Skip to main content

In any case, William James' description of the octopus—"such flexible intensity of life in a form so inaccessible to our sympathy"—complements Moore's own "octopus of ice" whose "Neatness of finish" is finally unfathomable. What I am suggesting is that Moore may have found a natural analogue for Henry James' temperament and aesthetic in the image of the octopus.


William James' description of the cuttle-fish is also reminiscent of the accounts of octopuses Moore read about in the London Graphic and the Illustrated London News in August of 1923—the summer she began composing "An Octopus." The article she read in the London Graphic nicely captures the gentle otherness of these "timid" yet all-reaching, destructive animals:


Graphic August 15, 1923


The Octopus in the Channel Islands


. . . No little consternation has been caused from time to time when it is reported that there is an influx of octopuses in these warm channel waters, and letters to the papers ensue. . . .


The octopus is really a timid creature and makes his home in the rock pools in quite an innocent fashion. Off the Breton coast he is undoubtedly very destructive to all kinds of shellfish, actually sucking lobsters and crabs empty in the pots. . . The big arms double rowed w 140 suckers each are of amazing strength + unimaginable delicacy combined w extreme delicacy of touch. . . It can pick a periwinkle out of a crack, or crush large prey w the grip of a small python. . .


In this description—one that Moore drew on for certain phrases in her poem—the octopus is often concealed in its rock pools; yet it can appear unexpectedly, wreaking destruction. Moore seemed particularly drawn to animals, particularly those of the sea, who appeared to be both accessible and inaccessible—who enjoyed the ability to advance and then to retreat. In October of 1923, while visiting her brother, Warner, in Bremerton, Washington, she wrote to Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler about "an enormous barnacle" she and Warner had discovered:


One day after the hull of the Mississippi had been scraped, Warner and I explored the bottom of the dry dock and picked up an enormous barnacle which advanced and withdrew like a disappearing gun, the edges of its mouth tourquoise blue with an inner border of light scarlet and a set of curling fern like feelers which it folded and unfolded in a kaleidoscopic manner which reminded me of the marine marvels in the Illustrated News and The Natural History Journal.


Moore's enormous phallic barnacle "which advanced and withdrew like a disappearing gun" is not unlike the octopuses ("the marine marvels" she alludes to) who could appear unexpectedly ready to consume, with their far reaching all powerful arms, everything in their paths.


Like Moore's barnacle who "advanced and withdrew" and the octopuses she read about, James, by his own account in A Small Boy and Others, enjoyed the same economy of advancing only to withdraw, or of concealing himself only to disclose his "subterfuge." In her 1934 essay, Moore acknowledges James' predilection for this sort of self-presentation when she cites his "meeting" with Dickens or his hiding under the "drooping tablecloth" while one of his cousins read David Copperfield to his family.


In "An Octopus," Moore also endorses James' aesthetic of disclosure and concealment. David Kalstone once said "the whole poem is about Henry James." Before looking at the direct allusion to James at the end of the poem, let me suggest some of the ways Moore prepares us to see that James' "Neatness of finish" like Mt. Ranier's is finally to be celebrated because, to quote William James, it is "in a form so inaccessible to our sympathy."


Moore's "reading" of this landscape's conflicting energies prepares us for her conflation of the glacier—"An Octopus / of ice"—with James. The appearance of James' "Neatness of finish" is present in the first "glimpse" we are given of the glacier:


                                An Octopus


of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,

it lies "in grandeur and in mass"

beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes; (71)


Moore shows us how deceptive ,this glacier's "neatness" is; the glacier appears to be stationary—"it lies 'in grandeur and in mass'"—and yet it is surrounded by the motion of "a sea of shifting snow-dunes"—an image of unpredictability. Far from being stationary and predictable, this glacier of "unimagined delicacy" (71) can kill "with the concentric crushing rigor of the python" (71). "Its arms" (71) which are "misleadingly like lace" (71) are always moving—always forcing the poet to shift her own perspective.


Moore fixes her eye on the objects in this landscape which disclose and conceal contrary energies. The fir trees on this mountain conceal as much as they reveal:


The fir-trees in "the magnitude of their root systems,"

rise aloof from these maneuvers "creepy to behold,"

austere specimens of our American royal families,

"each like the shadow of the one beside it.

The rock seems frail compared with their dark energy of life," (71)


Even the perfect balance of the line—"the ermine body on the crystal peak" (73)—is undermined by the destructive energy inherent in the images which follow:


the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene

                                            dyeing them white—

upon this antique pedestal,

"a mountain with those graceful lines which prove it a volcano,"

its top a complete cone like Fujiyama's

till an explosion blew it off. (73)


The ermine body, whose shoulders have been dyed white, becomes an image of living death as it is transformed into an ash of while heat. The unbridled energy of the sun, which might be celebrated in another context, is associated with the ominous and powerful hydrocarbon, acetylene. The mountain's seemingly accessible facade—"those graceful lines" of the mountain with "its top a complete cone"—becomes inseparable from the momentarily concealed forces "which prove it a volcano."


Another part of the poem which seems to anticipate James' and Mt. Ranier's "neatness of finish" is Moore's description of the Greeks:


The Greeks liked smoothness, distrusting what was back

of what could not be clearly seen,

resolving with benevolent conclusiveness,

"complexities which still will be complexities

as long as the world lasts"; (75)


In one of the most extensive readings of the poem to date, Patricia Willis perceptively maintains that "the behavior of the Greeks is oddly juxtaposed to that of Henry James" ("The Road to Paradise: First Notes on 'An Octopus'" 259). John Slatin argues, on the other hand, that "Neatness of finish" "is like the 'smoothness' of which the Greeks were so fond; indeed, it is like Greek itself, ‘"that pride-producing language"’ whose speakers are '"Like happy souls in Hell"’—persuaded that they can resolve the unresolvable" (163). Moore, it seems to me, praises James' "finish" not because it gives the appearance of being accessible, but because it is unfathomable—because it conceals beneath its surface forces that defy neatness.


Moore fully fuses her aesthetic with James' when she actually compares the mountain's "remoteness" and "Neatness of finish" to his:


if one would "conquer the main peak of Mount Tacoma,

this fossil flower concise without a shiver,

intact when it is cut.

damned for its sacrosanct remoteness—

like Henry James "damned by the public for decorum";

not decorum, but restraint;

it is the love of doing hard things

that rebuffed and wore them out—a public out of sympathy

                                                            with neatness.

Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!

Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus

with its capacity for fact. (75-76)


Moore defends James' necessary distance from his readers—his "sacrosanct remoteness." She wants us to see that James' finish (like the "finished business" Strether confronts in the figure of Chad in The Ambassadors) can only be partially known or tentatively approached; it is finally, like the "self" Chad offers Lambert Strether, both accessible and inaccessible.


"Neatness of finish" is then of a piece with "this octopus" who


"Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,

its arms seeming to approach from all directions,"

it receives one under winds that "tear the snow to bits

and hurl it like a sandblast

sheering off twigs and loose bark from the trees." (76)


We come full circle to the initial image of the glacier as "deceptively reserved." If the glacier is reserved, it is also (like James) reserving and conserving energy. In "An Octopus" Moore pays homage to James by taking us through a landscape in which "things" "glow, flush, glimmer, vibrate, [and] shine." Giving us only "a shattering first glimpse" of this octopus of ice, Moore endorses a Jamesian epistemology in which things are known through partial disclosures.


From "Towards a Poetics of Discolusre: Marianne Moore and Henry James." Sagetrieb Vol. 6, No. 3.