Darlene Williams Erickson

Darlene Williams Erickson: On "Marriage"

At first the catalogue of 289 lines seems random, only vaguely associative, but in fact, the dialectic is meticulously woven. Moore frequently claimed that she despised connectives, at least connectives in the obvious sense. In order to see this montage as a whole, the reader must learn to participate in and to enjoy the anthology--without the connecting links most poets provide. One idea merely melts into another, without transitions. (Moore once wrote, "I myself . . . would rather be told too little than too much.") In "Marriage" Moore is assuming that the discriminating reader shares her predilection.


Once again, it is William Carlos Williams who offers a useful critical tool for dealing with the text. In "A Novelette and Other Prose, 1921-1931," Williams wrote of Moore:


A course in mathematics would not be wasted on a poet, or a reader of poetry, if he remember no more from it than the intersection of loci: from all angles lines converging and crossing establish points. He might carry it further and say in his imagination that apprehension perforates at places, through to understanding--as white is at the intersection of blue and green and yellow and red. It is this white light that is the background of all good work. . . . The intensification of desire toward this purity is the modern variant. It is that which interests me most and seems most solid among the qualities I witness in my contemporaries; it is a quality present in much or even all that Miss Moore does.


Later, in 1948 in the Quarterly Review of Literature, he reiterates that point: "Therefore Miss Moore has taken recourse to the mathematics of art. Picasso does no different: a portrait is a stratagem singularly related to a movement among the means of the craft."


Williams also calls Moore's "Marriage" an "anthology of transit," meaning that one must allow all of Moore's directions, insights, tones, quotations, and epigrams--her "crazy quilt," in Hartman's parlance--to move and to intersect. Through the intersection of ideas, one comes to appreciate the profound complexity of one of life's great enigmas, the interaction of one human being with another in the enterprise called marriage. The poem does not precisely "mean" anything. It is instead a conversation, a comprehensive dialectic based upon some of the greatest myths, motifs, symbols, visions, and commentaries on the subject of marriage. It passes no judgment, solves no problems. If, as Doris Lessing has said, people are "hungry for answers, not hungry for ways of thinking toward problems," they will be disappointed. If they are willing to search for truths in the interstices, in the intersections of loci, they will learn a great deal from Moore's "little anthology of phrases [she] did not want to lose."


In "Feeling and Precision," Moore wrote, "Feeling at its deepest--as we all have reason to know--tends to be inarticulate." And that is an important "mathematical" principle in "Marriage." Although the poem is replete with the deepest of human emotions, the intersections of emotional loci occur with such disarming precision that the reader must remain attentive to find them. Taffy Martin has argued that the voice here and in other poems remains deadpan, that it does not seem to convey grand emotions. In such a stance, Martin feels, Moore creates a music particularly suitable for the twentieth century. One might argue instead that there are many voices in the poem and that they are not all deadpan. Sometimes the voice is that of the poet summarizing or synthesizing, but many times the voices are anonymous presenters of information, much of it ready-made from the past. In the intersection of the many voices, which speak but do not always hear, lies real poignancy and intense emotion, but emotion so deep that it tends to seem inarticulate.


In the poem "Silence," Moore observes that "the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint." (The phrase is itself an objet trouvé, borrowed from a friend, Miss A. M. Homans's father.) Perhaps the real intensity lies in the reader's final awareness that although human words attempt to communicate logic and feeling, people seldom really touch each other. Communication is a difficult thing, especially when what is to be communicated is shaded by intense feelings like those of love and desire. The following lines suggest the need for personal uniqueness and privacy in tension with the antithetical desire for intimacy:


"I should like to be alone";

to which the visitor replies,

"I should like to be alone;

why not be alone together?"


Moore returns to the same idea late in the poem when she writes:


One sees that it is rare--

that striking grasp of opposites

opposed each to the other, not to unity.


There are actually so many voices in "Marriage" that the poem is orchestrated like a great piece of choral music, a polyphonic, one verging on cacophony but held in place by Moore's own subtle harmonies. It is a kind of chorus where various voices deliver brief soliloquies which are not heard by the other characters. Some of the speeches are comic, some are serious; and one point of view tends to be layered upon another. It is the reader who must sense the tangential quality of the many male and female viewpoints and find where those tangents eventually cross and where they sadly never touch at all. In a chapter entitled "The Principle of Accommodation: Moore, Eliot, and the Search for Community," John Slatin argues convincingly that Moore was affected by many of Eliot's poetic theories and strategies. One must grant that "Marriage" is a response to some of the strategies of The Waste Land, particularly the use of many voices. But the choices--the particular found objects and readymades that create the many voices--are of Moore's own design.


Consider, for example, Moore's leitmotif, which establishes a theme with variations that is echoed in the voices. Her repeated pattern here is not the syllabic line or the repeated stanza. There certainly is not a pattern as obvious as a refrain. The unifying figure is the circle, or perhaps more accurately, what Moore calls the cycloid, structures resembling the circle but overlapping, like scales on a fish or waves of sound. The pattern is repeated with many variations. There is first of all the wedding ring, that "fire-gilt steel / alive with goldenness." It is symbolic of "circular traditions" that have developed around the peculiar enterprise called marriage, itself a union of two intersecting circles. There is the "incandescent fruit," the apple, the visual representation of Eve's (and Adam's) demise. And there is the undulating snake and the colubrine (i.e., snakelike Adam); there is a circular enclosure, a paddock, full of leopards and giraffes, animals whose bodies are marked by circular designs. There is a cymbal that sounds before it is touched. There are stars, garters, buttons. Hercules pursues the labor of finding the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. There is a reference to Columbus's trick of making an egg stand on end by breaking the shell. There are the eyes of a panther and the Euroclydon, the Greek explanation for the wave. Everything in the poem about marriage is thematically circular--except that the circles are not concentric. They may intertwine, intersect, pass in and out of each other, overlap, but they are always cycloids, separate circles seeking unity but finding instead the tension of opposites. So the first intersection of loci is visual and circular, a reechoing leitmotif in the poem.


Moore undertakes separate discussions of women and men, not only Eve and Adam, but also of characters that are a montage of many layers of femaleness and maleness. First she responds to Eve's beauty. She is so handsome that "she gave me a start." But she is also intelligent in an oddly funny kind of way, for she is "able to write simultaneously / in three languages" and can "talk in the meantime." (As the note suggests, Moore had actually read of this remarkable ability in the Scientific American.) It seems probable that such praise of a woman's linguistic ability as well as of her propensity for conversation struck Moore as amusing, but rather typical of the world's praise of an intelligent woman's mind: it was merely side-show material.


And Adam too is beautiful, but there is also something distinctly sinister about him as he moves with catlike, snakelike movements, crouching like a mythological monster in a Persian miniature. He is "alive" with words, the namer of things, with his voice like "the industrious waterfall," violently bearing all before it. He goes on speaking like the grand master of


past states, the present state,

seals, promises,

. . . . . . . . . .

everything convenient

to promote one's joy.


In his own mind, he has become an idol. The amazing story of the serpent in the garden, which has been recast in the modern idiom and has now "shed snakeskin in the history of politeness / not to be returned to again," that "invaluable accident," has exonerated Adam. Whether in the old tradition or the new, the fall from grace was fortunate for Adam in that a way has been found to attribute the cosmic mistake to Eve. But having passed the blame to Eve, he has nobly chosen to stand beside her. And the world has come to


". . . see her in this common world,"

the central flaw

in that first crystal-fine experiment.


Next Moore expands her "Adam and Eve" into more voices, some of them telling great classical stories of complex marriages. There is the story of Hercules, who killed his own children and his beloved Megara in a fit of mindless rage and then did penance through twelve prodigious labors. And the tale appears of Ahasuerus, who cast off his beautiful wife, Vashti, at the urging of his advisers because she caused him to lose face. Her lack of instant obedience at a banquet might, his advisers said, threatened the obedience of all the women in Persia. And so Ahasuerus commissioned a gathering of virgins, which he dutifully deflowered every night for a year, until he came upon Esther, a beautiful Jewess (incognito, of course), one who was worthy of his discriminating tastes, whom he took as his special concubine. And then it was Esther, who, with her kinsman Mordecai, manipulated Ahasuerus and his adviser Haman at the tête-à-tête banquet until she successfully prevented a pogrom of her people and caused the ignominious end of the evil Haman.


Another voice offers a reference to Diana, the virgin-huntress of Greek mythology, who would not marry at all. From ancient times she was honored by a strange cult in which her votaries dressed as bears. She was sometimes identified with Hecate, the dismal goddess of the darkness of the lower world. In this poem, one myth intersects with another, as we meet the


black obsidian Diana

who "darkeneth her countenance

as a bear doth."


This Diana is


impatient to assure you

that impatience is the mark of independence,

not of bondage.


Moore carefully offers a note about that darkened countenance: "Ecclesiasticus." A major problem for modern readers in this controversial book of the Bible (which Protestants relegate to the Apocrypha but Catholics classify as deuterocanonical) is that the writer, Jesus, son of Sirach, characterizes the wickedness of women as the highest of all evils. In the passage to which Moore refers, he writes: "It will be more agreeable to abide with a lion and a dragon, than to dwell with a wicked woman. The wickedness of a woman changeth her face: and she darkeneth her countenance as a bear" (Ecclus. 25:23-24, DR). He also writes, "For from garments cometh a moth: and from a woman the iniquity of a man" (42:13, DR). But perhaps the most disturbing lines read, "Follow close if her eyes are bold, and be not surprised if she betray you: As a thirsty traveler with eager mouth drinks from any water that he finds, so she settles down before every tent peg and opens her quiver for every arrow" (26:11-12, NAB).


There is no question that Moore was a most fastidious woman and poet. Her only arguments with William Carlos Williams were over matters of good taste. And although she willingly printed stories and poems by D. H. Lawrence in the Dial, she did not hesitate to reject his work when she considered it less than tasteful. And yet her discreet reference to Ecclesiasticus seems to suggest that she wishes to remind the reader that some cultures have found women innately vile. This intersection of voices seems to be suggesting that one should not be surprised to find that some women will always be impatient with such characterization and the bondage it allows; some have a flair for independence.


But the voices are not all such serious ones. The poet-narrator offers some delightful lines, including the suggestion that the fire-gilt steel symbolizing marriage requires "all one's criminal ingenuity / to avoid!" Marriage is so endemic that only a criminal few can manage to escape its snares. There is great charm too in introducing Adam and Eve as spectators to the whole debacle, not unlike the readers of the poem. One does wonder what the "originals" think of marriage by this time. (In a recording of Moore reading "Marriage," there is no doubt that she means to amuse, particularly in the early lines.) She also directs a bit of levity toward Freud, asserting that


psychology which explains everything

explains nothing,

and we are still in doubt.


And the poignant lines quoted earlier have a discordantly futile brand of humor:


"I should like to be alone"

to which the visitor replies,

"I should like to be alone;

why not be alone together?"


The lines beginning "Unhelpful Hymen!" call up a disintegrating panorama from the Greek wedding song and the god of the wedding to something akin to a tawdry cupid on a modern mechanized billboard display.


Unhelpful Hymen!

a kind of overgrown cupid

reduced to insignificance

by the mechanical advertising

parading as involuntary comment,

by that experiment of Adam's.


The world has gone from magical mythology to a mechanical caricature, something in movable cardboard, one might presume. The speaker also calls up a light and comic voice from a parody of "The Rape of the Lock" (to which Moore herself had contributed) which counters with


... What monarch would not blush

to have a wife

with hair like a shaving-brush?


But serious issues persist. Like a discordant counterpoint, "he" and "she" begin to exchange lists of stereotypical charges, although they do not really listen to one another's complaints, or so it seems, if we identify the speakers thus:


HE:        four o'clock does not exist

              but at five o'clock

              the ladies in their imperious humility

              are ready to receive you.


SHE:      . . . experience attests

              that men have power

              and sometimes one is made to feel it.


HE:        The fact of woman is

              "not the sound of the flute

              but very poison."


SHE:      Men are monopolists

              of "stars, garters, buttons


              unfit to be the guardians

              of another person's happiness."


HE:         These mummies

               must be handled carefully--


SHE:       revengefully wrought in the attitude

               of an adoring child

               to a distinguished parent.


HE:         turn to the letter M

               and you will find

               that "a wife is a coffin."


SHE:       This butterfly

                this waterfly . . .

                that has "proposed

                to settle on my hand for life"--

               What can one do with it?


HE:          The fact forgot

                that "some have merely rights

                while some have obligations."


SHE:        he loves himself so much

                he can permit himself

                no rival in that love.


But all of these differences do not explain what happens "below the incandescent stars / below the incandescent fruit." "Incandescent" can mean "aglow with ardor." That ardor is the great unknown that the poet describes as "the choicest piece of my life," that which starts


the heart rising

in its estate of peace

as a boat rises

with the rising of the water.


One does not need stars or apples or snakes to explain the incandescence of love and desire that overwhelmingly attracts what sometimes seem the most alien of creatures. (Note Moore's note cited above about D. H. Lawrence: "The music of sex itself, which druggedly compels men and women into the still sharp death of each other's arms.") Adam is "plagued by the nightingale / in the new leaves." He says of it, "It clothes me with a shirt of fire." He is afraid to drive the temptation off and yet equally afraid to call it to him. He is "unnerved by the nightingale" and, at the same time,


. . . dazzled by the apple,

impelled by "the illusion of a fire

effectual to extinguish fire."


Adam is overwhelmed by his desire. But then so is Eve:


. . . O thou

to whom from whom

without whom nothing--Adam.


The "strange experience of beauty" is "too much; / it tears one to pieces." So the pair stumble upon the solution of marriage, which William Godwin, the pragmatic philosopher and challenger of institutions, had called "a very trivial object indeed." Until he knew this primal urge, Adam had known "the ease of a philosopher / unfathered by a woman." Now he is reduced from both ease and philosophy by his desire. "Unhelpful Hymen!" a voice cries out.


And so men and women marry, although one observes that


Married people often look that way--

seldom and cold, up and down,

mixed and malarial,

with a good day and a bad.


Some commend marriage "as a fine art, as an experiment, / a duty or as merely recreation." Whichever the institution is, it continues, fueled by a commodity so mysterious it can only be envisioned by the imagination. As the voices cease, the speaker asks:


What can one do for them--

these savages

condemned to disaffect

all those who are not visionaries

alert to undertake the silly task

of making people noble?


How does one civilize a primal urge? How does one focus on the nobility of that "noble savage," the human animal? One way is by augmenting marriage with ritual lavishness. But adding mere "fiddle-head ferns, / lotus flowers, opuntias" to the marriage ceremony does not hide "its snake and the potent apple." And so the impossible experiment, "this amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility," continues. One encounters it everywhere, "among those unpretentious / protégés of wisdom" and those "seeming to parade / as the debater and the Roman." With the simplicity of the inscription on Daniel Webster's statue, the impossibly circular quest goes on: "Liberty and union / now and forever." That "striking grasp of opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity" billows forth in the Euroclydon, with wave after futilely overlapping wave.


The poem ends with a visual image, a photograph, the classic wedding picture: "the Book on the writing table; / the hand in the breast-pocket." And all of the Adams and Eves of all time continue their hopeless search for liberty and for union, two antithetical states of being. As D. H. Lawrence had perceived, there are strange enmities between men and women whose wills are crossed. But moved by the mysterious magic of "the incandescent stars" and "the incandescent fruit," the heavy music of the emotions, the music of sex itself, men and women repeat their inevitable cycloid patterns.


"Marriage" is a very effective poem, at least for those readers who, as T S. Eliot had suggested, "are willing and accustomed to take a little trouble over poetry." Moore's success in "Marriage" occurs in part because she has turned to her cabinet of fossils, her "flies in amber," to pull off the shelves of her prodigious memory many different perceptions about the complexities of marriage. Sometimes the found objects, the objets trouvés, are lines that caught her fancy merely because of what they said or the way they said it. Some references carry the baggage of their stories (Diana, Ecclesiasticus, Ahasuerus, Hercules), while others are treasured primarily for their unique beauty ("something feline, / something colubrine," or "treading chasms / on the uncertain footing of a spear"'). Perhaps reflecting some of the theories of Marcel Duchamp, Moore is suggesting that the important thing about a phrase is not that it is original but instead that she, as artist, chose it and placed it in a setting of her making. For the poem occurs, as William Carlos Williams has suggested, not in the originality of the materials but instead in what Moore does with them as she moves ideas and images along lines that will intersect and come alive in polyphonic conversations in the reader's mind. Sometimes the intersection produces laughter; sometimes it offers the most profound sadness. But it is this multiplication, this quickening, this burrowing through and blasting aside in which the poem happens. It is at the intersection of images and ideas that the white light of freshness and new insight really occurs. Moore was confident enough, and humble enough, to understand that she had to use the same materials as others before her. There was no need for pretense. Originality lay in edging ideas against one another in brilliantly novel ways.


There is far more magic to be discovered in "Marriage": the use of color, (the poem is cast primarily in various shades of white, with accents of blue, yellow and black), the use of internal rhyme to create harmony, and her experiments with "thought rhyme" as the Adams and Eves respond in their chorus. By noting her special use of borrowed materials, however, her objets trouvés and readymades in this complex poem, the reader has a useful key to her poetic method. It is possible once again to envision Moore as the imagnifico, the poet humble enough to understand that "the past is the present" and to acknowledge her place in the continuous order of creation, and yet brave enough to dynamite old combinations of ideas and strategies and to set them into new relationships.

From Illusion is More Precise than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by The University of Alabama Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Darlene Williams Erickson: On "No Swan So Fine"

In this poem one finds the syllabic stanza pattern 6-7, 8, 6-7, 8, 8, 5, 9. The pattern is altered only in the last line, where the addition of one syllable disrupts the pattern and forces the reader to break the pace. That phrase commands special attention: "The king is dead." Each seven-line stanza has end rhymes only in lines 2 and 5. But what lingers in the ear is the repetition of more than thirty "s," or "z," or "ch" sounds, which gives the poem an unusual sibilance. Perhaps it is meant to capture the hushed stillness of the Versailles fountains. Or more probably, the large number of sibilants may suggest the sound made by the whistling swan, the "swan song" romantically believed to be sung by the dying swan. The term "swan" has a literary meaning too; it has come to mean the poet, one who sings sweetly a song of unusual beauty, excellence, or purity. Thus, with the most delicate of signals, Moore sets up a "swan song" for both the ear and the mind.

[. . . .]

The poem opens with a quotation about the past, about "the dead fountains at Versailles." Once a place of sparkling light, life, and activity, the stilled fountains, although resurrected, as it were, seem almost frozen in their beauty and their stillness. Only echoes of another era, ghosts from another moment in history, inhabit the environs now. Similarly, there is no living swan like the chintz china one lodged in the Louis XV candelabrum captured in time among the carved dahlias, seaurchins, and (appropriately) everlastings. Unlike the real swan, with its peculiar dark, blind look, its superior attitude, and its webbed feet propelling its body, like a Venetian gondolier guiding his gondola, the carved swan seems "at ease and tall," its "toothed gold / collar on to show whose bird it was." The work of art is, in its way, owned by its creator, the artist, and therefore does not have a will, a destiny of its own. It does, however, have a kind of permanence in time as well as a posed elegance, carefully colored and polished to perfection. The real swan, by contrast, may appear a bit foolish as it takes its gondoliering sea legs ashore and waddles up the river bank. One senses, though, that the artwork swan, although it has its own kind of duration, is somehow deficient. It lacks Bergson's élan vital--that vital impulse that is continually developing and generating new life. It cannot offer even the most rudimentary movement, the most elementary change of expression.

Moore's attitude toward artifice sometimes seems clear, as in these lines from "To Statecraft Embalmed" (1915): "As if a death-mask could ever replace / life's faulty excellence!" Reality, even with its flaws, seems preferable to the perfection achieved in art. The real swan, "with swart blind look askance / and gondoliering legs," is always better than the chintz china one. But is that what Moore says syntactically in this poem? As Donald Hall has pointed out, one must not be too quick to assume simple irony in Marianne Moore. She may well be saying precisely what she means, not intending that the reader infer the opposite. There is something in itself ironic about a criticism of artifice embedded in the super-refined stanzas of "No Swan So Fine." If Moore is so opposed to artifice, why does she work to produce art (i.e., poetry) at all? Or why did she labor so patiently to sketch the swan candelabrum if she found it less beautiful than a real swan?

What Moore is saying is beyond the expected, beyond the either-or. Executing a woman's way of knowing, Moore is including paradoxical ways of looking at the same thing; she is refracting rather than synthesizing. She is operating in the realm of magic, performing an extraordinary balancing act--about time and a relativity of values. She is, I would suggest, offering a kind of Hegelian dialectic in her thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, although the argument is never really brought to a permanent solution. There is no swan so fine as the chintz china one; but the real swan has vital qualities no artifice can duplicate; yet both kinds of swans have real importance to the human beings who observe them. In one sense, time and real swans are always passing; hence one must make some effort to capture permanence in an always-changing and less-than-perfect world. One kind of time, whether measured in milliseconds or in dynasties, becomes history; it passes on, leaving only the human attempts at catching durée in works of art. The gondoliering swan represents that kind of time, one in movement, in process, one that is and will be replicated by swanness throughout time, although each swan will be a unique unrepeatable individual, having its own peculiar quality of the élan vital. The other swan, the "chintz china one," represents another kind of time, the durée, the swan above time that has an existence beyond the limitation of days and years. It is interesting that Moore has the china swan perched among everlastings, flowers that keep their color and shape beyond their actual life span, retaining a kind of beauty even when dried and preserved. So too is the quality of the swan created by artifice. Here is a permanence, not unlike that of Keats's "Grecian Urn."

But Moore's use of the words "chintz" and "china" to describe the china swan makes another interesting qualification. Chintz has a fascinating etymology. It is a Hindu, Sanskrit word meaning multicolored or bright. But over time, the beautiful glazed cotton cloth called chintz has been tinged by the pejorative. Since the late 1850s, some chintz cloth has come to be thought of as sleazy or tawdry. Thus Moore causes careful readers to qualify their judgments again. If the poem is not ironic, (and Hall argues that it may not be), Moore seems to be saying that no real swan is "so fine / as the chintz china one." And yet the very word "chintz," which may only mean "brightly colored" in its candelabrum-tree of carved flowers, tugs at the mind. For it may also suggest a showiness, a contrived artifice, like the era of the Versailles fountains, now rendered "so still," even when preserved in the new life of art. And china, although beautiful, is also fragile, as was the era of Versailles. Moore makes reference to an era like that of the court of Versailles in another poem, "Nothing Will Cure the Sick Lion But to Eat an Ape." She writes,

Perceiving that in the masked ball attitude, there is a hollowness that beauty's light momentum can't redeem.

That "hollowness," no matter how artfully captured in the renovation of Versailles (or in the china swan), remains shallow. It may be beautiful and brightly colored, but it is showy, fragile, and hollow nonetheless, a perfect enactment of its time.

The living swan, with "gondoliering legs," though it has locomotion and can look with apparent disapproval at the world around it, still suffers from a blind limitation in time and history. The sculptured bird enjoys the ability to be complete, to stand tall and at ease, to operate from an established and permanent perspective. The china swan, the work of art, must replace the real one for an era that is gone; it provides duration and gives us a glimpse of an era's values, as well as its version of perfect beauty.

But there remains one all-important phrase in the poem. When one hears "The king is dead," the unspoken response should also be heard: "Long live the king!" One must be ready to welcome new realities and new art forms when the old ones have passed, although one may have some access to the past and to an existence beyond time through art. Thus Willis's intuition that the poem may have to do with passing, and perhaps even the passing of a particular magazine of the arts, seems valid. The poem can be seen as an accolade to Poetry's support of the arts, and at the same time a kind of swan song, a consolation for the possibility of its demise by reminding those associated with the magazine of their part in capturing permanence and beauty in a changing world. Nonetheless, any institution, even one associated with what at one point must have seemed the avant-garde, must be ready to greet the new king. That is the only realistic thing to do. Perhaps one should even smile at the "hollowness" of what once had seemed so glittering and so fine as well as at the realities that art represented. And once again Moore has surprised the careful reader, has done her magic with painstaking precision and accuracy, giving us an awareness that is not the expected view about time, history, and art. She has achieved Bergson's charge to the poet to move beyond being merely a doer to becoming a knower. The poet has brought the attentive reader to a new dimension of a multifaceted truth, to a real intuition, which is for Bergson the highest stage in the evolution of understanding.

From Illusion is More Precise than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by University of Alabama Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Darlene Williams Erickson: On "The Fish"

Moore’s poem "The Fish," written in 1918, is widely anthologized. It is also alomost universally admired as a "beautiful" poem. However, at that point, critics rapidly part company. There are marked differences in interpretation given to this single poem. Moore made at least three major revisions of the text, and we have access to her original work notes on the piece from Chatham, so one can be fairly confident that she had some objective in mind and that she worked diligently toward that objective. Once again she was trying to be as clear as she could, given her natural reticence. In this poem particularly, one is reminded of Moore's own words in "Subject, Predicate, Object": "As for the hobgoblin obscurity, it need never entail compromise. It should mean that one may fail and start again, never mutilate a suspicious premise. The object is architecture, not demolition." What follows is the text as she prepared it for the 1924 edition of her poems called Observations. . . .

The poem does indeed have a haunting, almost eerie beauty. It takes the reader into an undersea world seldom actually experienced by human beings, at least not in 1918. All the action occurs in an ethereal, surrealistic kind of slow motion, a movement suggested both by the undulations of the sea world and by the rhythm of the lines themselves, which operate in a peculiar and repeated cycloid pattern. There are eight stanzas with syllabic lines of 1, 3, 8, 1, 6, 8 and an exact rhyme scheme of a a b c c d; the stanzas themselves are a carefully contrived repetition of waves of sound. But at that point, anything obvious falls apart, as good critics devise very different explanations of Moore's intent.

Wallace Stevens was among the first to recognize the poem’s accomplishments. In a 1935 review of Moore's Selected Poems, he wrote: "In ‘The Fish' for instance, the lines move waving to and fro under water with the rhythm of sea-fans. They are lines of exquisite propriety." Sensitive to the scrupulous craftsmanship of the poem, Stevens also applauds Moore's daring in managing to incorporate what might seem to be aesthetically inappropriate language (e.g., "external / marks of abuse") and diverse subjects ("defiant edifice") into a clearly effective representation of the sounds and sights of the sea. He demonstrates how Moore’s light rhyme, predictable rhythms, and visual word placement give pleasure to the reader.

Sue Renick deals with both interpretation and aesthetics when she suggests that the poem’s unity comes from a "central consciousness that identifies itself with the movement of the sea." She reads the poem as representative of the paradox of destruction and endurance. The movement of the sea has the power to destroy both small fish and, at the same time, the surprisingly vulnerable cliff. Yet that very movement also grants survival to both the fish and the cliff. And ironically, the powerful sea grows old in it; that is to say, the primeval sea actually grows old before the ever-enduring cliff. She senses in the structures of Moore’s lines an attempt to capture the throb of the ocean current and in the rhyme "the organic sound of the sea as it might be heard by fish."

Donald Hall agrees that the subject of the poem is probably the sea and its power and potential for injury, but he, like Stevens, prefers to stress aesthetics over meaning, arguing that the poem exhibits "some of the loveliest images in all poetry." He admits that he does not "fully understand the poem" and that he finds the last lines particularly moving, without being able to penetrate them.

Bonnie Costello comments that "The Fish" has been justly admired by critics for the precision of its images (William Pratt included it in his anthology The Imagist Poem), for its skillful ordering of sounds and syllables (which Hugh Kenner has discussed at length), and for its poignant theme of defiance and endurance (which Bernard Engel elaborates in a close reading). Costello maintains, as Stevens had long before, that our experience is sensuous long before it is intellectual or moral. She reads the shells as the fans, the piled up mussels as the ash heaps, and offers the additional insight that the predictable rhyme and rhythm of the verse offer stability in a world of flux.

Hugh Kenner, always fascinated by Moore’s poetics, finds the poem "primarily visible," a poem for the eye, one meticulously arranged on the page. He feels sure that the poem is "like a mosaic which has no point of beginning." He clearly understands Moore's fascination with the visual.

Laurence Stapleton argues against complexity in the poem, feeling sure that "The Fish" cannot be said to be complex in the usual sense of that word, "although it fuses image and idea with fine disregard for open statement." (She does not, however, offer to explicate the "uncomplicated stanzas.)

Grace Shulman sees "the sea, the sun, and rock set in opposition to one another, acting and acted upon as they are watched by an unobtrusive perceiver." The rays of the sun penetrate the sea and are fractures (i.e., refracted); the fish must wade, they cannot swim freely; the water "drives a wedge of iron through the iron edge of the cliff." "Only the rock, scarred though it is by the sea and by the other elements, does not deteriorate because it can survive ‘on what cannot revivie its youth.’"

John Slatin, noticing the publication of "The Fish" beside "Reinforcements" in Observations, feels sure that "The Fish" is a war poem prompted by the assignment of Moore’s brother, Warner, a Navy chaplain, to the North Atlantic in 1917. Slatin builds a case for a horror poem wherein a "strange, ominously silent landscape filled with ruins" suggests that "we are moving in a sea of bodies" and recalling some terrible wartime disaster, or perhaps a tragedy symbolic of all disasters at sea. There is no cliff at all, but rather "the iron hull of a ship which looms clifflike above the surface." The concussion caused by a torpedo has sent the undersea world into a ghastly chaos,

        ... whereupon the stars


rice grains, ink

        bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like


            lilies and submarine

        toadstools, slide each on the other.

Margaret Holley argues that the poem's power is the water itself, with its colored delicacies and the verbs of motion, which

        ... drives a


        of iron through the iron edge 

of the cliff.

Holley notes that while "we may allegorize the subject, the poet has refrained from doing so."

Which turn of the critical kaleidoscope is correct? Is there something valid in each of them? How can a poem be complex and not complex; meticulously crafted and yet a mosaic with no point of beginning; primarily about the power of the sea and about the observations of fish; a war poem and a beautiful portrait of peace; violent and terrifying and also serene and enobling; a communication about endurance and a portrait of despair; allegorical and literal? (One is reminded of the famous tale of the blind men and the elephant. Each has a sensitive hand on a part of the animal and is describing his perception accurately, but none can report the nature of the whole.)

In her paper on marianne Moore entitlted "The Machinery of Grace," Elizabeth Bradburn has suggested that too many of Mooore’s critics feel such satisfaction when they decode an enigmatic line or two in a poem that they gloss over other lines, even entire passages, reading them as somehow obvious to the reader when they are not obvious at all. (I think Schulman’s line "Only the rock, scarred though it is by the sea and by the other elements does not deteriorate because it can survive 'on what cannot revive its youth'" is in precisely that category. Schulman makes the assumption that the phrase "on what cannot revive / its youth" is somehow obvious to the reader, when, in fact, it is not at all. What is it that cannot revive its youth? The sea? Time? Endurance? Steadfastness? Faith?) Similar assumptions occur in the various interpretations of "The Fish" presented here. The critics’ readings are not necessarily incorrect or bad; they are merely partial.

Margaret Holley offers a useful idea when she suggests that many readers rush too quickly into allegorical readings of the poem, while Moore herself carefully refrains from doing so. The critical kaleidoscope must be turned with greater care. It may also be helpful to know that Moore was a great admirer of T.S. Eliot’s work as well as his personal friend; she frequently referred to him as a trout. In "English Literature since 1914" Moore wrote: "The sheen upon T.S. Eliot’s poems, the facile troutlike passage of his mind, through a multiplicity of foreign objects recalls the ‘Spic torrent’ in Wallace Stevens’s Pecksniffenia. Mr. Eliot does not mar his subject by overdoing it and he does not bring too heavy a touch to bear upon it. His nonchalance together with his power of implication make him one of the definite spirits of our time." (One recalls alos Moore’s 1916 poem "In This Age of Hard Trying Nonchalance Is Good." According to Lane's Concordance, Moore used the word "nonchalance" only once in her poetry, giving some support to the notion that Eliot's figure as a representative poet remained in Moore's mind.) I do not mean to suggest that this is a poem about T. S. Eliot, but it is important to remember that the poem is entitled "The Fish" and that Moore may well be associating the job of the poet with a "troutlike passage . . . through a multiplicity of . . . objects." And that is a good way to approach the text. It is essential to keep Moore's title and her subject, "fish," uppermost in mind as one moves toward assessing her meaning. Moore associates fish, like elephants and roses, with certain characteristics of the poet, or for that matter, of any artist.

At face value, the poem is about fish moving through the greenish black (black jade) sea and along the sea bottom. On the sea floor they find various objects, including a mussel shell, opening and shutting itself like an injured fan. Nothing in the darkened undersea world is entirely hidden because shafts of sunlight "split like spun / glass" move themselves like spotlights down to the ocean floor,

        . . . illuminating


turquoise sea

        of bodies.

The phrase "split like spun / glass" is so similar to "split like a glass against a wall" in this "precipitate of dazzling impressions" (in "Novices") as to invite comparison. Many critics have pointed out Moore's use of the sea as a metaphor for facing innermost terror. In "The Fish," she is doing precisely that, placing herself--and analogously, her readers--directly into a grave where both she and they must wrestle with life's deepest fears. Yet on the very edge of terror one also encounters life's heights, for even the deepest sea is lit by the


split like spun


The light is refracted but still moving "with spotlight swift- / ness." Even in the depths, the light is always there, illuminating the frightening darkness and making it appear surprisingly beautiful, comprehensible, and safe. All that is foreign and alarming--barnacles, crevices, the turquoise sea of bodies, the eerie sea creatures (all characters from childhood nightmares and even adult dreams)--are clarified and identified for what they are: merely mussel shells, jellyfish, and crabs. And regardless of what damage the sea is capable of doing to the earth, it cannot totally destroy the cliff, the permanence of land. It can wreak terrible--and oddly beautiful--damage to the civilizations that earth has nurtured, damage identified by lack of cornices, dynamite grooves, burns, and hatchet strokes. The destruction can be so dreadful that "the chasm side is / dead." But the cliff--solidity, earth--

. . . can


        on what cannot revive

its youth.

It does endure. And "fish" can observe that.

Whether the forms at the bottom of the sea are Slatin's human bodies or merely the multiplicity of objects on the ocean floor, the fish "see" them there in the muted turquoise gloom. Because the way is lit by rays of sunlight, the fish glimpse "pink / rice grains" (sea anemones?), jellyfish that are "ink / bespattered," (suggesting perhaps that they appear to be inked over with shadows, or more probably that their air bladders are marked by a curious purple inklike dye), crabs like green lilies, moving eerily in the murky water, and sea toadstools, all giving the impression of oozing against one another and undulating onto each other in the sea currents.

Although the water may seem an amorphous and disarmingly innocuous commodity, once one actually "wades through black jade," one discovers that it is still powerful;; it drives an iron wedge "through the iron wedge / of the cliff." Through the power of natural persistence, the apparently formless and harmless water eventually erodes its way even through the rocks of a cliff, the edifice characterized by its "iron edge." The cliff has seen and has weathered great adversity, all the external "marks of abuse" that humans and nature can provide. Yet the great rock persists; it lives in the sea, that which "cannot revive its youth." The sea can slowly provide destruction, erosion, but it cannot reverse the process and make the cliff young and unmarked again. And yet the sea grows old in it—while at the same time the rock continues to be battered by the power of the sea. The two are locked in a mutually nurturing and mutually destructive embrace.

If one keeps the poem "underwater," these are the images one sees. Moore demands no more. But it is obvious that critics instinctively move toward possible layers of meaning, and then the kaleidoscope begins its turn. One can use the data of the poem to argue convincingly, as Renick has, for a statement about the paradox of destruction and endurance. The movements of the sea--perhaps of human history, or perhaps of time--both grant life and destroy it at the same instant. As Costello has suggested, the very structure of the poem, the predictable rhymes and rhythms, themselves marking "time" in another sense, offer stability in a world of flux. And Schulman's notion that there is a resistance in all of life against which all must push, fracture, wade, and drive (the sea against the cliff, the cliff against the sea) contributes further to understanding the poem's intuition about the importance of struggle. And even Slatin's mental leap to an undersea world of destruction may work as well. Certainly Moore's own treatment of the sea in "A Grave" offers mute testimony to the possibility of his reading (note there "the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave" and "men lower nets, unconscious of the fact that they are desecrating a grave").

Once again, Moore seems to lead her readers to ambiguity. Like the abstract painter, she demands that her audience participate in the lines, turning them slowly until meaning takes shape within the parameters of her images. In the poem entitled "Charity Overcoming Envy" (1963), Moore addresses her own design, using again the metaphor of the poet as elephant.

The elephant, at no time borne down by self-pity,

    convinces the victim

that Destiny is not devising a plot.


The problem is mastered—insupportably

Tiring when it was impending.

Deliverance accounts for what sounds like an axiom,


    The Gordian knot need not be cut.

It is not the poet’s business to "devise a plot." And as eager as the reader may be to be delivered by something that "sounds like an axiom," that is also not the poet’s concern. What does begin to emerge is a poem that is indeed beautiful, that does give pleasure; it appeals to the sensual before the intellectual and the moral. It is a poem that is visual, both as it appears on the page and in the images it evokes. Its sounds and rhythms capture the life force of the sea. Through the poet's power to strike "piercing glances into the life of things," one is offered some momentary insight into the fragile tension of life, caught always between endurance and destruction, but life which is real and precious nonetheless. The poet's power to swim with "troutlike passage . . . through a multiplicity of . . . objects" offers an illumination of propriety, accuracy, beauty, and insight into the fragile tension and rhythms of existence.

From Illusion Is More Precise Than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by The University of Alabama Press.

Darlene Williams Erickson: On "The Pangolin"

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


6            11-13


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

        tail row.


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

for digging.


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.


[lines 34-37]


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.


[lines 62-65]


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,


[lines 74-77]


The thought shifts suddenly from sailboats to pangolins to human beings, who share a surprising number of traits with other creatures; the human is:


[lines 82-86]


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.


[lines 57-61]


(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.

Darlene Williams Erickson: On "A Marianne Moore Chronology"

1887: Born 15 November in Kirkwood, Missouri

1894: Family moves to Carlisle, Pennsylvania (age 7)

1896: Begins preparatory education at Metzger Institute, Carlisle (age 8)

1905: Finishes high school; enters Bryn Mawr College (age 17)

1909: Receives A.B.; enrolls at Carlisle Commercial College (age 21)

1910: Completes commercial courses (age 22)

From Illusion Is More Precise Than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by The University of Alabama Press.