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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."

Works Cited

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.