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Repeatedly identified in self-reflexive language, the trope of the octopus of ice is complete as the curtain of snow, the avalanche, coincides with the white page. The failure of discrete statements to accommodate this majesty ("of which the visitor dare never fully speak at home for fear of being stoned as an imposter") is a topos of sublimity, as Elizabeth McRinsey has shown.


Both Burke and Rant emphasize natural spectacles (though for Rant they become tropes) producing the effects of terrified rapture and of mental expansion, what Moore refers to as "eyes that can dilate . . . hair that can rise if it must." The opening of "An Octopus" is designed precisely to produce these effects:


An Octopus


of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,

it lies "in grandeur and in mass"

beneath a sea of shifting snow dunes;

dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined


made of glass that will bend—a much needed invention—

comprising twenty-eight ice fields from fifty to five hundred

                                                                                            feet thick,

of unimagined delicacy.

"Picking periwinkles from the cracks"

or killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python,

it hovers forward "spider fashion

on its arms" misleadingly like lace;

its "ghostly pallor changing

to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool." (71)


As Emily Mitchell Wallace has shown, the octopus itself has been associated with sublimity since pre-Homeric times, considered god or monster depending on the attitude toward the sea. Pound and H.D. join Moore in using the octopus as an image of the mind. But Moore makes the most extensive and the most affirmative use of the image.


The sublime is a drama of consciousness thrown off balance by an object which exceeds its mastery. Moore's strategies of paradox (glass that will bend, 28 icefields from 50 to 500 feet thick of unimagined delicacy) force the boundaries of sense and sensation. Moore stresses physical force in the "crushing rigor of the python" (71). The association of monarchic power (first like American royal families) reinforces this impression. Added to these images of force and power are gothic images of instability, ephemerality, transience. All objects are fugitive. There is a "ghostly pallor" in the pool; she notes the eerie movement ("spider fashion") of the glacier's arms. Obscurity (the larches filter the light, the gusts of a storm obliterate the shadows of the fir trees) which to Burke was a major feature of the sublime, persists on this mountain despite the poem's passionate display of its plenitude. Indeed, detail often contributes to obscurity: the horses are "hard to discern" among the birch trees, ferns, lily pads and other flora. The details themselves set up a momentum of infinity. In this, Moore joins the transcendentalists for whom, as Lawrence Buell argues in Literary Transcendentalism, such catalogue rhetoric provides "the closest verbal approximation they were able to achieve to the boundless vitality of nature; it creates a literary analogue for the speaker's initial bafflement when faced with the rich mysteriousness of nature" (Buell 221). Moore, like Thoreau rather than Emerson, hones to the particular, resisting the logic of totality, of the universal. Moments of mastery are repeatedly undermined, rhetorically and imagistically. The goat who "stands its ground" is confronted with erupting Fujiyama. Moore offers no simple transcendence to restore the sense of power to the perceiver. This is not the egotistical sublime of Wordsworth, in which nature disappoints until the infinite expectations of the beholder are matched by a transcendent signifier. The beholder in Moore's sublime remains overwhelmed by the disorienting prospect of the mountain and the sacrosanct remoteness of its details. Scope eludes her, except as it is established in the poem itself.


From "Marianne Moore and the Sublime." SAGETRIEB 6.3