claimed, "you have been deceived into thinking you have progressed."
The "octopus" is unapproachable, a place where all our observational skills are unreliable and even water is "immune to force of gravity in the perspective of the peaks." Spotted ponies, "hard to discern," fungi "magnified in profile," inhabit a landscape that is tricky, changeable, and impossible to accurately fix in view. She pictured the octopus-glacier "'creeping slowly as with meditated stealth, / its arms seeming to approach from all directions.’"
Here is no "deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness'" in the description of nature but rather a constant iteration of the impossibility of "relentless accuracy" in seeing and capturing anything in language, although she refused to resolve "'complexities which still will be complexities / as long as the world lasts.'" "An Octopus" is a view of the inscrutability of nature imagined by a woman and as a woman. The glacier is "of unimagined delicacy," "it hovers forward 'spider fashion / on its arms' misleadingly like lace." It is "distinguished by a beauty / of which 'the visitor dare never fully speak at home,’" "odd oracles of cool official sarcasm," which nonetheless differ from the wisdom of those "'emotionally sensitive'" whose hearts are hard.
Hovering forward with arms approaching from all sides, this imagined glacier would appear to be the very image of the engulfing mother, yet unlike Whitman’s old crone out of the sea this feminized landscape is imagined not so much as personally threatening but as stalwartly resistant. Its mysteries are those of "doing hard things," of endurance, of unimaginable resistance to the poet's imaginative grasp. They are mysteries appreciated and confirmed here by this woman poet who imitated them.
From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.
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.
The Road to Paradise: First Notes on Marianne Moore's "An Octopus" By Patricia C. Willis
The traveler to Seattle who arrives on an overcast day sees a somber but beautiful Puget Sound to the west. To the east, he sees the hills of the city surrounding Lakes Washington and Union, and beyond them to the southeast, nothing at all: a gray wall like any rainy vista in the lowland parts of the country. When the skies clear, however, from that wall of nothingness, the mountain "comes out," as the natives say, as if it were a sun. The vast, snowy bulk seems to arise from the sea and in its utter hugeness dominates everything east of the Pacific. The effect is startling, awesome, unforgettable. The Indians called it Tacoma, "The Mountain who is God"; the English, Mt. Rainier. The point of access to its peak, a meadow perched on the side of the great Nisqually Glacier, is called "Paradise."
Marianne Moore traveled to Paradise Park in July 1922 when she spent two days on the mountain. "An Octopus" is the record of that trip and of a second journey to the Northwest made the following summer; the poem also includes some of the sights seen on both trips along the route from New York through the Canadian Rockies to Washington.
In the following pages, I will sketch the biographical circumstances for the poem, through them examine the method of composition and the poem's organization, and then focus on one major set of images: Mt. Rainier and the references to Greece.' I will consider the first extant version of the poem, a manuscript revised slightly for publication in The Dial in December 1924. This is the fullest form of a poem which Moore revised extensively over the years, usually by excising lines. The version under consideration here is printed in full at the end of the essay.2
I. Ascent to Paradise
With her mother Marianne Moore made two trips to the Northwest while her brother, John Warner Moore, was assigned as chaplain to the U.S.S. Mississippi. Warner's ship was spending a few months in drydock at Bremerton, across Puget Sound from Seattle, and he was stationed temporarily at the naval base there. The first trip, in 1922, took the Moores west by train from New York to Chicago where they boarded the Canadian Pacific for Vancouver, traveling via St. Paul, Minot in North Dakota, Banff, and Lake Louise.
Particularly interesting to a poet of the mountains was the Canadian Pacific route through the Canadian Rockies in the Lake Louise section of Alberta. The railroad climbed to its highest point there and the grade down was so steep that despite extra switches and tests of the brakes, the trains arrived at the bottom of the Selkirks with every brakeshoe smoking. Passengers were treated to an unroofed observation car for this stretch--fully open like a roller coaster. Sightseeing platforms were built along the way, and the trains stopped to allow travelers to scramble up to enjoy the views of peaks and waterfalls.
At Vancouver the Moores took the six-hour ferry ride to Seattle, arriving on 9 July. Based for a few weeks in Seattle, they went with Warner to Mt. Rainier on 25 July, traveling by car up the mountain to Paradise, and returning two days later. In early August, Marianne and her mother rented a house in Bremerton. Here they saw as much of Warner as his Navy duties would permit. They made use of the officers' club where Marianne and her brother won the mixed doubles tennis tournament on Labor Day. Their house overlooked Puget Sound and faced across to Mt. Rainier; the Olympic Range lay behind them, to the west.
On 10 September they boarded a Canadian Pacific ship at Seattle, bound for Vancouver, British Columbia, from which, accompanied by Warner, they took the Canadian Pacific train to Lake Louise. Marianne took pictures of Warner and her mother posed in front of the lake and Mt. Lefroy before going on to New York.
The second trip west, in 1923, had a slightly different itinerary. Marianne and her mother took the Delaware & Lackawanna train through New Jersey and New York to Buffalo on 13 August. Because Marianne enjoyed sailing, at Buffalo they boarded the Juniata for a winding four-day passage through the Great Lakes to Duluth. There a train to St. Paul connected them with the Canadian Pacific and the same route they had traveled west the previous summer. At Banff, Marianne bought photograph-postcards of Mt. Lefroy, Lake Agnes, Lake Louise, a mountain goat and a porcupine, and later mounted many of them in an album.3 This time they stayed in Bremerton until late October, returning home probably by the Northern Pacific across upper Montana and Glacier National Park, turning south above Fargo, North Dakota.
In July 1923, Moore wrote to her brother that she was trying to write a poem about Mt. Rainier.4 The second trip took place later that summer and gave her ample opportunity to check her facts and to acquire whatever booklets about the area she had not procured on the first trip. She did not, during her second visit, return to the mountain, but from her house in Bremerton, she could see it across the Sound in clear weather.
Both trips were important to this very close family of three who until 1922 had not been reunited for a long visit since Warner had gone to sea in 1917 and subsequently married in 1918. Thus, the three Moores had their first chance in five years to spend time together. The special excursion to Mt. Rainier was, for the future poem, a symbolic highlight. In planning the first journey to the Northwest, Warner wrote in January 1922: "Mt. Rainier is within a day's auto ride and a place I have long wished to go with those who are my very own--to go alone seemed too 'piggy,' and yet I've felt I ought to see the mountain, should I be near it, even if alone."5 He could have counted on his sister's positive response; such an adventure would suit perfectly her delight in natural history. In confirmation of the importance of this family adventure to the mountain, Marianne included her mother, her brother, and herself--albeit disguised--in "An Octopus" itself.
The Moores gave each other various nicknames over the years, always choosing animals to highlight personal traits. In "An Octopus," Mrs. Moore is the "ouzel," "with its passion for rapids and high pressured falls." Marianne is the "rat, skipping along to its burrow," a character borrowed from the poet rat in The Wind in the Willows. Warner's nickname comes from the same story; in this poem "when you hear the best wild music of the forest it is sure to be a badger." Moore knew full well that the badger-looking creature in the Northwest is actually a marmot, and at some time between submission of the manuscript to The Dial and the publication of the poem, she changed "badger" to "marmot," in the interest of accuracy, but with her brother no doubt still in mind.6
Seen across Puget Sound from Bremerton where the Moores stayed, Mt. Rainier seems to rise directly from the water's edge. Unlike the Rockies or other North American ranges, the Cascades are single peaks widely spaced along the coasts of Washington and Oregon. Mt. Rainier, the highest of the chain, stands unencumbered by lower peaks, 14,408 feet above sea level. From the east, its top looks like a huge ice-cream cone with a scoop removed--the result of a volcanic explosion. From the west, its whiteness turns to shades of pink and red in the sunset and the peak is visible long after the sun has disappeared below the horizon.
The Moores approached Mt. Rainier from this direction. Their trip to the recently constituted national park took them south from Seattle to Tacoma. From there the automobile ride to Paradise Park winds slowly upward through dense forests along scurrying streams and waterfalls. Burnt-out patches of trees are bleak reminders of lightning strikes. The strong current along boulder-filled river beds suggests the force of the snow melting on the glaciers. In 1922 there was a checkpoint at the entrance to the park where rangers counted cars and heads and controlled the one-way traffic ahead. Rules and regulations were supplied for the safety of the visitors and the park itself. The road up to Longmire Springs, and from there to Paradise, climbs and curves back upon itself, allowing brief glimpses of the peak through the trees. Finally, at Paradise, one approaches the timber line and faces the majestic Nisqually Glacier, pouring slowly from the very top of the mountain. A footpath leads up to the best view of the glacier, and there Warner photographed Marianne Moore and her mother with the glacier behind them. Warner and Marianne rented hiking gear and went with a guide to the ice caves, about an hour's steep walk up the mountain from Paradise. They spent the night at Paradise Inn, a huge rustic structure whose splendid lobby is supported by immense lodgepole pines. The meadows are filled with flowers in July, chipmunks cavort among the stones and marmots pose for photographs along the paths. At 5,400 feet, the air at the park is fresh and exhilarating; the temperature can dip toward freezing even on midsummer nights. The name "Paradise" accurately describes this spot near the top of the continent where flora, fauna, rock, and human visitors gather in an officially protected garden.
II. Initial notes for "An Octopus"
Moore began work on her poem between the two trips to the Northwest. There is a stenographer's pad containing working notes which indicate that early in 1923 she had begun a single, long poem which ultimately became two poems: "Marriage" and "An Octopus."7 The first section of this 133-page notebook contains notes devoted to the single poem. On page 5, Moore tried out two titles: "An Octopus / of ice ... / cyclamen red dots on its pseudopodia" and "Marriage / I don't know what Adam & Eve think of it by this time. . . . " There follow twenty-two pages of notes about Adam, emotion, and other images that consider human relationships, and then at page 27 we encounter this remarkable conjunction of lines:
An octopus of ice so cool in this the age of violence so static & so enterprising heightening the mystery of the medium the haunt of many-tailfeathers these rustics calling each other by their first names a simplification which complicates one says I want to be alone the other also I would like to be alone. Why not be alone together I have read you over all this while in silence silence? I have seen nothing in you I have simply seen you when you were so handsome you gave me a start
Here, the "octopus of ice" heads a set of phrases used directly in "Marriage"--"I want to be alone" and "so handsome you gave me a start"--and indirectly—"cool," "violence," "static emotionless." While not returning to the image of an octopus per se, Moore uses the next thirty pages to work over ideas for a poem about Adam, paradise, love, theology, divorce, woman, and hell, while including references to eagles, an impostor, a storm, and a waterfall. The controlling ideas are those expressed in "Marriage" but images later used in "An Octopus" are present.
In the middle of this section of the notebook are ten pages of reading notes, with accompanying page references, from Richard Baxter's The Saints' Everlasting Rest (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1909). This work, quoted by Moore in several of her poems, deserves mention. Richard Baxter (1615-1691) was a nonconformist English divine whose theological position earned him the sobriquet of "the Catholic of Puritanism." His eclectic theology placed him as a moderate Calvinist who upheld the doctrine of grace but believed that man could influence his own salvation by prayer and purity of heart. He was a brilliant preacher who found favor with both Cromwell and Charles II.
The Saints' Everlasting Rest, his major work, is a treatise on the prayer and attitudes needed to attain heaven or the "Everlasting Rest." It examines such topics as "What This Rest Presupposeth" and "Considering the Description of the Great Duty of Heavenly Contemplation," all buttressed with biblical citation and an occasional quotation from George Herbert's poetry. First published in 1650, it went into many editions, usually in abridged versions. A veritable bestseller, it was read by churchman and laborer alike. It is still in print.
Moore read this treatise as early as 1915 and turned to it again in 1923. The passages quoted in her notebook include one of the four used in "Marriage," all of those used in "An Octopus," and many more. Her choices for transcriptions curiously suit the tenor of both "Marriage" and "An Octopus." It was only after her close reading of this meditative text that she began to select from her notes the material for "Marriage," which she completed about July 1923, and sent to Monroe Wheeler for publication in Manikin.
When she turned to "An Octopus" as a separate poem, Moore already had some usable notes, among them the first lines for the poem. She began her research for a poem about Mt. Rainier by choosing a popular text by the explorer-adventurer Walter Dwight Wilcox, The Rockies of Canada (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1900), copying out quotations and page numbers; and filling nine pages of the stenographer's pad. Then she went over her notes, circling phrases for future use: "roar of ice," "goats looking-glass," "curtain of snow," "At such times you wonder why you came," "while one rested his nerves the other advanced" and many others made familiar by the poem. Next, she turned to other notebooks already filled with quotations from reading and transferred relevant items to the stenographic pad: "glass that will bend," "the cuttlefish concise ... without a shiver." Phrases from the Rules and Regulations: Mount Rainier (Washington D. C.: Department of the Interior, 1922) follow, amid lines moved over from the Wilcox notes. Looking over her notes thus far, she drew a line across the page and wrote "END"; then follow trials and errors culminating in
avalanche with the crack of a rifle a curtain of powdered snow loosed like a waterfall.
Having found the end toward which the poem would move, she took up another book for fresh inspiration for the middle and made five pages of notes from Clifton Johnson's What to See in America (New York: Macmillan, 1919). A few more pages of working over the text and she turned to the development of the beginning of the poem with the idea of "unimagined delicacy" and images of glass. Then her working notes come to an abrupt halt.
III. Additional Notes: A Palimpsest
The trial beginning and end for "An Octopus" found in the notebook appear slightly altered in the final poem and form its outer frame. In the intervening, undocumented period of composition, the poem grew into twenty-eight sentences, a number not to be taken lightly since Moore knew well from her reading that Mt. Rainier is formed by twenty-eight glaciers. Like the mountain itself, this poem is not truly symmetrical but marked by what might be called various elevations. It first presents the whole mountain as seen from a great distance; then it draws the reader close to the base and moves upward to the mountain goat near the peak. Next, it returns to the forest floor to examine its flora, only to ascend again to an orchid above the timberline. At the end, the poem steps back to the long view of the mountain and shows an avalanche that falls from the peak down to the claw of a glacier.
"An Octopus" can be divided into eight sections. The first (11. l-13) describes the octopus of ice compounded by images from land and sea, rock and cephalopod. We see the top of a huge mountain which seems falsely footed in the sea. The second section (11. 14-38) displays fir trees, rocks, and larches: the rock is visible among and above the trees; the fir forests give way, as the eye moves upward, to the "tightly wattled spruce twigs" as the timberline, where the visitor, thinking he has moved forward among the sun-filtering larches, finds himself circling abruptly out of a valley into the cold side of a glacier. Suddenly, there appears a deep lake surrounded by gold and silver, reflecting fir trees subject to gusts of wind. This is the "Goat's mirror" (originally the phrase refers to Lake Agnes in the Canadian Rockies as described by Wilcox) shaped "like the left human foot" (as Wilcox describes Lake Louise), a composite mountain take, as prejudicial of itself as any of those seen at Mount Rainier.
The lake marks the one spot in the mountain of unequaled importance to the wild life in its surrounding parks and forests. Here begins (11. 39-119) the first of two parallel catalogues in the poem. In this one, animals are arranged first in ascending order by habitat: porcupine, beaver, bear, and goat. The goat stands at the top--"a scintillating fragment of those terrible stalagmites"; used to the ice caves, "it stands its ground / on cliffs the color of the clouds . . . / the ermine body on the crystal peak" upon the "antique pedestal of / 'a mountain with those graceful lines which prove it a volcano.’"
The second part of this first catalogue (11. 73-119) remarks upon the distinguishing beauty of "Big Snow Mountain" "of which 'the visitor dare never fully speak at home / for fear of being stoned as an imposter.’" This mountain is home to campers and guides, the chipmunk, the water ouzel, the ptarmigan, the eagle, the badger, and the cayuse ponies. These are the creatures who can approach the goat's summit--if not to live there, at least to climb the mountain and to pause "on some slight observatory."
The "spotted ponies" in their camouflage form a link to the second catalogue (11. 120-154), that of the flowers and trees which hide them. Like the catalogue of animals and birds, that of the plants is arranged in ascending order. The first three items, birch, fern, and lily pad, are found at the forest floor. The next, the avalanche lily, is seen in the upland meadows, the first in spring to push up through the snow and bloom, white on white. All the following flowers bloom in the alpine and subalpine meadows--the two terrains meet on Mt. Rainier at about six thousand feet, just where one walks into Paradise Park above the Inn.
The next group of flowers, leading up to the rhododendron, are a "cavalcade of calico"--red, yellow, white, green—small, repeated spots of color like the printed cotton fabric. Here are the garments of the Western "Calico Ball," the occasion to which women wore printed cotton dresses, contrasted with the "evening clothes" of the American man, invariably black and white like the white rhododendron flower with its leaves transmuted to onyx. Four blue flowers follow--larkspur, pincushion, pea, and lupin, arranged in patches alongside patches of red and white flowers, compared to Persian enamel work. These two groups of flowers, both representative of the mountain meadows, portray two observable phenomena--the parti-colored fields and the patch-colored fields, evident even in present-day postcards of Mt. Rainier's meadows.
The next grouping of flowers leads up to the last and is a composite of hardy plants. The woolly sunflower and the aster survive on what looks like bare rock; the fireweed springs up right after fire decimates a stand of trees; the thistle is hardy at all altitudes.
The final grouping: gentian (blue), ladyslipper (most likely the bird's-foot trefoil, slipper-shaped, known as a ladyslipper, and yellow), harebell (blue) and "mountain dryad" (Moore's transmutation of the "Dryas" from Wilcox, a rosaceous ground cover--white) are all high mountain flowers, culminating in the uppermost and elusive Calypso, "’the goat flower-- / that greenish orchid fond of snow’ / anomalously nourished upon shelving glacial ledges."
Just as the goat stands on the heights of the mountain in the first catalogue, so the Calypso orchid, the goat flower, stands at the top of the second. It is attended by the bluejay who, although fond of "human society or of the crumbs that go with it," "knows no Greek, the pastime of Calypso and Ulysses." Calypso is not only an orchid, of course, but a goddess from the Odyssey, and with her introduction we come face to face with Greeks on Mt. Rainier.
This startling development has the effect of making the reader question what has gone before. So far, the poem has presented only the mountain, its natural inhabitants, its guides and its visitors. To account fully for the presence of the Greeks, we must return to the notebook to see how Moore superimposed references to them upon her notes concerning the natural history of the mountain.
On the train returning from her second trip to the Northwest, Moore again set to work on what was to be her last poem until 1932. She had already separated out of her notes those ideas and phrases which she developed in "Marriage."" A great deal of extra reading and consultation of earlier entries in her reading notebooks went into the poem, and nearly two-thirds of the two hundred and thirty-one lines in the manuscript can be accounted for by various sources. However, here discussion will be limited to those materials which refer to the presence of the Greeks in the alien landscape of Mt. Rainier.
On 21 April 1924, Moore wrote to her brother:
One of the parts of this necessary reading I am doing is very inspiring in which Newman visualizes the material beauties of the Greeks previous to an exposing of spiritual defects.
Her reading was John Henry Newman's Historical Sketches, particularly the passages on "The Site of a University" in which Newman describes Athens and the original grove of "Academe." Moore took Newman's view of the Greeks--philosophers who chose to deify the beautiful, observing propriety as their code of conduct "because it was so noble and so fair"--and used it as an overlay to notes already made from Richard Baxter's The Saints' Everlasting Rest. For example, on page 35 in the notebook she quotes from Baxter the passage (which appears in the poem at lines 182-188) about the definition of happiness as "an accident or a quality, a spiritual substance--the soul itself . . . , such a power as Adam lost & we are still devoid of." She then adds a few words, altering the notes to read:
the Greeks speculating whether it be an accident or a quality, a spiritual substance--the soul itself ..., such a power as Adam lost they had & we are still devoid of.
Here, the speculations of the Christian divine are given to the Greeks with the additional phrase "they had" added, suggesting the Greeks' belief that they were capable of perfect happiness. Further, she had noted from page 114 of Baxter:
Doubtless this will be our lasting admiration that A[dam] & E[ve] taken by M[ichael] out of E[den], shld be restored to a dignity greater than they fell from that such high advancement [with] such long unfruitfulness & vile rebellion shd be [the] state of the same persons that mere farthings [with] infinite advantage shld be contained in [the] massy gold & jewels of that crown.
Going back over this passage, she circled "such high advancement" and above it wrote "Greeks." This change gives the Greeks "such high advancement" and the same restoration "to a dignity greater than" that from which they or Adam and Eve fell.
On the next page, where her notes from Baxter read:
we speak in such a lazy formal customary strain [the] piercing melting word becomes a pearl on lepers hands weary of a hard heart, some of a proud some of a passionate & some, of all these and much, more,
there follows the modification:
the Greeks liked smoothness telling us of those upon whose lifelessness [the] piercing melting word becomes a pearl on lepers hands since some of them weary of a hard heart, some of a proud, some of a passionate & some, of all these & much more.
This interjection of "the Greeks liked smoothness" is one of many added to the notes, in each case associating the Greeks with phrases originally without any relationship to them.
Finally, at the end of the Baxter notes, she adds the phrase "like happy souls in Hell" next to an image she discarded: "to have the table not the food is to be richly famished." In the poem, "like happy souls in Hell" is joined to "enjoying mental difficulties" and applied to the Greeks' way of life. Clearly, the phrase is a paradox that the poet associated with the Greeks and with the nonbelievers whom Baxter described as "richly famished."
Moore next moved to the notes taken from W. D. Wilcox's The Rockies of Canada. To his description of Lake Louise as the "goats' looking glass" she added "No Greek would look at the goats' looking glass," no Greek "would have it as a gift." To the image of "blue grottoes hung with icicles . . . At such times you wonder why you came" she added "Siren." From page 74 of Wilcox she noted the Calypso orchid and later superimposed a reference to the Greeks (in the following examples, the italicized words were noted first, the others at a later date):
and genuine & if it were it might sometimes be gross the Greeks liked smoothness but then--genuine but gross Calypso a northern orchid named for the goddess who fell in love w Ulysses has forgotten--there is no Ulysses merely Mr. D.
And from page 117 of Wilcox we find:
the Greeks liked smoothness a geographical blank.
The first of these trial statements tests the appropriateness of the phrase "the Greeks liked smoothness" against the orchid and against something "genuine but gross." The second juxtaposes the phrase with "a geographical blank," a reference to the vast areas of the Canadian Rockies which were still unmapped. The finished poem reads: "The Greeks liked smoothness, distrusting what was back / of what could not be clearly seen" (11. 177-178), a statement enhanced by the poet's exploration of the "genuine but gross," a condition perhaps not to be trusted, and of the unmapped mountains which, Wilcox says, troubled even the most intrepid explorers.
In another pair of notebook entries we see the development of the blue jay as Calypso's fitting companion. From Wilcox Moore made notes from a passage where the explorer has unexpectedly come upon a huge wall just when he is running short of rations needed for the energy to climb it:
icehacks no Greek would have it as a gift raisins & hard tack vs a vertical wall of rock 500 feet high.
The italicized words were quoted from Wilcox and the others added later. Moore used the phrase "no Greek would have it as a gift" repeatedly in her notes. Here it seems to be associated with the huge wall of rock.
Later in the notebook (p. 65), she combines phrases from several sources:
Pisistratus causing [the] earth to move up & down under you w hatchet crest & saucy habits migrating vertically cruel bold & shy claws like miniature ice-hacks wise & something of a villain.
Pisistratus, to whom Newman refers as the bringer of culture to Athens, was also the demagogue whose extreme tyranny led to the rise of Greek democracy. He here becomes associated with the blue jay whose description Moore quoted from the guidebook to Mt. Rainier National Park. The notebook entry cited above, in which ice-hacks are placed near something vertical and a Greek or Greeks, is the forerunner of the passage in the poem where the blue jay accompanies the Calypso orchid near the icy peak of the mountain.
What appear to be the last entered notes concerning the Greeks read as follows [the broken lines are Moore's and indicate space left blank for additional phrases]:
END no Greek looks into the goats' lookingglass Dissatisfied w the ragged marble & the blue gentian & the the level leisure plain Calypso the onyx flower forgets has forgotten that Ulysses was a Greek The age comes back to mountains Every spot with its flowers - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Now obscured by the avalanche with the crack of a rifle a curtain of powdered ice the legal righteousness of leisure Before rich motion the legal righteousness of Greek Calypso has forgotten that Ulysses was a Greek Do you think in good sadness he is here Calypso the goats flower refuting reproving olive trees oracles of Greece.
The Greeks liked smoothness and find it difficult to serve us It is hard to serve when one is trying to be many masters Inclined to imitate them in their worship of conformity in heat a new species of Calypso's hope upon which lifelessness the piercing melting word becomes a pearl on lepers hands.
Here we see the poet intent upon forging an association of the Greeks and her notes from natural history. Her thinking takes her beyond Newman's presentation of the "material beauties of the Greeks" to which she referred in her letter to her brother, to "an exposing of their spiritual defects": "the legal defects"; "the righteousness of Greek"; "their worship of conformity"; their preferring "smoothness" over the rugged and the unknown. It is her superimposition of the Greeks' spiritual defects that shows her method of juxtaposition at work and that can, for instance, account for a blue jay who, as Pisistratus, becomes a suitable companion for the orchid Calypso.
The notes come to an end several stages of composition before the completion of the poem but all intermediate working papers have been lost. Consequently, we must return to the manuscript itself to see the final use Moore made of the material in her notebook. When we take up the poem at line 149, we begin to see how the notes for the end of the poem were expanded and transformed.
We see the blue jay with Calypso, the orchid, at the timberline at the end of the catalogue of flowers and the beginning of the passages about the Greeks. Calypso's "principal companion," the blue jay, does not speak Greek, the language of pride and the triumph of knowledge. The Homeric Calypso and her compatriots enjoyed the mental difficulties of philosophy and the subtle demands of delicate behavior and were not interested in applying these skills to the rough outdoor pleasures of the woods and snows of a setting like Mt. Rainier. They preferred smooth, visible surfaces, sure of their ability to solve problems when they could see the argument. Happiness to them is a philosophical conundrum and unreachable, something we know Adam had and we have not. Of sensitive feelings and hard hearts, they have a wisdom remote from the practical considerations of a game preserve (11. 149-188).
It is self-evident that the inhabitants of the preserve should not have to fear man and that one must follow a regimen to be able to climb the main peak of Mt. Tacoma, the paradoxical fossil. The Greeks, worn out by their love of doing hard things and their love of complexities, had no sympathy for the neatness and accuracy of the glacial mountain (11. 189-212).
At line 211, Moore returns to sea imagery and begins her ending. The "octopus" with its many glacial arms creeps "slowly as with meditated stealth," and is subject to violent winds that tear at its trees. The last six lines make an explosive finale of lightning, snow, and rain, which stimulate an avalanche sounding like "the crack of a rifle" and looking like "a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall." This true-to-life if somewhat frightening imagery returns us to an earlier use of similar imagery (11. 54-72) where the mountain goat stands among "terrible stalagmites" eying a waterfall that looks like "an endless skein swayed by the wind." The goat's "pedestal" is seen to be a volcano whose cone was complete "till an explosion blew it off." Another passage, that concerning Calypso, is related to both the lines about the goat and the ending through imagery which displays the dangers and fearsomeness of the mountain top: the orchid lives "upon shelving glacial ledges / where climbers have not gone or have gone timidly" (11. 150-151); the goat is "'acclimated to grottoes from which issue penetrating draughts / which make you wonder why you came’"; and the avalanche takes place high up the peaks where the "hard mountain" is "planed by ice and polished by the wind." The mountain top, surrounded by magnificent gardens at lower altitude, exemplifies nature's magnificence and power and is accessible only to the daring few.
The poem begins and ends with its narrator at sea level, viewing the octopus from a great distance. Within it are two approaches to the peak. The first, culminating in the presence of the mountain goat, leads us up through trees, rocks, and the habitats of the mountain's fauna. It is the second, the upward-moving examination of the mountain's flora, that calls forth the Greeks, beginning with the appearance of the uppermost flower, the Calypso orchid. As the notebook makes clear, the Greeks are not merely incidental to the poem but a tested and retested element of its composition. From the early stages of the making of the poem, they were being considered for a prominent position near its end. In the final manuscript, they dominate the last third of the text.
IV. The Greeks and Paradise
When we return to the question of the presence of the Greeks on Moore's Mt. Rainier, we find the poet exploring nature and morality in the combined setting of classical and Christian moral philosophy. As we have seen, the notebook and the published notes to the poem both reveal that Moore combined her reading in those subjects with her reading about the natural history of Mt. Rainier and the Canadian Rockies.
In another early notebook, Moore noted that the Athenians "claimed they were themselves the true aboriginal stock and that their fathers were literally sprung from a ‘species of golden grasshopper.’"9 Another notebook, containing her mother's notes and read by the poet, points to the "claim" of the Greeks:
the Athenians didn't understand themselves place a low rate of valuation on themselves--said . . . their ancestors were the golden grasshoppers.10
The crossed-out words are possibly important here, suggesting the idea that the Greeks placed a falsely high valuation on themselves because they "didn't understand themselves."
This notion is reflected in Moore's notes from Newman's Historical Sketches made early in 1924:
so princ[iple] of propriety as substitute for conscience so grasshoppers
the Athenians chose (Propriety) as became so exquisite a people to practice virtue on no inferior considerations, but simply because it was so praiseworthy, so noble & so fair. Not that they discarded law ... but they boasted that "grasshoppers" like them old of race and pure of blood c[ou]ld be influenced in their conduct by nothing short of a fine & delicate taste & sense of honour, & an elevated, aspiring spirit. Their model man was a gentleman.11
Here, the Athenians "boasted" that their conduct could be influenced only by the most high-minded principles. In all three notes, the Athenians--the Greeks--are said to have overstated their case and the suggestion is made that they had built their code of conduct upon a moral philosophy with a shaky first premise, the perfectibility of man. Newman is, of course, imposing his Christian philosophy upon the Greeks. Their basing of goodness and righteousness upon aesthetics--the beautiful is the good--accounts for their "boast." While Newman's position is that of orthodox Christianity, there is an attractiveness to the Greek ideal that certainly interested Moore.
In her notebooks, Moore wrote that elsewhere in Historical Sketches Newman applauds the accomplishments of the Greeks "whose combat was to be with intellectual, not physical difficulties" and who "throve upon mental activity."12 These phrases are reflected in the poem where the Greeks are "not practiced in adapting their intelligence" to the mountaineer's equipment "contrived by those /'alive to the advantage of invigorating pleasures’" but are found "enjoying mental difficulties." He attributes their philosophical deficiencies to their unfortunate--if necessary--failure to discover the Judaeo-Christian system of belief. As we will see, Moore judges the Greeks in her poem a little less harshly than does Newman.
She cites a second Christian moralist as a source for her description of the Greeks: "Emotionally sensitive, their hearts were hard" (1. 189). According to William De Witt Hyde, whose book, The Five Great Philosophies of Life (New York: Macmillan, 1912), describes Epicurean, Stoic, Platonic, Aristotelian, and Christian moral philosophy, Greek conduct is deficient in love. Stoicism, by whose armor one may escape the despair and melancholia which are the logical extensions of the Epicurean pursuit of pleasure, cannot be the final guide to life:
It may be well enough to treat things as indifferent, and work them over into such mental combinations as best serve our rational interests. To treat persons in that way, however, to make them mere pawns in the game which reason plays, is heartless, monstrous.... Again, if its disregard of particulars and individuals is cold and hard, its attempted substitute of abstract, vague universality is a bit absurd. (p. 107)
What is needed, he says, and this is the thesis of his book, is to inform the best of Greek philosophy with Christian love.
In the poem, the behavior of the Greeks is oddly juxtaposed to that of Henry James. While the Greeks are sensitive but hard-hearted in their propriety, Henry James is a master of deepest feeling hidden by his decorum. In describing James, Moore quotes her mother's comment on Carl Van Doren's The American Novel (New York: Macmillan, 1921):
He says what damns James w[ith] the public is his decorum--It isn't his decorum it's his self control, his restraint[,] his ability to do hard things w[ith] suavity. It wears them out.13
In the same notebook, Moore again quotes Mrs. Moore: "The deepest feeling ought to show itself in restraint." Restraint, then, covers for "the deepest feeling" and is not popular with the fiction-reading public. James, in the poem, is a foil to the Greeks. Their "wisdom was remote" from that of the protectors of the mountain; the mountain is "damned for its sacrosanct remoteness" by a public out of sympathy with it, like the public who damned James for his apparent remoteness, his decorum. To extend this line of reasoning, the Greeks are put in the same position as the public; they are out of sympathy with the mountain. In her working notes, Moore makes this dissociation even stronger. "No Greek," she says, "looks into the Goat's looking glass" (the magnificent "Goat's Mirror" lake of 1. 30); "no Greek would have it as a gift."14 The Greeks "liked smoothness and distrusted what was back / of what could not be clearly seen." They would not like the paradoxically named mirror lake where the ripples of the wind "obliterated the shadows of the fir trees" and obscured its glassy surface so that what lay beneath the waves could not be seen. They did not appreciate the forest and they ignored the "invigorating pleasures" of the mountain; they are alien to the American landscape and its rugged beauty. James, in contrast, though an expatriate from that landscape, is described by Moore as "a characteristic American." She notes in an essay that he himself recognized "the importance to his writing of his American upbringing and point of view." His "restraint" masks an abundance of affection. As she wrote, "there was in him 'the rapture of observation,' but more unequivocally even than that, affection for family and country.... Henry James's warmth is clearly of our doting variety."15 His "restraint" is like that of the mountain and suits it as the Greeks' hardness of heart does not.
"Calypso, the goat flower" which introduces the Greeks into the poem is the delicate white orchid whose name means "hidden." It blooms white on white amid the snows of early spring. In her mythic character, Calypso is the goddess who detained Ulysses for seven years on her island, offering him immortality if he would remain with her. However, she obeyed Zeus's order to provide Ulysses with an axe and tools to make a raft of tree limbs, and she watched him set sail again toward Ithaca: "Bows, arrows, oars and paddles for which trees provide the wood" (1. 171).
In the poem, the flower is called Calypso and when the Greek language is mentioned, it is recalled that the goddess and Ulysses passed their time speaking in that tongue. In the notebook, Calypso stands in opposition to the Greeks:
Calypso has forgotten that Ulysses was a Greek Calypso the goats flower affirming in good sadness that Ulysses is not here . . .
. . . .
Calypso the goats flower refuting oracles of Greece to speak of how we tend in N America to rough it
. . . .
advocating an idealism like Calypso's hope
Here Calypso refutes Grecian oracles on behalf of North America and those who tend to "rough it." The Calypso flower is a North American native with a Grecian name; in the poem, she is companion to the blue jay who "knows no Greek," she lives among the "odd oracles" of the gamewardens, and is "the goat's flower"--an epithet purely of Marianne Moore's making--and ally of the mountain goat.
Both Calypso and the mountain goat are white and set against the snows of the upper alpine regions of the mountain. Calypso appears tinged with green like the mountain itself (cf. 1. 13); the goat is trimmed with black without which he, like Calypso without the green, would be invisible against the "cliffs the color of the clouds/ . . . the ermine body on the crystal peak." Both the goat and the goat-flower have godlike abilities to survive an environment threatening to other beings.
The suggestion of Pan is inevitable when goats and Greeks are mentioned in the same place. Pan, the goat-god of pasture and forest, the symbol of fertility and the ability to enchant all nature with his pipe, is the only Greek god allowed in the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost. Milton's description of the garden was known to Moore from childhood and studied at college. It is not surprising to find it echoed in her poem:
. . . and over head up grew Insuperable highth of loftiest shade, Cedar, and Pine, and Fir, and branching Palm, . . . . And higher than that Wall a circling row Of goodliest Trees loaded with fairest Fruit, Blossoms and Fruits at once of golden hue, Appear'd, with gay enamel'd colors mixt: . . . . God had thrown That Mountain as his Garden mould, high rais'd Upon the rapid current, which through veils Of porous Earth with kindly thirst up-drawn Rose a fresh Fountain, and with many a rill Water'd the Garden; . . . . But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,. How from that Sapphire Fount the crisped Brooks, Rolling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold, With mazy error under pendant shades Ran Nectar, visiting each plant, and fed Flow'rs worthy of Paradise, which not nice Art In Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon Pour'd forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plain, . . . . Another side, umbrageous Grots and Caves Of cool recess, . . . meanwhile murmuring waters fall Down the slope hills, disperst, or in a Lake, That to the fringed Bank with Myrtle crown'd Her crystal mirror holds, unite thir streams. The Birds thir choir apply; airs, vernal airs, Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune The trembling leaves, while Universal Pan, Knit with the Graces and the Hours in dance Led on th' Eternal Spring. (Book IV, 138-268)16
Milton's paradise is a garden on a mountain with blossoms of "gay enamel'd color," "rapid current," sapphires, gold, rich trees, "Grots and Caves / of cool recess," waterfalls, and a lake holding "Her crystal mirror." Moore's earthly paradise bears a dramatic resemblance to Milton's. In her poem are flowers in "an arrangement of colors / as in Persian designs of hard stones with enamel" (11. 134-135); "rapids and high pressured falls" (1. 85); "sapphires in the pavement of the glistening plateau" (1. 144); "dumps of gold ... ore" (1. 30); "grottoes from which issue penetrating draughts" (1. 61); a "waterfall which never seems to fall" (1. 57); and the lake, "The Goat's Mirror."
The mountain goat, for whom the lake is named, has a role in "An Octopus" like that of Pan in Paradise Lost. Pan dances with the Graces and leads on the "eternal spring." The mountain goat's distinguishing characteristic is that he is light on his feet--in contrast with his bulky torso--and one of the signs of spring is his ascent to the upper regions of the mountain. His preeminent position in the first half of the poem suggests his importance to it. And when we associate the mountain goat with the god Pan we find that Moore's paradise and Milton's both allow the Greeks to be present through the goat-god while at the same time confronting the flaw of their philosophy, the preference of intellect over love.
Milton's Pan is in the midst of the Judaeo-Christian myth, in paradise before Adam and Eve fell to Satan's temptation. To test man's love, God exacted of him only one act of obedience: not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Satan's ruse was to "excite their minds / With more desire to know" (IV, 522-23) and so tempt them to disobey God's order. Satan, of course, succeeds, and man is banned from the garden with only the promise of ultimate deliverance "by the Woman's Seed." The message of Satan's trickery is plainly that loving obedience is difficult for man, even in paradise, and all too easily overcome by the desire for knowledge reserved to God. Such knowledge is dangerous; for man to seek it is to fall from paradise.
In Paradise Regained, Milton confronts the question of whether the great learning and culture of the Greeks, having taken place after the fall of Adam and before the redemption of Christ, have merit in a Christian world. In Book IV, Satan subjects the Son of God, the one born of the Woman's Seed, to a last temptation. He takes Christ up to a high mountain and shows him "Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts / And eloquence," the "grove of Academe," and all the wonders of the Greek world with its teachers of "moral prudence" and its oracles. He tempts the Savior with the kingship of this great empire, but the Savior rejects him, saying:
Much of the Soul they talk, but all awry, And in themselves seek virtue, and to themselves All glory arrogate, to God give none, Rather accuse him under usual names, Fortune and Fate, as one regardless quite Of mortal things. Who therefore seeks in these True wisdom, finds her not, or by delusion Far worse, her false resemblance only meets, An empty cloud. However, many books, Wise men have said are wearisome; who reads Incessantly, and to his reading brings not A spirit and judgment equal or superior (And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek) Uncertain and unsettl'd still remains, Deep verst in books and shallow in himself, Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys, And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge; As Children gathering pebbles on the shore.
Milton here accuses the Greeks of a failure of love: they were content to "in themselves seek virtue, and to themselves / All glory arrogate, to God give none"; and a failure of intellect: they sought knowledge without spirit and judgment. Milton has Christ scorn the Greeks for not having found and followed the God of Abraham. Moore does not pass such harsh judgment in her poem, seeing the Greeks' "delicate behavior," "'so noble and so fair,’" not as scornful but as flawed. She lauds their intellectual prowess and emotional sensitivity but she sees the same failure of love that Milton found in them and in Adam: lack of trust in what they could not understand and hardness of heart. Because of these flaws, the Greeks do not adapt their intelligence to a setting like Mt. Rainier (1. 167); they do not find stimulation of "moral vigor" in the forest (11. 175-176); they have only a wisdom "remote / from that of these odd oracles" of the mountain or in its natural paradise.
The Greeks "like happy souls in Hell" are found on another mountain, in The Divine Comedy. The shape of Dante's Purgatory is interestingly like that of Mt. Rainier. The mountain of Purgatory itself was formed on the surface of the earth by volcanic action resulting from Satan's being hurled into the fiery center of the sphere. At its top is the terrestrial paradise described in the Purgatorio's Cantos XXVIII-XXXIII, the prelapsarian garden of Eden in a post-lapsarian context.17 To this paradise, in Dante's terms, the Greeks aspired, knowing no other. As Matilda, Dante's first guide among the flowery paths of the garden, reassured Dante:
They who in olden times sang of the Golden Age and its happy state, perchance dreamed in Parnassus of this place.
(Purgatorio, XXVIII, 136-141)
Dante places Homer, the other Greek poets, and the philosophers in the first circle of the Inferno--Limbo--where their only suffering is that they live with the desire and without the hope of seeing God. Virgil tells Dante that after passing through the Inferno, he will ascend to Purgatory where he will find souls who, unlike the "heathens," can be cleansed and seek Paradise:
And then you will see those who are happy in the fires of hell, for they hope to come, whenever the time shall be, among the blessed.
(Inferno, I, 118-120.)
Marianne Moore in effect moves the Greeks from the Inferno to the Purgatorio by applying to them the phrase "like happy souls in hell" (1. 162). Dante's Limbo was a place without hope from which Christ liberated only Abraham and the worthy Israelites. Moore elevates the Greeks to the place of those who were undergoing purification before being allowed to enter heaven. Why? Orthodox Christian theology insists that the unbaptized pagans who led the best lives they could, will upon death, enter Limbo, but at the last day, the "end of the world," they will, through the redemption of Christ, enter heaven. To Moore, the Greeks' failure was like that of Adam: the choice of knowledge over love. Like Adam, they could not live in Paradise. And like him, too, they could be purified and redeemed.
"An Octopus" is not a Christian tract but it does refer obliquely to elements of Christian moral philosophy to make its point. The Calypso orchid and the mountain goat upon the mountain's peaks suggest their Greek counterparts who in turn recall the splendid but flawed culture of Greece, an alien idealism set in contrast to the realism of the mountain and its inhabitants. Like the Garden of Eden, whether of Genesis, Milton, or Dante, Mt. Rainier excludes from its precincts those "disobedient persons" but it does allow them to return with "permission in writing." This natural paradise is a microcosm of the Western world and its history: a complete, magnificent mountain, a preserved national park, but subject to the flaws of men who might abuse it. The poem keeps close to the natural history--earlier called natural philosophy--of the mountain. The introduction of the Greeks forces the reader beyond the breathtaking experience of the mountain to a reflection upon the meaning of human life, the forces of nature, and his own beliefs.
These remarks bring up more issues than they settle. They lead us to want to query Moore's metaphysics, her position on Christian orthodoxy, the extent of her use of irony in the poem. "An Octopus" is a profound expression of her world view, but it is a baffling one. These first notes only begin the elucidation.
When visitors to Mt. Rainier turn back down the track toward Tacoma, Seattle, and American civilization, they move west toward the end of the continent, toward Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. After her trip to the mountain, Moore went to spend two summers at Bremerton, between the Sound and the Pacific. She saw the mountain "out" some of the time, a reminder from afar of its grandeur and her visit to Paradise Park. Much of the time it was invisible, a challenge to a poet with "a burning desire to be explicit" about the magnificence of nature.
1All manuscript material referred to here (unless otherwise noted) is held by the Marianne Moore Collection, Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia. All previously unpublished material by Marianne Moore is used with the permission of Clive E. Driver, Literary Executor of the Estate of Marianne C. Moore. The dates of the Moores' two trips are established from family letters and appointment books.
2Marianne Moore submitted a MS of "An Octopus" to The Dial on 22 September 1924. This copy is at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. A carbon copy of the MS is at the Rosenbach.
3These photographs survive in a postcard album at the Rosenbach. They were produced for the Canadian Pacific Railroad and were sold at newsstands along the route.
4A. L. S., Marianne Moore to John Warner Moore, 12 July 1923.
5 A. L. S., John Warner Moore to Mrs. Moore and Marianne, 29 January 1922.
6 These names are also used in family letters during this period.
7 Rosenbach 1251/17. This notebook is a ruled stenographer’s notebook that Moore used to draft poems and to make notes from books she read to gather information for poems. It is evident from different layers of regular and colored pencil that the notes themselves were worked over and revised at different times. The chronology of notes concerning "An Octopus" is as follows: 1) notes for the single poem that became "Marriage" and "An Octopus"; 2) notes from Richard Baxter (his book and the others cited briefly here are cited fully in the text); 3) notes entitled "An Octopus" and taken from W. D. Wilcox; 4) notes dated 23 October 1924, begun on the train home during the second journey; 5) notes from Johnston; 6) notes from a guidebook to Mt. Rainier; 7) overlay of phrases concerning the Greeks made upon all the preceding notes, presumably after 21 April 1924 when she read Newman.
8 In the notebook, the drafts of two poems follow those of "Marriage" and "An Octopus," but the first, "Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns," was published in The Dial in October, 1924, and the second, "Silence," in November, 1924, preceding publication of "An Octopus" in December. The two-month lead-time of The Dial required that the poems published earlier were finished and submitted by August and September, respectively.
9 Rosenbach 1250/l/43.
10 Rosenbach 1250/18.
11 Rosenbach 1250/5/26.
12 Rosenbach 1250/24/11.
13Quoted in Rosenbach 1250/26/51.
14 Rosenbach 1251/17/54.
15See "Henry James as a Characteristic American," A Marianne Moore Reader (New York: Viking, 1961), pp. 130-138. This article was originally published in 1934.
16The Complete Poetical Works of John Milton, ed. Douglas Bush (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1965).
17The Purgatorio of Dante Alighieri, ed. Israel Gollancz (London: J. M. Dent, 1906).
From Twentieth Century Literature 30.2-3 (Summer Fall 1984):