Technically "The Pangolin" is a wonder of architectural construction. Composed of nine stanzas of eleven lines each (with one notable exception; stanza 5 has only ten lines), each stanza operates with a predictable, although not identical, syllable count, as follows:
Line Syllables Line Syllables
1 8-9 7 13-15
2 14-16 8 8-3
3 7-9 9 4-5
4 16-17 10 9-10
5 12-13 11 9-10
The rhyme scheme is a b a c c d e d f g, although the rhyme is often more approximate than exact, somewhat akin to the harmonics of a stringed instrument (e.g., "scale/central," "gizzard/engineer is," "Thomas-/has," "nest/beast," "body-plates/retaliates," "pangolin/special skin"). And Moore's architectural forms do not impose themselves arbitrarily upon word structure and sentence structure. They are part of the very texture of the poem's meaning. As a matter of fact, neither the syllabic rhythm nor the rhyme is at all obvious to the reader. Even one sensitive to prosody must make an effort to hear it. The effect is gentle and unobtrusive, almost like background music, but its progress signals the feelings of the poem very much like the score of an opera or of a motion picture. The hypnotic rhythm is carefully orchestrated by the poet, an expertise long in Moore's repertoire.
In "Feeling and Precision" she echoed Bergson's theory of the poet's ability to "put to sleep the active or rather resistant powers of our personality, and thus bring us into a state of perfect responsiveness" when she spoke of the poet's control of sound and rhythm operating as a kind of hypnosis. Moore wrote of her predilection for original rhythmic devices in a 1944 essay.
My own fondness for the unaccented rhyme derives, I think, from an instinctive effort to insure naturalness.... One notices the wholesomeness of the uncapitalized beginnings of lines, and the gusto of invention, with climax proceeding out of climax, which is the mark of feeling.
We call climax a device, but is it not the natural result of strong feeling? It is, moreover, a pyramid that can rest either on its point or on its base. . . . Intentional anticlimax as a department of surprise is a subject by itself; indeed, an art, "bearing," as Longinus says, "the stamp of vehement emotion like a ship before a veering wind," both as content and as sound; but especially as sound, in the use of which the poet becomes a kind of hypnotist--recalling Kenneth Burke's statement that "the hypnotist has a way out and a way in."
So from Moore's perspective, what at first might seem only prose cast on the page in an imposed and artificial verse form is actually intricately constructed and controlled verse made to read as natural speech ("when I am as complete as I like to be, I seem unable to get an effect plain enough"). Moore speaks of climax proceeding out of climax and intentional anticlimax, all blowing the reader along like a ship before a veering wind, and that is exactly what the formal rhythms of the poem accomplish.
For example, as Elizabeth Bradburn points out in her brilliant essay "The Machinery of Grace," the poem proceeds "climax out of climax, rising and falling in tension as it moves forward. Furthermore, the rhyme is not only concealed, but itself a form of climax." The first climax occurs at line 4 with the signal of an exclamation point at "tail row!" Then it subsides into a more natural rhythm until it begins to rise again, signaled by a series of strong monosyllables connected by a series of repeated conjunctions, a form Moore uses several times in the poem to punctuate the rhythm.
with head and legs and grit-equipped gizzard (line 4)
Sun and moon and day and night and man and beast (line 30)
as prop or hand or broom or ax (line 46)
a monk and monk and monk (line 59)
warm blood, no gills, two pairs of hands and a few hairs (line 91)
anew day day; and new and new and new (line 97)
There is also a rhythmic climax matching meaning in stanza 8.
[. . . ]
The rhythmic peak at "power to grow" shows that the lines themselves have power to grow and that these human creatures stimulate the poet, making her breathe faster and become more erect, that is, experience poetic growth and insight.
The most important climactic moment in the poem is carefully prepared for in the poem's form. It is stanza 5, which has only ten lines, compared with eleven in all others. There is also a change in the rhyme scheme. A d rhyme closes the rhyme scheme, which until now has been left open. Breaking the rhythm and changing the rhyme scheme effectively breaks the pace and prepares the reader for the internal climax of the entire poem, the rhetorical question of lines 56-65, which begins: "If that which is at all were not forever." As Bradburn points out, that important question is poised between two shorter statements: "To explain grace requires / a curious hand" (lines 55-56) and "A sailboat / was the first machine" (lines 65-66). Bradburn calls the scheme of alternation in stanza 5 a "coiled spring" which triggers the theme of the poem: the "sprawling energetic question about grace." This is what Moore means by "interiorized climax." (I return to the theme itself elsewhere in this discussion.)
Stylistically, stanza melts into stanza as lines flow across the barriers of stanza endings in elaborate enjambment. One is particularly struck in the maverick stanza 5, the ten-line stanza, by the verse ending with the hyphenated "con-" followed by "versities" to begin stanza 6. The reader is forced to read with greater concentration, guided by the rhythms of the poetry itself. The reader's senses are driven by that kind of "pleasing, jerky progress" that Moore relished.
But, I would argue further, the technical complexities complement the meaning of the poem itself, "climax proceeding out of climax." One almost senses here Moore's deliberate refutation of Monroe's charge that her work showed little curve of growth or climax. And her declaration that climax is really "the natural result of strong feeling" may respond to Monroe's declaration that Moore had only a "heart of brass." One wonders too if two lines from "The Pangolin"--"Among animals, one has a sense of humor. / Humor saves a few steps, it saves years"--just might be, in a subtle way, a firm stand against Monroe's old charge of "grim and haughty humor."
In order to clarify further the connections between form and meaning, one must first look for Moore's intent in "The Pangolin." The opening lines already provide a link.
Another armored animal-scale
lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity until they
form the uninterrupted central
The poem itself has a similar kind of armor made of words, line lapping line with real regularity until the poem's center, stanza 5, the "uninterrupted central / tail row."
The first half of the poem is a precise description of the pangolin, a creature which Moore calls "another armored animal." Many readings of this poem have centered on that opening phrase. Is this merely another in Moore's series of poems about armored animals? Or does Moore see in the creature a likeness to herself, a woman who feels safest when she places herself "behind armor," in a self-effacing and self-protective way? The answer, I would argue, is neither. As Bradburn has suggested, an alternative reading might well be that Moore compares herself to the pangolin, "not as an emotionally armored woman, but as an artist" as I have suggested earlier, Moore shared the role of artist with all sensitive human beings.
Moore has collected a great deal of exact information about pangolins. In the notes she directs her reader to two good sources: Robert T. Hatt's Natural History, (December 1935), and Lyddeker's Royal Natural History, although the poetic text alone is rich with detail. If one has never seen a picture of a pangolin, her visual comparison with an artichoke is of great assistance. For the first half of the poem, Moore offers both visual close-ups and distance shots, as we note everything from the "closing ear-ridge" to a pangolin's serpentine position around a tree. We can even watch the creature's movement in the mind's eye, as it carefully walks on
. . . the outside
edges of his hands ... and save[s] the claws
The pangolin is always armored, for it can roll "himself into a ball that has / power to defy all effort to unroll it." We watch the creature's precision, "stepping in the moonlight, / on the moonlight" to be even more exact. Everything the pangolin does outside its nest happens at night; it is a nocturnal creature, a "night miniature artist engineer," a clue to which the reader will want to return.
Moore is always searching for perfect--and refreshing--means of comparison. For example, she notes that pangolins look like spruce cones and artichokes, and that the "fragile grace of the Thomas- / of-Leighton Buzzard Westminster Abbey wrought-iron vine" she had seen in a 1922 visit to Westminster Abbey was similar to the pangolin's scales. Each represented a delicately wrought armor. She included another work of art in wrought iron--"Picador," by Pablo Gargallo (1928), on display at the Museum of Modern Art--and remembered the gallant attitude of the matador as he "walk[ed] away / unhurt."
The precision and detail of everything are vivid and memorable. We see, for example, that
. . . the flattened sword-
edged leafpoints on the tail and artichoke set leg- and body-
quivering violently when it retaliates.
One even hears a "harmless hiss" as the pangolin draws away from danger. Like the visual artist, Moore offers exact details, what A. Kingsley Weatherhead describes as feeling expressed by concrete images. Hugh Kenner's assessment of Moore's descriptive technique as "experience of the eye" is also generally correct.
In her poems, things utter puns to the senses. These, registered in words, make odd corrugations on the linguistic surface.... This policy of accurate comparison ... does not worry about congruousness, much as Braque did not worry about perspective, being intent on a different way of filling its elected spaces. Congruity, like perspective, deals in proportion with an overall view. Miss Moore's poems deal in many separate acts of attention all close up; optical puns, seen by snapshot, in a poetic normally governed by the eye, sometimes by the ears and fingers, ultimately by the moral sense.
But Kenner errs, I believe, in one particular: although Moore's poems do deal with many separate acts of attention, many of them very close up, there is an overall view, a congruity; the poem is not nearly as depersonalized as it may at first appear. The separate acts of attention are related to one another and are working toward a general impression active in the mind of the poet.
In The Edge of the Image, A. Kingsley Weatherhead is one of the few critics who understands that "strong emotion is unquestionably present in [Moore's] poems," but he feels that the imagery is not a correlative for it in the sense of T S. Eliot's objective correlative. That is to suggest that the imagery, as Monroe had suggested about the form, is somehow outside of Moore's intent, existing of and for itself. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Both the imagery and the separate acts of attention contribute to the theme that Moore has so carefully pointed out with her formal devices: "To explain grace requires / a curious hand" and "If that which is at all were not forever." Recalling that with Moore words often operate in a kaleidoscope of meanings, one must begin to amplify both "grace" and "curious." Curious can mean odd, but it can also mean inquisitive. An archaic meaning, but one Moore surely would have intended is "made or prepared skillfully, done with painstaking accuracy or attention to detail." It is in all of these senses that Moore sends out her filaments of thought. "To explain grace requires a curious hand," whether one is describing the grace of a peculiar armored animal, a pangolin, or grace in its many meanings, several of which Moore includes later in the poem. The writer who would take the time to describe the grace of anything must be inquisitive, attentive to detail, and maybe even a little odd. ("Humor saves a few steps, it saves years.") The one who would create the "machinery"--the words, the rhythms, and the forms to describe grace--must have "a curious hand." Like the pangolin, that one must be an "artist engineer . . . Leonardo Da Vinci's replica," that "impressive animal and toiler of whom we seldom hear." (The nocturnal pangolin is a "night miniature artist engineer.") The pangolin and the man are Leonardo Da Vinci's replica not only in that they are both artists and engineers but also in that they are both described in precise detail, like Da Vinci's famous illustrations of the human body, an engineer's hand "explaining grace." Moore has done for the pangolin what Da Vinci did for the human being. Thus Moore is clearly establishing threads of likeness and connection between the pangolin and the artist.
Actually, Moore is reaching even higher. She is trying to demonstrate the real likenesses and value of all creatures in a scheme far larger than the world of either pangolins or humans.
This idea is an ancient concept of God's creation that has permeated science and literature since the time of Plato: the Great Chain of Being. The concept views all of creation from God to the lowest form of matter as essentially good and as existing in a hierarchical and interconnected system, with humankind occupying the middle rung. Nothing is vile, although various human philosophical systems might have declared it so. Thus whether one speaks of the sun and moon or man and beast, each has a "splendor" and an "excellence" because it has come from God, the Author of all that is good, all that is grace-full.
On the complex subject of grace, Moore asks a rhetorical question.
have slaved to pursue the many meanings of grace: a kindly manner, time in which to pay a debt, the cure for sins, elegance, a graceful style of architecture? What would be the use of knowing and describing what is good and kind, efficient and beautiful if there were no ultimate good?
Moore raises us to the crest of a great climax with this question and then surprises us with what might seem an illogical response: "A sailboat / was the first machine." "Pangolins," she adds,
The thought shifts suddenly from sailboats to pangolins to human beings, who share a surprising number of traits with other creatures; the human is:
But humans do not usually like these kinds of comparisons. After all, they are superior beings, acting as the "writing- / master[s] to this world," even if they sometimes make silly mistakes like writing "error with four / r's." Moore's reminder of human frailty makes us laugh and brings back some realistic humility. Fortunately for humans, they do have risibility, a sense of humor about their own place in the universe--and "Humor saves a few steps, it saves years." Human beings are "unignorant / modest and unemotional, and all emotion." Most of all they have "everlasting vigor" and "power to grow"--potential, the possibility to be more than we already are; they have hope based on the faith that all there is, is forever.
Given the basic design, "warm blood, no gills, two pair of hands and a few hairs," the human sits "in his own habitat, / serge-clad, strongshod." (Note how Moore is establishing the same kind of objectivity about this armored animal that she has already exhibited toward the pangolin; but there is one vast difference: this creature has a mind and the gift of hope.) Although humans have enough intelligence to know fear and to become discouraged, they are also blessed in that they can say to the alternating blaze,
Again the sun!
anew each day; and new and new and new,
that comes into and steadies my soul.
The poem ends with a climax of grand proportions, a climax of hope bred of deep emotion, Harriet Monroe notwithstanding.
And the poem has also moved from darkness, the nocturnal world of the pangolin, "who endures / exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night" and who lives in a "nest / of rocks closed with earth from inside," to a world wherein a human person greets the alternating blaze, "Again the sun!" If even pangolins are susceptible to happiness and theirs is a toil worked out in darkness, how much more is possible for humans, who are even closer to the Light.
But one must return for a moment to the odd line of response to the central rhetorical question about the possibility of eternity, "A sailboat / was the first machine." Taffy Martin points out that this "cryptic answer seems to answer nothing at all." But Martin's instincts about the importance of this line to the full meaning of the poem are correct. Moore uses the term "machine-like" earlier in the poem.
(Recall too that she calls the pangolin an "'artist engineer.") In Moore's value system, to be "machine-like" is a beautiful compliment, meaning well made, efficient, and graceful. Moore has a spiritual appreciation for that which is well engineered, like pangolins (designed by God) and sailboats (made by the first machine-makers) and meticulously crafted wrought-iron vines or even poetry (made by artist-engineers). The pangolin's "frictionless creep" foreshadows the graceful efficiency of the first machine, the sailboat, perhaps somewhat akin to what Longinus noted about "the stamp of vehement emotion [moved] like a ship before a veering wind." Through the "machinery" of her poetry (which critics like Monroe had found so contrived), Moore has done a curious thing: she has described grace, that which is found in both pangolins and humans. She has also, in her gentle way, complimented the Author of all grace. The pangolin embodies many of the most important qualities of grace: quietness, compactness, orderliness, efficiency, exactness--the very qualities of Moore's own style of poetry, which she can "engineer"--by the grace of God.
In "The Pangolin" Moore has thus moved well beyond the examination of armor she had made in "Black Earth." She has made forays outside the elephant skin (although she connects with it in lines 50-52.
[. . . ]
She understands now that Madam Merle had a point, that "there's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances." "Armor [only] seems extra." And the poets art is the poet's armor. According to Bradburn, "The poet obscures himself not as an effort to be objective, not out of personal morality with regard to the 'other,' but because to create at all is to build armor around oneself. This is not an erasure of self, but a kind of self-definition." It is a projection, a feat of engineering; it is one's armorial coat. It is Pavlova's "Prima Ballerina Absoluta." The armor signals the presence, not the absence, of the self. In a manner of speaking, in making a piece of art, artists make themselves. But both the art and the act celebrate the grace that was given to complete the task.
There is no way one can deny Moore's deep faith in a power beyond herself. It is always there, from the very beginning. The articulation of that confidence, the power of that faith to signal order and reason over chaos, has always been difficult in the twentieth century. Unlike the faith-filled worlds of a Dante or a Milton, Moore lived in a world in which an intellectual had to proceed cautiously when talking about faith, but she did proceed. She did not see the world as a wasteland or vile or in need of ideas of order. As a good Presbyterian, she saw the entire universe as an expression of the kingdom of heaven in the world. And she saw sailboats and pangolins as part of that kingdom. Moore found the Deity's reflected beauty, order, and grace in everything, even in pangolins.
From Illusion is More Precise than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. Tuscaloosa: The U of Alabama P, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by the U of Alabama P. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Moore admires the pangolin's armor for its usefulness and its beauty. Indeed, the language of "The Pangolin" moves between these two aspects, sometimes attending to the efficiency and sometimes to the elegance of this protective covering. The task of the poem is to discover their connection. She finds it in any interplay between synchronic and diachronic structures.
[Costello quotes lines 1-8]
The method and focus of this poem recall many of the earlier descriptive poems discussed in Chapter 3 [of Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions]. The poem sets out to describe the combative qualities of an "armored animal," and these invite comparison with man's combativeness. The poem also confronts the problems of accurate perception, introducing rival categories of description and contending impulses in the observer of what to watch, of whether to describe or compare. In making an analogy between pangolin and man, the poem confronts several other conflicts: between sign and meaning, between the two terms of the analogy, between the limited perspective of comparison and the multiplicity of the objects compared--all of which finally suggest a more fundamental conflict between subject and object, between the observer-writer and the object of her attention. What Moore shows us in the struggle of the pangolin is repeated in her own poetic behavior. The problem the poem poses, in part, is how to stabilize the struggle, how to make it graceful, and the pangolin becomes the model for her solution.
The speaker of the poem rushes to identify the object before her, and immediately her attention is divided between the visual qualities of the surface and the meaning of that surface. The very act of calling the pangolin's scales "armor" interprets their qualities, but whereas armor ordinarily evokes ideas of aggression, the speaker immediately becomes interested in design, in the "spruce-cone regularity," the "artichoke"-like organization of the scales. Design suggests a designer, the "artist-engineer" Leonardo Da Vinci, so that the pangolin is seen as a replica both of the artist-struggler and of his symmetrical art. The poem opens with this deluge of descriptive images not yet unified.
We expect an analogy to develop between the pangolin and some aspect of man's life, but at this stage the poem seems more to oppose than to associate the two sides of the analogy. Man moves from dawn to dusk, the pangolin from dusk to dawn.
Already Moore has placed not only metaphors but kinds of language, metaphoric and scientific, in uneasy conjunction. The poem is constructed of dichotomies and oxymorons. The pangolin is "a true anteater, not cock-roach eater." Though "serpentined about a tree" he is "unpugnacious," his "hiss" is "harmless." These are examples of power restrained. And as if to imitate this concept the speaker's aggressive acts of interpretation cease and she becomes careful to make distinctions before leaping forward too eagerly. As the pangolin "rolls into a ball" we sense that the creature is both literally and figuratively drawing into himself and that the speaker's "efforts to unroll it" are in vain. The language becomes curt and matter of fact; all analogy drops out, or seems, to. Apparently in the battle between subject and object (the speaker of the poem imposing the definitions and the object resisting them), the object has won the first round. Here the pangolin seems to be his unique self, not like anything else.
Trying to find out what the pangolin "entails" the speaker finds it all the more "intailed."
As analogy ceases to function on one level it is restored on another: the interiority of the pangolin is both literal and figurative. Similarly the elaborate twistings and counterbalances earlier in the language of the poem made a design not unlike the wrought-iron vine the pangolin resembles. Now, as we look at the speaker looking at the pangolin, the animal's withdrawal becomes an emblem or analogy for the very breakdown of analogy (the retreat of the object into its individuality). In these terms the process of making analogies itself is the mode of attack the pangolin defends himself against. The creature will not be "set aside."
In the first section of the poem the speaker moved from testing out human comparisons and definitions of the pangolin to delighting in the sheer process of circumspection, the curves and counter curves of that study. But now that the pangolin has "darkened" himself and left the speaker literally speechless over his ingenuity, the speaker transfers her energy from description and definition to pure admiration. The poem and its objects are disengaged for a moment. It is a declaration of impotence, of the inviolability of things, but the tone is excited, not disheartened:
The "vileness" to which this stanza refers is not only man's martial instinct but also his intellectual one. The pangolin escapes both our physical and our interpretive grasp. But this is admiration not only of the pangolin, the apparent subject of the poem, but of all the images that have been brought in; "sun and moon and day and night and man and beast" were all part of the scenes described above. And curiously, man is on both sides of the concern, as intruder and object of intrusion. What has this ejaculation to do with the poem, a description of the pangolin? Perhaps it has some relation to acts of association and observation. To make analogy genuine, the speaker must go through a phase of self-examination, finding the example of man in his own behavior.
After the contraction, of the pangolin and of the language, comes another expansion. In the next stanza the speaker again sallies forth with description but with more images that suggest his own activity. From a temporary cheerful defeat, a temporary retreat into self-reflection, the speaker, like the pangolin, prepares for the next onset. The pangolin that was primarily an object of a is now an advancer:
Here we have not only a return to the description of the pangolin (and to the double armor-artichoke image used to describe him) but more images for the action of man and specifically for the writing of the poem, the tail reminiscent of the quivering pen, though nonetheless a tail. Like the pangolin, the writer "engulfs what he can," the form of his poem "quivering" as the recalcitrant details on the pangolin's reality "swarm on him."
Simpletons (and reductivists) impose their theories on the subject and err. Now the language of description, in an act of relative modesty like the pangolin's, approximates the observation; it is a "not unchain-like machinelike form." But like the pangolin, the poem is made graceful by adversities. The series of efforts and errors promises to leave a graceful pattern.
It is difficult to establish a hierarchy of interests in this poem. No single principle of comparison seems to dominate. Rather, associative links are local and various, some sound-determined, some visual, some conceptual, and these do not immediately reinforce one another. The pleasure of the poem is in its overlappings, like the scales of the pangolin it sets out to describe. The notion of "grace," for instance, suggested by the pangolin's movement and appearance, diverts the speaker's attention to other modes of grace, specifically with regard to artistic creation:
The transition from the grace of the pangolin to the grace of the church seems an unwarranted digression. On the slim axis of "grace" the poem inverts the terms of the analogy. The speaker has completely abandoned her original task of description and turned to another topic. And yet as she proceeds to quite another subject the same method of description recurs. The image of the pangolin is gone but its figurative and formal traces remain. Early the pangolin was compared to the Abbey gate. Now the poem focuses fully on the Abbey itself, recalling in its description the contours of the pangolin. The grace of the pangolin's scales and its graceful attitude are now the formal and moral grace of a human construction, the church. Is this the fulfillment of the implied promise of an unpugnacious human armor, offered earlier? Man's art is like the pangolin's form (a comparison already hinted at, playfully, not only in the Da Vinci analogy but in the repetitions of the term "artichoke"). The pattern of the pangolin's scales is like the repetitions in the stone mullions and relief sculptures on the cathedral. And just as the pangolin's scales are the shield he uses in his struggle to survive "from dusk to dawn," these architectural forms provide a kind of "shield" for man against the vicissitudes of time.
The "grace" of the cathedral is not purely formal and static. It is a "sign" of man's struggle and of intervening grace. The pattern of the scales becomes the factor of resemblance throughout the rest of the poem. It unites the grace of the architecture (patterned as "a monk and monk and monk") and the grace of the poem (with its pattern of repetitions). But what is initially a spatial metaphor becomes a temporal one as well. That is, the repetitions of the pangolin's scales and the church mullions stand for temporal repetitions, for a process. Now it is clearer why Moore continually played off temporal and spatial qualities. At the end of the poem we are introduced to the architecture of human history ("and new and new and new") played against the spatial arrangement of "monk and monk and monk." This encompassing "process" of adversity (human struggle) includes the struggle of creation, specifically that of writing. The sense of temporal struggle and the sense of spatial design are finally united in the poem when the speaker suggests that "that which is at all" "is forever." What is trial and error from a temporal point of view is symmetry from a spatial point of view, as each monk lives and dies and lines up along stone mullions. As we view these monks "branching out across the perpendicular" we are reminded that Moore's notion of grace is bound to the Christian paradox embodied in the cross as the intersection of time and eternity. But she writes entirely from the human perspective, in which the struggles of life are only symbolically resolved into harmonies.
Art provides a kind of double shield, for when we consider the imperfections of any human form we can imagine a process that may correct those imperfections, "time in which to pay a debt." Conversely, when we become exhausted with the sense of endless trial and error, of endless process, we can consider the pattern our lives have established, can imagine a spatial stability in repetition. Both perspectives imply a notion of grace, however, and grace is an ambiguous word here. Is it grace from without or grace generated by the patterns? In any case these are "ingratiating" forms.
As we read it becomes clear that the phrase "to explain grace requires a curious hand" is more than a suspended comment or superficial link; rather it is a governing principle of what has come before and what will come after. Both "grace" and "curious" are reciprocal words, providing a kind of connective link between the various orders of concern in the poem. The pangolin is curious to us and curious himself, just as the hand that defines the pangolin is itself observing and observed. Similarly "grace" itself has two meanings in friction with each other which are reconciled (two points of view, divine and human, which describe an alternating subject-object relation). The adversity between a writer and his object, a pangolin and his object, is reconciled in the pattern of repetitions that action itself produces when viewed as a whole. Grace occurs when that process can be conceived of as a totality. So the grace of the author becomes the grace of his product, given the grace of the reader in allowing that transmission. Subjectivity and objectivity become as two sides of the same coin, or two pangolin scales side by side defining a symmetry. So too the Abbey is both a symbol of man's limit (his need for intervening grace) and his power (as a graceful "artist-engineer"). He makes the best of conflict, he creates dialectical compositions. The mortal monks take their place among immortal stones. If we now recall the initial conflict of associations of armor and design in description of the pangolin scales, we can see that though these seemed to move in opposite directions, they are now reconciled.
We have seen the analogy of the pangolin with man pivoting in a description of a cathedral. Now the poem moves directly into the second term of the analogy, man and his struggles. As the pangolin embodied both synchronic and diachronic structures, the church architecture embodies the human version of synchronic ones, and Moore now turns to man in series, in history. But in shifting her weight to the second term of the analogy, she still totters.
The rest of the poem will directly concern man, but the pangolin is transfused in the description of man just as man was earlier transfused in the description of the pangolin. Indeed, man is described in terms of the animal world: "there he sits in his own habitat." The poem itself has "capsized" its subject matter, but not in disheartenment. The expression of failure here provides the materials for success. This is a poem about trial and error:
Bedizened or stark naked, man, the self, the being we call human, writing- master to this world, griffons a dark "Like does not like like that is obnoxious"; and writes error with four r s.
The "struggle" draws directly into questions of writing, of this writing, which is based on "likeness." But the sense of man's fallibility does not discourage the speaker because "among animals, one has a sense of humor." The central embarrassments of writing are met with this consolation: that we can stand aside and look at our errors even if we cannot avoid them in action. The poem does not conclude in precise definition or in resignation, only in the celebration of process. Similarly Moore celebrates the pangolin's adventures, for which his scales are a sign and protection, and the struggle of "monk and monk and monk" now "laid out across stone mullions" in a monument to their efforts and to intervening grace. Throughout the poem she assumes the possibility of some intervening force that can steady her in the flux of life and thought.
The prey of fear, he, always
curtailed, extinguished, thwarted by the dusk, work partly
says to the alternating blaze,
"Again the sun!
anew each day; and new and new and new,
that comes into and steadies my soul."
The poem opens and closes in exclamatory language, creating a kind of arc between. Though the speaker's work of interpretation remains "partly done," she can rejoice at the process of vision and revision she has pursued. (It is worth noting that this is a willful perspective whose opposite is "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.") Finally life can be seen as a grand composition, and this becomes a "steadying" influence.
"The Pangolin" is a long circuitous poem with an elaborately disguised structure. My argument about it, in following its curves, has also been long and circuitous. It will be useful to summarize the relationships among some features of the poem, keeping in mind that they are not experienced reductively. Explicitly and implicitly the poem is about armor and about grace--its task is to find the union of these. In the image of the pangolin we find the union in seeing the scales at once as a sign of the animal's maneuvers and as aesthetically pleasing in themselves. We move to finding the maneuvers aesthetically pleasing, the adversities of combat repeating temporally the permanent pattern of the scales. Adversities are seen as conversities, and moral and aesthetic perspectives are brought together in a notion of grace. The double perspective on the pangolin is followed by an analogy with man, who must incorporate armor and art. Man's struggle through life (or with any specific effort) establishes a pattern which art encompasses as a monument to life. Temporal and spatial patterns converge in our experience.
But for Moore to make such an assertion complacently would be to deny the very process of assertion and contradiction she explicitly identifies as human at the end of the poem. She avoids complacency in several ways. She balances the equation of pangolin and man so that neither side of the analogy seems dominant. Man must determine her ultimate perspective, of course, but by inverting the analogy she leaves ambiguous our attitude toward man's efforts. He is simultaneously a graceful and an ironic creature. By variously making the pangolin analogy bear on her writing (on its action and shape) she includes herself in the group "made graceful by adversity, conversity." She does not settle for a dialectic of aesthetic and martial interests resolved in a figure that fuses them. We do not take the analogy of pangolin with man for granted. Rather, the dialectic forces its way into the very terms of the analogy so that even the bond between pangolin and man is revealed as a tentative, highly artificial one, making the assertions of the poem similarly tentative and contingent. But while the resemblance between man and pangolin is placed in doubt, the pattern of differences that formed it is maintained even by seeing them as rival orders. That is, the perspectives that prove the pangolin unlike man work in relation to those that prove him like man, to make a poem of counterbalances, just as the conflicts in the pangolin's adventures are told as a story in the scales, and the conflicts in man's adventures are told as a story in the design of his cathedrals.
In "The Pangolin" both the extremes of heroism and the extremes of tragedy are absent. The dichotomies in man's nature are not violent. Man has, after all, been described through the analogy of the pangolin, so that the paradoxes of his existence are lightened. The poem is not fully given over to the flux it celebrates, for beneath the rapid movement from one image or subject to the next there is a highly organized conceptual base, which is reinforced by unaccented rhyme, rhythmic repetitions, and syllabic form. Again, the formal harmonies promise to resolve the flux and contradiction within the referential function of the poem. Indeed, part of the excitement of poetry is this play between synchronic and diachronic structures. It is the only place where time and eternity are one and loss is gain.
All the poems I have discussed in this chapter deal with modes of combat, and all suggest ways of converting combat to a positive end, thus converting anxiety to gusto. As Burke suggested of his own work, "it is a book such as authors in those days sometimes put together, to keep themselves from falling apart." As Moore once commented in a reading, "art can't resolve human tragedy--it's a defense against it."
While Moore insists continually that the imposition of forms is in need of resistance, we see that they can also be the means of mitigating the experience of flux, can be the means of self-possession and self-location. Objects are thrown against our advance; it is through collision that we learn of them. Moore's ambivalence about conquest is revealed most clearly in her style, which presents a superficial appearance of flux and free association and disguises an elaborate thematic and formal structure. All the poems I have discussed here are inconspicuously rhymed, their stanzas ordered by syllable count. Antithesis, pun, parallelism, further unite formal and thematic structures. Certainly the principle of recalcitrance is everywhere alive in these poems, in guarding against too rigid a formal or thematic frame (through unaccented rhymes, inverted syntax, inverted analogies, and omitted connectives, for instance). But the recalcitrance is granted authority by the very demonstration of control in the poems' unities. Finding herself unable to order experience, Moore makes failures of order a life-supporting good and produces orders that both define this position and provide respites from it.
Moore made this relationship between struggle and harmony explicit in her comment on universal harmony in aesthetics, which I quoted in the first chapter. While artists struggle with each other they are confirming a unified, enduring tradition, and while the artist struggles with his medium he is creating harmonious forms. Determination with resistance," for Moore, always "results in poise," at least in art, for "wherever there is art there is equilibrium."
From Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. Copyright © 1981 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Ann Struthers "Marianne Moore’s Use of Grace in ‘The Pangolin’"
This poem is, ostensibly, about one of those little-known animals for whom Marianne Moore had a penchant. She finds admirable characteristics in a wild creature that others might find ugly or ludicrous. There was, of course, a reason why she so frequently used animals in her poetry, and a special reason why she chose the pangolin for this poem. In the "Foreword" to A Marianne Moore Reader she says:
Why an inordinate interest in animals and athletes? They are subjects for art and exemplars of it, are they not? minding their own business. (xvi)
As to why she chose the pangolin, her interest in armored animals is well known, and she had become interested in this little-known one in the spring of 1927 when a friend who had been to Borneo first described it to her. On the fourth of March that year she wrote to her brother who was serving in the U. S. Navy in the waters of southeast Asia, saying "I want you to tell me if you see a pangolin. It looks like an artichoke, has a tail about a foot long and lives on ants (is in fact an armored anteater)" (MM Newsletter, Spring 1980, 2).
It is obvious that Marianne Moore had become fascinated by this strange animal and her delight in it is one of the major elements that informs the poem. Of course, like most of her poems, this one is full of curious juxtapositions, all of which must be considered in order to understand the full import of what Marianne Moore was saying. In Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions, Bonnie Costello advances the argument that this poem is essentially about:
... armor and about grace--its task is to find the union of these. In the image of the pangolin we find the union in seeing the scales as once as a sign of the animal’s maneuvers and as aesthetically pleasing in themselves. We move to finding the maneuvers aesthetically pleasing, the adversities of combat repeating temporally the permanent pattern of the scales. Adversities are seen as conversities, and moral and aesthetic perspectives are brought together in a notion of grace. The double perspective on the pangolin is followed by an analogy with man, who must incorporate armor and art. Man's struggle through life (or with any specific effort) establishes a pattern which encompasses as a monument to life. Temporal and spatial patterns converge in our experience. (Costello 130)
Bonnie Costello's extensive and thoughtful explication de texte seems, however, to neglect several aspects of this long and complex poem. First of all, the poem, while it does vacillate, relies a great deal on celebration; the reader cannot help but be struck by the obvious joy that Marianne Moore takes in this animal. Secondly, she also takes immense delight in language. She uses it differently than other poets of her day, as William Carlos Williams has told us, but her pleasure in the craftsperson-like use of language is also one of the delights celebrated in "The Pangolin." It seems to this reader that Bonnie Costello's remarks about grace are primarily about its occurrence in the animal kingdom and in art, and that it is an error to ignore, or at least to fail adequately to explore, the spiritual aspects of the word, for it is only in this amalgamation of the spiritual with the temporal delights of the wildlife of the animal and the tame-life of the word that this poem finds its true power. This celebration of joy in her work is clearly illuminated in her interview with Donald Hall when she answered the question about the quality of the work in The Dial while she was its editor by quoting George Grosz who said:
"Endless curiosity, observation, research--and a great amount of joy in the thing." (MMR 266).
She goes on to say that it was a matter of taking a liking to things, things that were in accordance with her taste. "And we didn't care how unhomogenous they might seem." This description of what her experience as editor was like could explain, as well, her experience as writer. Throughout her work her great joy in the natural kingdom is evident, and her admiration for the pangolin colors the entire poem.
She is charmed by his artistic shape and the pattern of his scales, noting that he is a "near artichoke." Not only do his bodily features form a basis for artistic gratification, but the way in which he moves does also. He is seen "Serpentined about/the tree, " and rolled "into a ball"; his economy of construction is compared to a work of art: "Compact like the furled fringe frill/on the hat-brim of Gargallo's hollow iron head of a/matador," and she finds him and his kind "models of exactness,/on four legs."
The pangolin's body is beautiful, but she admires equally the pangolin's moral characteristics. He is a "toiler." He "endures /exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night," and although he is large and fierce looking, he "draws/away from danger unpugnaciously,/with no sound but a harmless hiss." Although he is not an aggressor in battle, nevertheless, he does have methods of survival. When rolled into his ball, he has "power to defy all effort to unroll it;" and he does "not turn back" from his enemies. Every line is permeated with her interest and excitement in the unusual animal. He is truly one of her exemplars.
But Marianne Moore is not writing solely about her pleasure in wild life. She is also writing about art in this poem--first, the pangolin as art, secondly the monks as artists who carved the "cold luxurious/low stone seats--" the "Ingenious roof-supports," and the animals on the spires, and finally the art of man, who is "writing-/master to this world." Moore, who is herself a writing-master, uses the power of these "unhomogenous" exemplars of art which she assembles to explode what she has to say about grace.
She examines the word as if it were an artifact, turning it over and observing it from a number of different angles of meaning. Her first mention of grace in the poem occurs early when she compares the startling and seemingly effortless beauty of form found in the pangolin coiled around the tree to the serpentine grace of the wrought-iron vine around the tomb of Eleanor of Castile, Queen of Edward I, in Westminster Abbey. In this case grace has to do with beauty, but beauty which is not aggressive.
The next mention of a version of the word occurs when she calls the pangolin's tail a "graceful" tool. The tail, which repeats on a larger scale the shape of the animal's proboscis, is covered with "scale/lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity until they/form the uninterrupted central/tail-row!" The pangolin uses its tail as a kind of prop which enables him to climb down from trees and which also helps support his weight when his forequarters are engaged in digging out an ant hill. In this case grace is a practical matter as well as an aesthetic one.
She again uses graceful to describe the movement of the pangolin which is "the not unchain-like machine-like/form and frictionless creep of a thing/made graceful by adversities, con-/ /versities." Moore sees the pangolin as moving with a steady, methodical rhythm which suits its lifestyle which is filled with both difficulties and contradictions. That there is a methodical way to move through life's difficulties and disturbances is illustrated by the demeanor of this animal. By its serene acceptance, it makes its advances a slow dance, beautiful and graceful to watch.
Perhaps in tacit acknowledgement that not everyone would find the pangolin's movements as charming as she does, she adds, "To explain grace requires/a curious hand." Of this stanza Bonnie Costello writes:
The transition from the grace of the pangolin to the grace of the church seems an unwarranted digression. On the slim axis of "grace" the poem inverts the terms of the analog. (126)
The axis is not slim, however, if one explores all the theological meanings of the word. Then it becomes apparent that the major thrust of the poem is, indeed, toward the very point of defining "grace." The religious echoes in this piece are most likely Moore's prime reason for writing this poem.
Marianne Moore has the kind of curious hand that turns recalcitrant words into profound meaning, and she proceeds to explain "grace" in terms of the pangolin, in terms of art, and in terms of her theology, all of which are inseparable. Her excuse for examining this word as if it were a thing, perhaps a jewel begins with her use of a question. The discussion starts with what at first seems to be an ambiguous clause, "If that which is at all were not forever," but when it becomes apparent that she is speaking of Westminster Abbey, her meaning becomes clearer. While that which is carved in stone outlasts many other forms of art, Moore is speaking of something which outlasts everything else--faith in God. It is in such a place of worship that monk-artisans have sculpted animals to ornament the building's spires. The images of animals, who are beautiful and innocent in their own right and who are part of God's kingdom, add beauty to an edifice which is built to last forever. These images are praise to God in stone. Although the art Moore is describing here is architectural, it is surely a key that Moore believes all art can be an expression of theological grace. Bonnie Costello, in her analysis of the poem says:
Man's art is like the pangolin's form, a comparison already hinted at, playfully, not only in the Da Vinci analogy, but in repetitions like the term "artichoke." The pattern of the pangolin's scales is like the repetitions in the stone mullions and the relief sculptures on the cathedral. And just as the pangolin's scales are the shield he uses in his struggle to survive "from dusk to dawn," these architectural forms provide a kind of "shield" for man against the vicissitudes of time. (Costello 126)
Actually, the stone mullions and relief sculptures in the Abbey do more than provide a "shield" against time's ravages. In the Christian perspective, they exemplify the ultimate shield--religious faith. They are visual reminders of the way toward eternal life, and they provide a testimony toward it which is as permanent and as lasting as any mortal-made thing can be. It is not surprising, therefore, that Moore should utilize this part of the poem in a definitely Christian manner.
Marianne Moore, who considered herself a Christian writer often utilized Christian metaphors in her work. Her orientation was toward the church and its lasting religious and moral values. Her exposure to a deeply religious life began when she was born. She and her mother and brother lived with her maternal grandfather, who was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church at Kirkwood, Missouri, until his death when she was seven years old. Her mother was deeply religious, and her brother grew up to become a Presbyterian minister, and although propinquity does not make a believer, Moore became an elder in the Presbyterian Church and attended religious services regularly. She was more than just a listening Christian, however. While her brother was in the Navy, she frequently sent him suggestions for sermons (Stapleton 129) and later she sent her pastor, Dr. George Litch Knight of Lafayette Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, notes regarding theological subjects (MM Newsletter, Fall, 1980).
While she was a practicing Christian, she was also a practicing craftsperson (just as the monk sculptors were), and there is an obvious link between her Christian perspective and her work. Donald Hall believes that she eventually came to think of her craft as the enactment of her beliefs. In her poem "When I Buy Pictures" she describes the kind of art which she finds attractive:
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be 'lit with piercing glances into the life of things’;
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.
For Marianne Moore it is obvious that the "'spiritual forces which have made it" are of primary importance. To examine the various meanings of grace in this sixth stanza Moore continues in the questioning mode. She asks why if that which the monks worship is not forever, would they have slaved "to confuse/grace with a kindly manner." Moore emphasizes another meaning of the word as she turns it about, observing and recording its various hard edges. The pangolin, trying to exist as peacefully as possible in his own world, is an exemplar of a kindly manner. The monks, also exemplars, who worked away peacefully, creating good crafts and at last dying and lining up along the stone mullions, became in the end, part of the design--and the poem is concerned with the overall design in life, in art and in language.
Grace, Moore insists, also includes time in which to pay a debt, referring to the "grace period." She might also have been thinking of those lines from the Lord's Prayer, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." If this is her reference, then time to pay the debt is indeed grace. In Christian theology when the Christian asks forgiveness for sins, he or she is also obligated to forgive those who have sinned against him or her. So the issue of debt in Christianity is a significant one.
In continuing to examine this word, Moore refers to yet another of its meanings, "the cure for sins," and here she emphasizes one of the basic tenets of Protestant Christianity, that the believer is saved by grace, not by merit nor by good deeds, not by prayers nor intercessions of others, but only by the grace of Jesus Christ; that is, his sacrifice on the cross was full payment for all the sins of humankind. In looking at the various meanings of the word, Marianne Moore very carefully left the most important one until last.
Although most of "The Pangolin" is devoted to the animal, that other animal, man, also comes into the work. The human animal is not praised the way the pangolin is, but the poet does note one of his redeeming characteristics: "Among animals,one has a sense of humor. / Humor saves a few steps, it saves years." However, the human animal is plagued by contradictory emotions and is the "prey of fear" and is "thwarted by the dusk" and by "work partly done," yet this same creature is capable of saying:
'Again the sun! anew each day; and new and new and new, that comes into and steadies my soul.'
Since the discussion of the sun follows closely her theological examination of the word grace, the reader is probably correct in surmising that the inclusion of the sun has theological implications as well. Of course, Moore means the physical sun that warms the universe; but because of her Christian background, it is a fair surmise to assume that she was also thinking of the familiar Christian metaphor of Christ as the son and the sun, "the light of the world." The extensive discussion of grace, and setting by its side the warmth, goodness, and the healing qualities of the sun, indicate the route that Marianne Moore intended to take.
The pangolin is an armored animal and one that Marianne Moore delighted in, just as she delighted in the materials of her craft--words. Words also have their armor, and Moore successively peels away the layers of armor covering the word "grace," to show the reader the beauties of it, just as she had shown the reader the beauties of the animal. A Moore poem has its armor, too, the armor of meaning within meaning and the armor of reference within reference, all of it, of course, leading to one conclusion--in this case, a major Christian affirmation. The pangolin is an exemplar of art by his careful and peaceful life style. The monks are exemplars by their craft and by their lives, and eventually by their graves becoming part of the edifice. Obviously grace is one of the things this poem is "about." Her delight in the pangolin itself and her delight in the tools of her craft merely lead the way toward it, like the gentle pangolin, "moving quietly."
Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
"Iron Sculpture Similes in 'The Pangolin.’" Marianne Moore Newsletter 4 (Spring 1980):2-5.
Moore, Marianne. The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. New York: Macmillan/Viking, 1967.
------."Forward." A Marianne Moore Reader. New York: Viking, 1965. Xiii-xviii. (MMR)
"MM in Brooklyn." Marianne Moore Newsletter 4 (Fall 1980): 24.
Stapleton, Laurence. Marianne Moore: The Poet's Advance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.
From Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Ed. Patricia C. Willis. Copyright © 1990 by The National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission. Please consult the original book for footnotes to the essay.
Moore's artistry reaches a peak with "The Pangolin," in large part because it shows her ability to merge inner values and outer surfaces with playful ingenuity and yet serious intent. From the poem's opening phrase--"Another armoured animal"--we hear that tone of surety that results when an artist has come to know fully her material and to have seen that it fully serves her thematic aims. In some ways "The Pangolin" is the most positive, self-possessed poem of the book which shares its title. But its tensions and ironies are present, and they reverberate with the knowledge of the preceding four poems. By using animal grace as the ostensible subject in all five poems, Moore skillfully mediates between the concern with civic virtue and the complexities of the artistic vocation. Many modernist poems and poets are notable for their separation of the artistic and civil realms, and Moore herself has often been discussed as if she had little or no interest in public matters outside of manners and decorum. Her concern with decorum, however, as well as her concern with perceptual accuracy and artistic responsiveness, have a moral dimension that is fulfilled on a public scale. Too often, I think, Moore's concern with armoring and armored animals has been taken to suggest something like hermeticism, as if the armor were equivalent to the monk’s walls in his cell. But armor was designed to allow people to go into the world, not avoid it. And so, I think, Moore understood it. The pangolin is a nocturnal, isolated animal, stealthy and seldom seen, but its solitariness is in the service of genuine virtues: patience, skill, the wise use of strength. These virtues have social consequences in the human realm, and so what the pangolin emblematizes through its poetic representation is a didactically important awareness for existing in the human world.
The witty equation between pangolin and artist gets a playful introduction in the poem's opening stanza:
This near artichoke
with head and legs and grit-equipped giz-
zard, the night miniature artist-
engineer, is Leonardo's
indubitable son? Im-
and toiler, of whom we seldom hear.
The pedigree, as it were, is a conditioned one, for the pause after "is" indicates not only hesitation but an awareness of the implausible nature of the identification with Leonardo even if it's only through paternal lineage. (The "is" is also highlighted by the comic rhyme with the jutting "giz" of two lines previous.) Note, too, how Moore first locates her metaphoric frame in the world of nature, with the artichoke, before turning to the world of culture with Leonardo. The pangolin is not only a dreamy artist figure, but an "artist-engineer," a creature who masters its environment by purposive activity. This constitutes one connection with the explorer figure of "Virginia Britannia," and while we "seldom hear" of the pangolin, in contrast to John Smith's self-publicizing, the animal has some of the explorer's inconsistency, for it is later described as "Fearful yet to be feared."
Having begun the identification of animal and artist with her usual tentative touch, Moore is freed to explore the pangolin's habits in a way that can easily be read as an allegory of the moon-struck romantic artist, even down to his propensity to have his activity and character imaged forth as yet another art form while he explores the world on his own aesthetic terms. We enjoy several levels of identification when he:
trips through unfamiliar ground at night
returning before sunrise; stepping
in the moonlight, on the moonlight
peculiarly, that the out-
side edges of his
hands may bear the weight and save the claws
for digging. Serpentined about
the tree, he draws
with no sound but a harmless hiss; keep-
ing the fragile grace of the Thomas-
of Leighton-Buzzard Westminster
Abbey wrought iron vine, or
rolls himself into a ball that has
power to defy all effort
to unroll it ....
Again, a pause after the first moonlight suggests Moore is about to lift the level of suspended disbelief needed to tease out the implications of the animal's grace. The economy of the animal/artist is what is perhaps most striking, how he saves his claws for digging, how he allows only a "harmless hiss" to express his fear and disregard, and how, like the durably wrought ironwork of the Abbey's tomb, his fragility is in part illusory. It is no wonder that Moore can end a stanza with a peroration in which the ability to live and even prosper in alternating states can be the distinctive mark of both man and animal. The lines recall one of Moore's favorite authors, Sir Thomas Browne, and his desire to live in "divided and distinguished worlds":
Sun and moon & day and night &
man and beast
each with a splen-
dour which man
in all his vileness cannot
set aside; each with an excellence!
Here Moore echoes not only Hamlet's awareness of man's divided nature but also her own phrase from another poem: "life's faulty excellence." This stanza ending also anticipates the poem's closing lines, where the sun is addressed as an "alternating blaze." Again, Moore may have Stevens' "Sunday Morning" in mind, with its concern that humanness is inextricably tied up with alternation, and that any single unchanging state would be insipid. But it is also her sense of fallenness, the particular texture of human virtue--its excellencies and its limitations--that is richly conveyed in the poem's structure.
It is directly to man's character that Moore turns in the poem's last three stanzas, not altogether abandoning the allegorical framework of animal grace, but emboldened enough to speak directly in a way that is altogether rather unique in her poetry. Though she draws an industrious picture of where "Beneath sun and moon, man slave[s]/to make his life more sweet," Moore is wry enough to point out that he "leaves half the/flowers worth having." She goes on to emblematize various human traits through the agencies of animal graces, until she presents him as "capsizing in / / disheartenment." Drawing back from this near-tragic sense, Moore resorts to some grammatical complexity and mingles it with some Cummings-like typographical wit in order to leaven the theme's piecemeal presentation before the finale:
Bedizened or stark
naked, man, the self, the being
so-called human, writing-
master to this world, griffons a dark
'Like does not like like that is
obnoxious'; and writes errror [sic] with four
r's. Among animals, one has a
sense of humor ....
Again, commentary might exfoliate endlessly here, starting with the slight echo from King Lear to the way that last wry sentence does and does not include man among the animals. But it is important to note that now man is the "writing-master," and so literature has a didactic function that links the aesthetic with the ethical. In this one instance, what is written is gnomic, since the verb "griffons" suggests that the sentiment expressed is both heraldic and hybrid. In either case, the note of dislike and the obnoxious reminds us of our fallenness, and the fact that the species, simply by being a set of "like" creatures, does not guarantee peace for itself. (Moore had earlier said, in her array of animal emblems of human traits, that man was "in fighting, mechanicked/like the pangolin." Perhaps she had Leonardo's many militaristic "inventions" in mind.)
The final stanza is a marvel of structural subtlety, as it refers equally to the pangolin and man, an equivocation made possible by the closing lines of the penultimate stanza. The equivocation perhaps turns wittiest with the lines "Consistent with the/formula--warm blood, no gills,/two pairs of hands and a few hairs--that/is a mammal; there he sits in his/own habitat." Part of the humor here is the way the Dickinson-like use of riddle is called on to question the "formula" about mammalian identity, a very touchy point in biology. The pangolin might easily be taken for a reptile, but his features fit the mammalian formula sufficiently, even though they also allow him to be described in a way that applies with almost equal accuracy to humans. (Luckily we have one pair of hands and one of feet.) George Plank's drawing at the start of the poem shows a pangolin in a tree under the moon; the drawing at the end of the poem shows a man, clasping his face in his hands under a blazing sun. Even more than the merging of the horse and the butterfly in "Half Deity," here the identification of the two main subjects of the poem is very much to the point of the poem's argument. As Moore says earlier in the poem, "To explain grace requires/a curious hand." We might even speculate that she was using "curious" here in both its seventeenth century sense of finely and intricately wrought as well as the modern sense of desiring knowledge. In either case, the identification of man and pangolin is indeed curious.
Moore concludes the poem with a description that continues the semantic balancing act of referring equally to man and animal and again heightens the irony by having the affirmative salutation be uttered from a very bleak context.
The prey of fear; he, always
thwarted by the dusk, work partly done,
says to the alternating blaze,
'Again the sun!
day; and new and new and new,
that comes into and steadies my soul."
The way Moore suspends the main verb "says" at some distance from the subject "he" allows the intervening four appositive clauses to wall in, as it were, the speaking subject. The clauses are semantically involved with forms of limitation and the air of failure, and the address is to a blaze that is far from steady. Yet the moral affirmation of the salutation itself leaps out at us from this set of fallen conditions in a way that speaks to the issues raised throughout the book. The sentiment, normally spoken with a cloying piety, is here saved from what might have been its own rhetorical excess by that special mixture of innocence and experience that has served to balance the speaker's authority and winsomeness, in large measure by the self-consciousness of her modes of representation.
We can hear this struggle between the tonal possibilities of affirmation--Moore being too much a modernist to indulge what Pound called the "emotional slither" of late Victorianism--as earlier in the poem we find a most complex sentence in a lyric poem that has more than one to offer.
If that which
is at all were not for
ever, why would those who graced the spires
with animals and gathered
there to rest, on cold luxurious
low stone seats--a monk and monk and monk--
between the thus ingenious roof-
supports, have slaved to confuse
grace with a kindly
manner, time in which to pay a debt,
the cure for sins, a graceful use
of what are yet
mullions branching out across
The opening complex subjunctive clause here, if turned into a declarative sentence, would claim that all that which has existed is eternal, or at least that the human effort to make art in the service of glory and ideals will in its way last forever. One recalls Stevens' line from "Peter Quince At The Clavier," "The body dies; the body's beauty lives." Note, too, the gothic sculptors' penchant for intermingling animals and man, surely one feature that induced Moore to incorporate this part of the theme into the poem. But the sculptors "slaved to confuse grace" in two senses, the supernatural and the animal, for both forms of grace are evoked in what follows. A kindly manner, in strictest theological accounting, is normally not supposed to be confused with the cure for sins, but if this passage is, as I would claim it is, Moore's most direct religious statement, it is also direct in her uniquely indirect way. Modernism has often been defined as a thoroughly secular movement, one that eschews all traditionally transcendent affirmations, with the exception of the aesthetic. Moore here rather craftily enters a religious claim--at least to the extent that all claims about eternal existence are essentially religious--but of course does so in a context of human art, and in the act of describing perpendiculars and stone mullions.
We also have in this passage yet another of the poem's pauses, in this case before the word "ingenious" and after the word "thus." In rhyming both words with "luxurious" two lines previous, Moore triangulates a sort of aesthetic argument: luxurious--thus--ingenious. Furthermore, the poet has indulged in an oxymoron by having the stone seats made luxurious; the gothic sculpture possesses a sort of baroque richness, at least in Moore's aesthetic probings of it. But I don't think there is any puritanical censure implied against the mediaeval style, but rather the opposite. Moore's isolation as an artist might be due to her over-ingenuity, her ability to indulge in a play with and among various aesthetic sensibilities. While she has a carefully worked out aesthetic of her own, her ability to appreciate other modes and styles in art is truly catholic, in the strict sense. She is capable of responding to the refinements of Oriental art and the American vernacular. However concerned she was with the problem of an indigenous American cultural style, she was, in the best modernist way, an internationalist. The "yet approved" mullions are aesthetically pleasing beyond their origin in scholasticism or religious piety, and we sense that Moore delighted in the mere grace of their "branching out." Such a refined and disinterested aesthetic delight is not likely to find mass approval in an industrial age generally stripped of historical consciousness and formal ingenuity. While Moore does not indulge in the anti-mechanistic jeremiads of such modernists as Lawrence, she must have known that in some sense the limit on the size of her audience was self-imposed.
From gothic sculpture and the animal grace of a rare mammal, Moore has stitched her Venetian tapestry out of peasant material. But from the start these poems have been busy implicating the worlds of culture and history as well as the realms of nature and art for not only do we have stone mullions and a "true ant-eater," we have Thomas-of-Leighton-Buzzard vines and John Smith's ostrich. Moore was a voracious reader, and an equally voracious watcher of natural history films. Throughout all her reading she struggled with the conflicts between her modernist aesthetic and her traditional morality, a morality grounded in a religious faith with which she was never simply at ease. In The Pangolin, and perhaps most impressively in the title poem, she achieved that rare sort of balance between inner conflicts and outer symmetries. In part the achievement came from a mastery of will, a self-discipline in working out the thematic consequences of her visions without abandoning didactic goals or stinting on artistic delights. In this she has made a masterpiece out of her struggles. We should let her animal language have the final word:
not aggressive animals; between
dusk and day, they have the not un-
like form and
frictionless creep of a thing
made graceful by adversities, con-
Excerpted from "Moore’s masterpiece: The Pangolin’s Alternating Blaze." In Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Ed. Patricia C. Willis. Copyright © 1990 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission. Please consult the original book for footnotes and sources for this essay.
Sister Bernetta Quinn, O.S.F. "The Artist as Armored Animal: Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell"
"The Pangolin," in Randall Jarrell's opinion, ranked above all Marianne Moore's other poems, even "Spenser's Ireland," that unforgettable hymn to the country of his own great-grandmother, and her equally lilting tribute to the mind as an enchanting thing. To ask why leads to the "educated guess" that he was attracted, increasingly, because of her spiritual analysis of his own species in terms of this armored animal (he was less emphatic about its excellence when writing aboutWhat are Years in 1942 than when reviewing the 1952 Collected Poems). As much a pacifist at heart as Robert Lowell, he admired Moore's portrait of the scaly anteater as a peaceable creature, choosing defense rather than aggression; rolling into a ball almost impossible to disentangle, excreting an ill-smelling fluid from the tail area in a crisis, dropping from tree to safer earth with a bounce, thanks to the intricately devised scales capable of preventing injury.
Most of Marianne Moore's time at Bryn Mawr, according to an interview with Donald Hall, was spent in the biology laboratory; she tells him that she "found the biology courses--minor, major, and histology—exhilarating." She would have been well-acquainted with Linnaeus, who first classified the pangolin (1758) as Pholidota ("scaled animals"), its specific name derived from the Malayan word Guling, meaning a bolster or cylindrical cushion ( sometimes the synonym roller is used, recalling the mammal's trick of escape). So important to her was this denizen of the African/Asian forests that the handsome 1936 collection of her verse arranged by H.D. and illustrated by Carlisle's George Plank not only took the animal as title but placed "The Pangolin" in the most prominent place, last. Renowned as she was for zoo-visiting, it is unlikely that she knew the pangolin any more directly than through books:
The difficulty of feeding these animals in captivity makes them one of the greatest of rarities in zoological gardens.... So it is that everyone in the Western Hemisphere, to see them alive, must, like Mohammed, go to the less mobile object, in this case not the mountain, but the mantis.
So writes Robert T. Hatt in the article on pangolins which Miss Moore lists in her Notes, its reading a sign of her continued zest for biology.
Randall Jarrell too was a science major in undergraduate days at Vanderbilt and would have found fascinating the mantis's method of food-gathering, in which the ribbon-like tongue (sometimes almost two feet long) flickers out as often as 160 times a minute to scoop up as many as 30,000 ant-victims a day. He would have been intrigued by Hatt's metaphorical account:
The long, thin tongue can dart in and out with snake-like rapidity and, twisting in among the galleries of an ant colony, it picks up and draws back into the ant-chute mouth all the animals it touches. Enormous salivary glands furnish an abundant supply of a thick, sticky substance to the surface of the tongue, which holds the insects captive.
Not at all a gregarious individual, Jarrell perhaps saw in the pangolin, solitary denizen of the night, a figure of the artist, his imagination intrigued by Miss Moore's picture of the modest anteater going his own way through the warm landscapes of his habitat, walking so carefully on the moonlight in the moonlight that he might have been some wild thing in one of the Sendak books for children. The moonlight suffusing "The Pangolin" might well have been for him the moonlight bathing the "little house in the woods" in Greensboro, the first (and the last) piece of property he ever owned, its simple environs shielding him from the competition he sometimes encountered in academic sites like Princeton. Heartily would he have seconded her "The cure for loneliness is solitude," an aphorism from the essay "If I Were Sixteen Today."
In their fastidious artistry both Marianne Moore and Randall Jarrell were armored animals. What the second says about the first in that appropriately named review "Her Shield" applies to him too:
Sometimes Miss Moore writes about armour [he uses the spelling of the English edition, The Pangolin and Other Poems] and wears it, the most delicately chased, live-seeming scale-armour anybody ever put together, armour hammered and of fern seed, woven from the silk of invisible cloaks. . . .
This "live-seeming" armor recalls that of Achilles, furnished him by Love, fashioned on Olympus. As critic, Jarrell feels it is constructed of quotation, ambiguity, irony, all of which characterize his own stylistic protection as does the difficulty for which he praises Miss Moore. It is no wonder they were drawn to the world of fables and fairy tales, where invulnerability is common, a predilection witnessed to in her case by an adaptation two years before Jarrell’s death of Charles Perrault's Puss in Boots, The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella: A Retelling of Three Classic Fairy Tales.
Most of those who have written books on Marianne Moore have commented on the attention her bestiaries give to protection. Donald Hall, after referring to her admiration for armored animals as "a professionals respect for another professional" says: "One suspects that next to being a dragon who can become invisible. Miss Moore would like best to be a pangolin" (94). Bernard F. Engle names his second chapter "The Armored Self: Selected Poems" and the third "Armor for Use: Middle Period Poems." Ten years before the review of Collected Poems referred to above, Jarrell had this to say:
It would be stupid not to see Miss Moore in all her protective creatures—"another armored animal," she once reflects or confesses. . . . "The Pangolin" may be her best poem; it is certainly one of the most moving, honest, and haunting poems that anyone has written in our century.
One more resemblance between the two poets is the ear, highly developed in both, as it is in the pangolin, who can hear a sound five miles away. Jarrell trained his ear for music to be sensitive beyond belief, to the point that in his last years, including the final trip to Europe with Mary, opera, ballet, symphonies had become for him a passion, a facet of his genius urgently calling for scholarly attention. As for Marianne Moore, her skill in balancing rhyme, assonance, other sound-structure elements creates what Jarrell lauds as "a texture that will withstand any amount of rereading; a restraint and delicacy that make many more powerful poems seem obvious." "The Pangolin" begins with three words involving the broad a (ah), "Another armored animal,"' followed by Moore's favorite punctuation mark, the dash; the triple repetition results in music as well as emphasis. The poem is well-paired with "The Paper Nautilus," which it always precedes in her arrangements (both creatures guardians of the treasure of self, the second also of offspring), though from the opening of "The Pangolin": one might expect it would follow "The Paper Nautilus."
From the outset of the poem on the scaly anteater, Wallace Stevens' "realm of resemblance" takes over; it prevails throughout. The strange mammal is likened to the cone of a spruce tree, then to an artichoke, similarities noted by one of her sources, Robert T. Hatt: "It has indeed a leafy appearance that has caused visitors to my office, when seeing a curled up skin fresh from the field, to inquire whether the object was an artichoke or a pine cone." That the artichoke is the edible flower-head of a thistle-like plant makes its properties a gentle reinforcement of the armor imagery.
As Moore elaborates the armor figure, she explains why for the pangolin armor is not something extra but rather a protection, among other uses to safeguard its ears, described by Hatt as a defense against angry ants through "the reduction of the ear conch to a small fold of thickened skin above the ear." One can visualize Marianne in the Hudson Park branch of the Brooklyn Public Library between reviews of silent movie fiction (her special charge), pouring over the pangolin article and fastening upon such an interesting detail as in his next sentence: "Not only may eyes be covered but even the ears and nostrils are capable of complete closure," then devising her own scrupulous design of pangolin armor:
But for him
the closing ear-ridge--
or bare ear lacking even this small [to rhyme with scale,
eminence and similarly safe central]
contracting nose and eye apertures
impenetrably closeable, are not,--
Although ordinarily gizzard is a term reserved for the portion of a bird's stomach where its food is ground, the scaly anteater's stomach, according to Hatt, is "a gizzard-like organ in which operate strong muscular grinding forces aided by pebbles picked up by the pangolin," in Moore the "grit-equipped gizzard." The naturalist goes on to explore the action of these muscles: "Lacking teeth, the pangolin, as it were, stones its prey to death in the same manner that birds grind hard seeds in their gizzards, and the crocodiles triturate meats too hastily swallowed." He ridicules one researcher who proposed the theory that the pangolin lives entirely on mineral substances, "a suggestion that would be difficult to equal for absurdity," one of the "simpletons" spoken of in the poem.
Scientist Theodore H. Eaton depicts the pangolin as shy, looking for food only at night, the "night miniature artist engineer" of Marianne Moore-- a factor which may well have saved it from extermination, since its tasty flesh is highly prized by natives of the regions where it dwells. Moore's comment on its food (which she defines as ants, excluding cockroaches) corresponds with Hatt's remark that although the mammal is "not above picking up an occasional beetle or even a worm, such digressions are not an indication of an omnivorous diet." Actually the pangolin is the world's only creature living on ants, the others (misnamed anteaters) preferring the less ferocious termites.
Using who instead of which, Marianne Moore subtly builds up (among other ways) her subject into a kind of human hero "who endures/exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night." These nocturnal efforts appear poetic as exquisitely expressed by stepping "'peculiarly that the outside/ edges of his hands [not paws] may bear the weight and save/ the claws/ for digging." The gait is pictured thus by Hatt: "As most others of its group, the giant pangolin walks on its knuckles and the sides of its feet. Thus the claws are kept sharp for digging."
With her penchant for economical metaphor and precision, Miss Moore likens the mantis to a snake, through a participle: "Serpentined." Herbert Lang's photograph accompanying the Hatt essay bears out her impression: it shows the odd creature wrapped around the trunk reptile-like as it descends to the ground. Not all forms are terrestrial: the African black-bellied pangolin and the silky anteater live exclusively in trees, while the collared anteater spends at least part of his time arboreally. Randall Jarrell in the Kenyon Review piece of the early 1940s indirectly connects Moore's metaphorical gifts with Midas' golden touch:
She not only can, but has to, make poetry out of everything and anything: she is like Midas, or Mozart purposely choosing unpromising themes, or like the princess whom a wizard forces to manufacture sheets out of nettles--if the princess were herself the wizard.
The concise metaphor recording how the creature winds himself around a tree-trunk if endangered, in non-violent opposition to an aggressor, is indicative of how this poet can make sheets out of nettles.
Both Marianne and her father appreciated silence, e.g. "The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence," from the lyric named "Silence"; from his habits the pangolin too seems to appreciate it. Hatt writes: "The pangolins are silent animals and are not known to produce any noise through the mouth other than a hiss," a sentence which the poem transforms into "... he draws away from danger unpugnaciously,/with no sound but a harmless hiss," Moore adding as a complication of the image "keeping/ the fragile grace" of the wrought-iron vine done by Thomas of Leighton Buzzard; this Westminster Abbey artifact she had probably observed while in London with her mother. She continues by delineating a response to aggression suggestive of the hedge-hog's stratagem when attacked: in Ernest P. Walker's Mammals of the World this appears as "'they [the pangolins] are rather timid animals and if overtaken before they can reach the burrow, they curl into a tight ball, the armored limbs and tail protecting the soft under parts." Hatt also includes this trick:
Like those other creatures with flexible dorsal armor, the armadillo, the hedgehog, and the pill-bug, the mantis, when put on the defensive, curls up into a ball, keeping the plates on the outside and the soft under-surfaces unexposed. Because of its thick tail and the protruding scales, the pangolin's simulation of a ball is less perfect than that of an armadillo.
Cuddled up in this way, the anteaters are almost impregnable according to Marianne Moore, ". . . strongly intailed, neat/ head for core, on neck not breaking off, with curled-in feet."
The lyric continues with a sentence beginning "Nevertheless," title for her 1944 volume, and here introducing the idea that this "ball" behavior is unnecessary, since the overlapping scales are sting-proof; besides, the pangolin has the resource of retreating underground into a "nest / of rocks" (italics mine), a metaphor underscoring the bird allusion of gizzard and developing further the pacific quality of the animal. As Moore went along in her poetic career, her bestiary became more and more a collection of good animals, allegorical parallels of the types of persons she and Randall valued, a change about which Jarrell says: "Because so much of our own world is evil, she has transformed the animal kingdom, that amoral realm, into a realm of good . . . " yet somehow the pangolin lyric shows that "the world is not good and evil, but good-and-evil," like the parabolic field where cockle grows amidst the wheat. The nest-refuge Moore particularizes with "closed with earth from the inside," a phenomenon expressed by naturalist Walker as "The terrestrial forms generally close their burrough with dirt when they are inside."
Having brought her emblem-animal to this vantage point, Marianne Moore flings the poem forward like a banner, in verse which Jarrell acclaims as Old Testament in its exaltation:
Sun and moon and day and night and man and beast
each with a splendour
which man in all his vileness cannot
set aside; each with an excellence!
The sun has one glory, that of day, and the moon another, that of night, just as each man and each beast has a unique radiance, what Hopkins would call an inscape. Granddaughter and sister of ministers, she turned naturally to psalmody such as this, just as Jarrell, native of the Bible Belt, turned again and again to his boyhood copy of the Scriptures.
The fourth stanza begins with a caption out of Hatt's account, placed there below Herbert Lang's photograph of the African pangolin, "Fearful, Yet To Be Feared," a description which is expanded as "Pangolins are not aggressive, but the giant species can do great damage with their massive axe-edged tails." Though never eager for hostile encounters, the pangolin is no coward: with the wizardry that Jarrell commends, Marianne Moore studies this passage from Hatt:
It is to be marveled at that the pangolins have the courage to feed on a column of driver ants, but we have the authority of Herbert Lang that they will do this. Most other animals, and a few nimble birds are notable exceptions, flee from these hordes that are capable of overcoming animals of large size. The armor-clad scaly anteaters, in spite of their success among the ants, are not invulnerable to attack, and when the ants do succeed in swarming over an individual, the scales are set violently quivering. . .
and transforms it thus:
... the armored
ant-eater met by the driver-ant does not turn back, but
engulfs what he can, the flattened sword-
edged leafpoints on the tail and artichoke set leg-and
quivering violently when it retaliates
and swarms on him.
Here she added two new metaphors for the scales: sword-edge and leaf.
Marianne Moore by the time she composed "The Pangolin" had behind her the good part of a lifetime of noticing connections, connections as important to her as to Robert Penn Warren when he developed his interpretation of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," relying for theme on the sacramentality of the universe. As a summary of her use of these, Jarrell writes: "She shows that everything is related to everything else; no one has compared successfully more disparate objects." How she could conceive of the live "ball" about to drop to the ground as the furled ornament on the hat of a matador as represented by the sculptor Gargallo is remarkable, but then it was she who would one day inquire of Donald Hall in theParis Review interview: "'Didn't Aristotle say that it is the mark of a poet to see resemblances between apparently incongruous things?’"
The poem at this stage heightens the man/pangolin identification, the aspect of the work which gives it its most lasting significance, by elaborating on the functions of the tail "graceful tool, as prop or hand or broom or axe," prop suggesting a cane. Richard G. Van Gelder in Geology of Mammals calls attention to how from time to time the tail permits a biped, tail-supported gait; in the same vein, Hartman notes that likeness to man in one of the sevens species of Pholidota (Tamandua) is so marked that it is nicknamed "Dominus vobiscum" because it resembles a priest at the altar when it stands upright with its arms outstretched. Since some of these animals are six or eight feet long, the human counterpart is not far-fetched. The Twayne volume on Marianne Moore by Bernard F. Engle regards "The Pangolin" "her fullest statement on relationships among the animal, human, and spiritual kingdoms," declaring that her real subject is the nature of man, "that animal for whom no physical armoring is adequate."
The peaceful disposition of the pangolin receives further stress in this fifth stanza through its being termed "not aggressive," its progress the "frictionless creep of a thing/ made graceful by adversities." Much has been made of the grace motif in Moore's work. Elizabeth Phillips calls grace the focal theme of "The Pangolin." Praising the animal when regarded as artifact Phillips speaks of the need for more than the efficient working of parts (Williams' machine made of words, energized by art): "The natural ease of his movements, however, is only one kind of grace, rather a limited and cautious kind. To explain grace requires more than that." The "more" means an advance to supernatural grace as understood by this author's minister-grand-father and Navy chaplain- brother Warren, indeed by all the Moore family. Such is the connotation of grace drawn in by the lines in the lyric on that anonymous glory of the Middle Ages the carving monks did based on the Book of the Creatures (they and other artists), high up above cathedral worshippers, in a freedom from vanity explicated here by the confident clause "If all that which is at all were not forever"; indeed, to tourists today it does seem as if what is represented is forever, those creatures on the stone mullions which still branch out across the vaulted temples.
In stanza seven Moore, through a lavish series of metaphors (after praising the quietness of the pangolin by comparing it to that first of all machines the sailboat) calls man the kin of wasp and spider and pangolin, carrying on the same trades and yet set apart by a sense of humor. Laughter has been called the differentiating feature of homo sapiens. Her praise mounts, including even praise for contradictions ("unemotional, and all emotion!") and emphasizing once more modesty and courage. About the last virtue Donald Hall comments in Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal, "Courage, an inward hardening of the spirit to adversity, is man's best and only protection." Yet if the pangolin is courageous it is also cautious, a "humble animal," as Jarrell terms Miss Moore herself.
It is almost impossible for Moore readers to think of the conclusion of "The Pangolin" apart from Make It New by the author's friend Ezra Pound, a motto Pound says was lettered in gold on the bathtub of a Chinese emperor. The poem ends ". . . anew each day; and new and new and new," referring to the sun "that comes into and steadies my soul." In respect to man, sharing the spotlight with the pangolin in this lyric, what Elizabeth Phillips says sums up her focus-as-grace idea: "Ridiculous as he is, he has a soul, and it can be steadied." What Randall Jarrell asserts in closing "Her Shield" is just as true of his own "The Old and the New Masters"--he uses the words of Marianne Moore's best poetry to say of it that it "comes into and steadies the soul" so that the reader feels himself "a life prisoner, but reconciled."
Moore's regard for Jarrell comes through in her letters: "I cannot think of anyone who gives me more incentive than Randall Jarrell, as I read about him or think about him." Despite his youthful parody of her, "The Country Was," his deep appreciation of her verse and character was beyond question, the first revealed in his statement reviewing Nevertheless that she wrote better poetry than any other woman alive. Evaluating Predilections, he asserts that this prose collection, like her other works, is "purely and individually and imaginatively faithful to the truth as she sees it." Like Flannery O'Connor, as Elizabeth Phillips points out, life to her is a comic vision, one she passionately cares about: "The thing is to see the vision and not deny it; to care and admit that we do." She feels for the "pangolin," frustrated as he is by the fact that "We live in time so little time" and yet facing each new day with the hope of the Psalmist, "Sing a new song unto the Lord!" If man appears ridiculous through overdress or nakedness (Lear's "poor, forked animal"), even so no amount of vileness will cancel out his excellence: "a little lower than the angels," he is brother of the Son. If he must leave half the flowers unpicked, he wins a kind of survival through his web of bridges built from bluff to bluff and leaves behind not only the miracle of paper (an achievement greater than the wasp's) but scrawlings upon it that excite and inspire, that "can make one/ breathe faster and make one erecter."
Not accidentally does "Armour's Undermining Modesty" appear at the end of Collected Poems, its final phrase "the imperishable wish," at the heart of which seems a longing for someone/Someone to love the poet "best of all," the wish of the child in Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Those who live in today's world, where affirmation often seems absent, can meditate on Marianne Moore's pangolin as it humbly advances toward dawn.
From Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Ed. Patricia Willis. Copyright © 1990 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission. Please consult the original book for footnotes and sources for this essay.
In "The Pangolin" (1936) the anteater of the title is the focal center of the poet's thoughts, affording the means by which she works through to a new definition of man. Although the animal's exemplary virtues are given in the poem (it is nonaggressive, graceful, a model of exactness), they are presented in a form that approximates thought. The poem opens with a sentence fragment whose disjointedness signifies reflection: "Another armored animal--scale lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity." The device of self-correction is used to introduce observations about the closing sense organs ("the closing earridge-- / or bare ear"). There are contradictions, too, in the imagery that is used to present these organs ("contracting nose and eye apertures / impenetrably closeable").
The device of self-correction is also fused with the metamorphic image of the moon. In the second stanza the anteater is described as a night creature, "stepping in the moonlight, / on the moonlight peculiarly" that it may preserve the strength of its claws and wear only the outer edges of its hands. Repetition is fused with metamorphic imagery in the heightened exclamation ending stanza three:
Sun and moon and day and night and man and beast
each with a splendor
which man in all his vileness cannot
set aside; each with an excellence!
In a subtle way the poet is working through to the idea that the pangolin, a night creature, is not a seeing animal. The true subject of this poem is man as a seeing being. The emphasis on man becomes apparent in the penultimate stanza, with its shift in tone: "Bedizened or stark / naked, man, the self, the being we call human." When man is described as being unafraid yet fearing ("Not afraid of anything is he / and then goes cowering forth"), we recall that the pangolin is "'fearful yet to be feared.’" The pangolin, for all its virtues, is hampered by consistency; man, on the other hand, is characterized by contradictions and opposites, and this very inconsistency is his greatness. He is consistent only with the "formula": "warm blood, no gills, two pairs of hands and a few hairs--that is a mammal." In the final lines the emergent vision of man is accompanied by a metamorphic image of the sun, in which the poet adverts to its power to generate energy that produces change:
The prey of fear, he, always
curtailed, extinguished, thwarted by the dusk, work
says to the alternating blaze,
"Again the sun!
anew each day; and new and new and new,
that comes into and steadies my soul."
The poetic rightness of this passage is in the way the language enacts the fusion of the experiential aspect of things and the inner vision, and this fusion is supported by the poet's adherence to the actual progression of thought. The poem moves from idea to radiant image in a process that Freud tells us is characteristic of the unconscious: in nearly all dreams, he writes, thoughts are transformed into visual images. Further, the union of man and anteater suggests that dream technique of combining two or more persons so that a new image emerges. As Freud states:
In composition, where this is extended to persons, the dream-image contains features which are peculiar to one or the other of the persons concerned but not common to them; so that the combination of these features leads to the appearance of a new unity, a composite figure.
The poet has created a new human image by means of the form that imitates consciousness. Aside from the approximation of thought and of economy which characterize the unconscious as well as poetic speech, the use of these devices enables the poet to contemplate man while ostensibly focusing on the animal. The transformation of thought to visual image and the use of composite dream persons are further aids to this process.
In addition, the poet assimilates the mental process of referring back to previous images and transforming them. The concluding passage quoted above, depicting man, recalls the description of the pangolin in its like images used in opposite ways. Man is "curtailed" (limited), a word whose etymologic meaning (tail cut) contains a pun: man, being tailless, is inferior to the pangolin in that he lacks the animal's graceful tail, used as a tool. Further, man is "extinguished," recalling in an inverse way the pangolin's impenetrable armor. Man is "thwarted by dusk," calling back the pangolin's solitary trips at night.
One of the most striking effects of this passage, though, is the way in which techniques of the unconscious are used not only as form but as theme, contributing to the concluding picture of man. Man thrives on change ("the alternating blaze") and on repetition ("and new and new and new"), and on the struggle between alternating images. We recall that the pangolin is compelled to shut out "sun and moon and day and night," leaving his nest only after nightfall. Man, on the other hand, finding strength in the very intensity of his frustration, lives on fluctuation and light. Man's limitations, then, are his potential excellence: The blazing, alternating image of the sun, and the transformation of day and night give us the rhythm of tragedy as well as of consciousness.
From Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
In her poems about amphibious creatures (these include the salamander, the chameleon, the dragon, and the basilisk), Moore once again elaborates on a physical trait that has for her the same symbolic value it has for Browne, who writes in hisReligio:
We are onely that amphibious piece between a corporall and spirituall essence, that middle frame that linkes those two together, and makes good the method of God and nature.... thus is man that great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live not onely like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds: for though there bee but one [world] to the sense, there are two to reason; the one visible; the other invisible.
For Moore, who reminds us in a 1965 Harper's Bazaar piece that "amphi" means "both," amphibiousness becomes a metaphor for man's--and in "The Pangolin," of course, she follows Browne in using that noun generically--uniquely double position in creation. Because he is a creature like others, man inhabits the visible world with its "divers elements"; because he is the rational creature, he also inhabits that other, invisible world. just as she evokes the human capacity for spiritual endurance by describing erect objects or animals, Moore at times evokes humankind's dual nature by describing amphibious animals.
From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.
A poem that deserves special attention as an expression of style and being is "The Pangolin." The pangolin is "the night miniature artist engineer," "Leonardo Da Vinci's replica." The invocation of Leonardo is important in terms of Marianne Moore's work in general. Toward the end of her career she devoted two poems to Leonardo—one a description of his picture of St. Jerome and the lion, which asserts the necessity of communion between beast and saint, between protective animal and writer-artist; and the other, about Leonardo himself, called "An Expedient—Leonardo Da Vinci's—and a Query," the query being Leonardo's own alleged last words, "Tell me if anything at all has been done?" If Leonardo, as this poem tells us, "peerless, venerated by all . . . succumbed to dejection," what about Marianne Moore's "night miniature artist engineer," his "replica"? What does the pangolin, and what does the pangolin-poet, do to keep from "capsizing in disenheartenment?"
First of all, he trusts his artichoke-like armor and his explorative nature. The pangolin is Da Vinci's replica because in Marianne Moore's poem he is capable of, or representative of, both natural and supernatural wonder. He is a wonder. He is a master of dream "who endures exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night,"
returning before sunrise; stepping in the moonlight,
on the moonlight peculiarly, that the outside
edges of his hands may bear the weight and save the claws
He is both in the moonlight and on it; he has control. The outside of his "hands" bear the weight of his progress, while the inside, the claws that are aggressive, are saved for work in depth. He has a scientist's and an artist's intuitions for the instrumentality of his own body. The artist explores within the moonlight; the scientist-engineer keeps on top of it. The pangolin may be on unfamiliar ground, but knows what he needs to find there; he has ways of dealing with both the unfamiliarity and the need.
He hisses at danger, he does not fight. His is a sound of moral disapproval; his technique is humble retreat. He is found "serpentined" about a tree, with the healthy and bodily-expressive consciousness of evil that rightly belongs to a night artist.
The pangolin's armor is partly the armor of his art, his grace. It is, like the "thin glass shell" of the paper nautilus, fragile though hard, like a "wrought-iron vine." He is covered, delicately enough, with "flattened sword- / edged leafpoints"; compact, he is like a "furled fringed frill" on the hat-brim of an iron bust. But his grace is more than that of the wrought-iron artwork that he resembles. "To explain grace requires / a curious hand," the poet says. "Grace" is more than a gift for precision and an appropriateness of movement. To explain grace, or as background to such an explanation, Marianne Moore asks a curious question.
[Hadas here quotes lines 62-73]
It is difficult to see exactly what Marianne Moore is trying to say here, and what its relationship to the pangolin is. The statement-question itself is highly armored in stone and complexity, yet we may try to state the meaning more clearly for ourselves, thus: If the world, or grace, is not eternal, why would artist-monks work to invent temporal meanings and applications of grace? The answer is that the world and its consequent "grace" is eternal, and the way to eternal grace is to be found through its temporal expressions—kindness, manners, use of art. If eternal grace could not be found through temporal grace, the monks would not have bothered to think of specific applications of it that could be adopted by ordinary men. The pangolin's kind of grace, natural animal grace as opposed to the supernatural grace that monks understand, needs to be translated into ordinary human terms in order to serve a temporal and practical purpose. The beast and saint, both needing translation from habitats of mystery into clearings of action, have a rare wisdom about the world deserving of that translation.
In the image of the artist-monks in their cold stone-decorated retreat (the "gathered to rest" suggesting death and eternity), one feels the tension between inside and outside, between death and life, between the intuition of eternity and the need for a practicality that can only be temporal and external. The same dichotomy is expressed by the pangolin's wrought-iron and stone-swallowing body, which is probably what suggested the image of the church with its retreating souls and strange gargoyles. We also find in this image the combined presence of the artist's inspiration, that eternal thing that made him choose ingeniously to express himself in stone in the first place, and the scientific construction, the architectural technique that made the artistic expression feasible. We are back to the idea of Leonardo and his own curious hand, explaining "grace" equally through artistic inspiration and practical engineering.
The pangolin has a soul, "a meaning always missed by the externalist" ("He 'Digesteth Harde Yron'"), and a body that in its graceful practicality expresses soul. He can roll himself "into a ball that has / power to defy all effort to unroll it; strongly intailed, neat head for core, on neck not breaking off, with curled-in feet." In other words, he makes a perfect circle of himself, a defensive or a sleeping habit that is a symbol of eternity. But in motion and time he has obvious and useful appendages, unlike eternity. "The giant- pangolin- / tail, graceful tool, as prop or hand or broom or ax, tipped like / an elephant's trunk with special skin / is not lost on this ant-and-stone-swallowing uninjurable artichoke." This is a masculine counterpart to his expression of himself as a rolled-up ball, his feminine and retreating form. In his feminine form, the pangolin's "head" is inside, "on neck not breaking off"—castration impossible. When he is feeling safe enough to venture out and is on an aggressive ant-hunt, he is vigilant; at these times "the giant-pangolin- / tail . . . is not lost on [him]." We find in the image of monks and cathedral a combination of feminine and masculine, of inspiration and technique, "low stone seats" guarded by "ingenious roof supports." We find "a monk and monk and monk" (homunculi?) passively sitting or lying dead within a womb whose external expression is erect, actively thrusting at the sky and at eternity. These passive monks have slaved to provide external expressions of grace without themselves needing recourse to external action. They are in retreat as the pangolin curled-up is in retreat.
There may be no way of knowing how consciously Marianne Moore used this imagery of the circle and tail, monks and edifice, stone and living creature. But to my mind, a passion for armor is a passion to be both femininely withdrawn and protected and masculinely explorative and aggressive, to be equipped for all exigencies of mind and body. One wants to be directed outward, to conquer truth and time, to penetrate the mysteries of the world, but in this there is always the danger of being cut off suddenly, killed, castrated, silenced. On the other hand, one wants to be curled within oneself, safe and passive; but in this position there is no hope of penetrating, or of being penetrated either—there is only a self-sealed mystery. True grace may be seen as a balance between the two, a proper rhythm of alternation between external and internal, armor and soul, masculine and feminine, temporal and eternal. This the pangolin has, this the world at large has with its
sun and moon and day and night and man and beast
each with a splendor
which man in all his vileness cannot
set aside; each with an excellence!
This sudden outburst from the soul of "The Pangolin," the poem, the artist, comes as a surprise. It has the splendor of naturalness, of natural duality and rhythm that leaves room for epiphany and that cannot be spoiled by an unspontaneous humanity. The poem is about the particular habits and individual excellence of the pangolin, but it is also about the condition of man, as the pangolin has "certain postures of a man."
[Hadas here quotes lines 77-81, 87-93]
How are we to fit these things together? If, as we may suspect, grace—the idea of it, or the curious explanation of it—is at the center of the poem, at the eternal center between the alternations of sun and moon, day and night, man and beast, then grace is also the concept which informs these sudden and random observations. Given temporality ("beneath sun and moon") man slaves (as the monks slaved) to choose the best way to act, and acting, as we have seen, is the only way of externalizing the eternal-internal concept of grace. So man writes, an activity peculiar to him; it is his own excellence and most graceful endowment, as ant- and stone-swallowing is to the pangolin, and thus he expresses his choice. His writing is obscurely funny, but moral; he cannot be damned for his intentions (of not liking to be like or to like some objectionable likeness of his). His unconscious wit, certainly a form of grace, allows him to discover coincident humor in an erroneously written error.
The "he" in the last stanza of the poem may seem ambiguous, but I believe it refers to man alone, albeit, a pangolin-modeled one. The pangolin in his night foragings and dependence on moonlight may be seen as the night-soul that corresponds to man's day-soul. The pangolin may be regarded as the poet's dream—a curious one, curious enough for any bestiary—combining beast, moon, and night, with religious and sexual imagery. This energy is carried over into the "alternating blaze" of day, with its own wit, fear, and strength in adversity.
[Hadas here quotes lines 99-111]
This is a rare combination of humor and religious awe. We have on one hand the lowly textbook definition of "mammal"—one kind of link between pangolin and man which, purely scientific, cannot be overlooked. We have this mammal's personal attitude toward life, into which he goes "cowering forth " with considerable apprehension, "the prey of fear." Each has an armor and each has an excellence, but each has a fear of curtailment also. Each must be able to "intail" himself strongly, curl into a ball or become pure soul, enlightened alternately by the eternal spheres of moon and sun. It is not "funny" but deeply humorous, this relation of low technique with such high aspiration, lowly mammal with man.
"The Pangolin" may not be a perfectly realized poem. It does not succeed in avoiding a self-indulgent obscurity (fallacy of imitative form?), yet it is magnificent in its ambition to "explain" grace. The poem tells a story of how soul comes into the world, how it comes "cowering forth" to be born, and also how it is borne once it has arrived. The pangolin is at home in a "nest / of rocks closed with earth from inside, which he can thus darken"; he is born from this womb like place into the moonlight where he expresses the strangest of earthly beings. He must be uncurled and brought out from his nest to express his particular style of life and his life-given grace. The monk-artists also have made a dark nest for themselves from which their ideas for the outward expressions of grace in men's lives are born. Man's soul is born from such dark, cold, and eternal places. He is a decision-maker by daylight, a technician, an artist with a sense of humor awaiting the sun, the expression of his soul. In "Sun" Marianne Moore says to the sun, "You are not male or female, but a plan / deep-set within the heart of man"; and she asks the sun to "be wound in a device of Moorish gorgeousness." "The Pangolin" is remarkable for its attention to miniature engineering techniques, to the machine-like body, in short, to a highly specialized individuality of both poem and animal. At the same time the poem proposes to be about the soul and eternity. One grows out of the other; they grow together, as beast and man in "Leonardo Da Vinci's" where "astronomy / or pale paint makes the golden pair in Leonardo Da Vinci's sketch seem / sun-dyed. Blaze on, picture, saint, beast." Beast and man, male and female, light and dark, science and soul—all converge and conspire against permanent dejection. This is the answer to Leonardo's query "has anything at all been done?" The pangolin is wound in devices, not of gorgeousness exactly, but in devices that are Moorish with wit and brilliance of analogy. He expresses his duality as "night miniature artist engineer"; he is a communication of self. This is what has been done, and all that can be done.
From Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Copyright © 1977 by Syracuse University Press.