Grace Shulman

Grace Shulman: On "No Swan So Fine"

"No Swan So Fine" (1932) is propelled forward by a process in which the mind attains precision through a struggle with contrasted ideas. The poem opens in the rhetoric of thought, as indicated by the sentence fragment: "No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles." The quotation is from an article by Percy Phillip called "Versailles Reborn: A Moonlight Drama," in the New York Times Magazine, 10 May 1931. Percy Phillip had observed that despite restoration, the palace and its grounds appeared inert. He asserted, "There is no water so still as the dead fountains of Versailles." Marianne Moore applied the sentence to the photograph, and actually wrote it above the picture in her copy of the magazine.

Like many of her earlier poems, "No Swan So Fine" opens with a negative assertion. However, unlike the earlier poems, whose abrupt, declarative openings had a discursive function ("The illustration / is nothing to you without the application"), the sentence abridgement here denotes reflection. The speaker is mulling over the idea.

At this point, the tone shifts to reminiscence:

                                No swan,

with swart blind look askance

and gondoliering legs, so fine 

    as the chintz china one with fawn-

brown eyes and toothed gold 

collar on to show whose bird it was.

To convey inward reflection, the poet provides no conversational transition, as she did in the earlier poems ("I remember a swan under the willows in Oxford"). A live swan is juxtaposed with one of "chintz china," and the comic leaps resemble the irony of the earlier poems: the swan's "swart blind look askance / and gondoliering legs" points to the absurdity of the living swan in contrast to the ornamental one; the purpose of the china swan's collar ("to show whose bird it was") mocks its lordly ownership. But while the leaps in earlier poems had satiric effects ("Ming" to "pup" in "Critics and Connoisseurs"), the leaps here imitate associative shifts in the thought process.

According to an entry in the poet's notebook, the swan had decorated a Louis XV candelabra owned by Lord Balfour and sold at Christie's in 1930, after his death. His passing saddened her, as she wrote to George Saintsbury. She was dejected, too, by the passing of the Court of the Kings Louis and, as she wrote to her brother in 1932, by the impending cessation of Poetry, the magazine that had displayed American poetry since 1912.

From the opening quotation in "No Swan So Fine," the poet maintains a tension between the world (the lifeless fountains of Versailles) and the object (the china swan). Versailles, once a seat of power and glory, a place where crucial treaties were signed, is quiescent. The tone is elegaic: the commanding, engaging, lively rulers who inhabited Versailles are gone, and in their place the artifact, the crafted object, remains to recall their presence, as well as their transience as mortal beings. In terms of structure, not logic but the flow of thought leads the poet to connect the still waters of Versailles with the china swan, and the associative link is the parallel sentence construction.

In the second stanza the poet concentrates on the ornamental swan:

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth 

    candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-

tinted buttons, dahlias,

sea urchins, and everlastings, 

    it perches on the branching foam 

of polished sculptured

flowers--at ease and tall. The king is dead.

The poet's excitement for the ornament is objectified by means of a list that conveys its sensuous luxuriance and that recalls the exuberance of the past. The clipped final statement ("The king is dead") is at once a contradiction and an inevitable conclusion. It refers literally to the death of Louis XV and figuratively, in the poem's context, to the death of kings. On this level the china swan links the opening, based on the article in the Times Magazine ("No water so still") and the poet's conclusion ("The king is dead").

However, the final statement might equally evoke a cry of "Long live the king!" The poet's mind contains the life of the ornamental swan as well as the death it symbolizes, and her excited description betrays that fascination. Those characteristics of contradiction and paradox show the dialectical progress of the mind. The word "everlastings," for example, is a dialectical image in its own right: its name means forever alive; it is an elegantly sculptured representation of a living flower with a dried, dead-seeming appearance. "The king is dead" refers back to the first lines, "No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles," and is the mind's way of going back to a thought that has stimulated the process of recall. It also brings back the word "fine" in the title, which has the denotative meaning of "elegant," but carries with it the ambiguous obsolete meaning of "dead, or deadly" and "immortal."

Although the poet's true impact, here, is elegaic, displaying an ornament that calls back thoughts of its owner, she makes original use of the elegaic tradition by presenting the mind's process of becoming aware. The china swan is the object on which the poet focuses thought, operating in a dialectic rather than in a route to a definite conclusion. Hence, the poet's engagement with the world, marked by the decline of Versailles, has led to the true subject of "No Swan So Fine," which is the mortality of living beings and the permanence of art. This realization, however, is given in the form of a dialectical process of thought that struggles through to the issue by keeping in view, even as it wanders from, the glimpse of Versailles in 1931.

The "inner dialectic," then, is the poet's method of presenting thought in such a way as to see worldly realities. It is not the idea that is ever at the center of the poetry, for neither poetry nor thought itself can come to terms with realities in direct, explicit ways. In any of Marianne Moore's poems whose form is the "inner dialectic," the pattern of thought becomes the whole point.

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.

Grace Shulman: On "The Colossus"

"The Colossus" represents a turning point in her poems about the father, about the gods in her mythology, and about what she spoke of as her "death," the failed suicide attempt of 1953. After "The Colossus," those themes are objectified, or developed presentatively, with minimal description. "The Colossus" itself exhibits a rather sassy, defiant attitude toward the stone ruins addressed as father. Where "Ouija" called forth a god, "The Colossus" portrays another creature entirely: "Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle, /Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other." Most striking are the ironic, mock-heroic effects; antithetical to the damaged stone mass, the speaker performs small, domestic labors: "Scaling little ladders with gluepots and pails of Lysol/I crawl like an ant in mourning/Over the weedy acres of your brow . . ."

"The Colossus" is more successful than "Electra on the Azalea Path" because of its frankly unsentimental view, enforced by withheld emotion and by a preposterous, wildly humorous central image. If the massive image here is inaccessible, like the earlier figures, the speaker is irreverent, and is, in fact, weary of trying to mend the immense stone ruins. Plath is still very far from her outcry of 1962, "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through." She is, however, at this point, turning from the stone wreckage of another being to the ruins of her own. The movement is vital, for it indicates her wish to leave death--her father's actual death and her own dramatized death--for new life.

From "Sylvia Plath and Yaddo" in Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath. Ed. Paul Alexander. Copyright © 1985 by Paul Alexander.