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In "Bird-Witted" Moore continues to explore the tensions of innocence and fallenness, but in a more playful vein. The subject of innocence has a biographical origin. She described the birds outside her window—and compared herself to them—in great detail in two letters, one to Warner, and another to Bryher. The letters were typical of her daily accounts of things, where she represented natural phenomena in terms of both nature, as when she compared the birds to penguins, and culture, as in the figure of the tone of a broken carriage-spring. The letters also show clearly how the poem had its origin in Moore's family feelings, as the bird nest obviously symbolizes the trio of mother, daughter, and son. At the climactic moment of drama in "Bird-Witted, " the parent is seen as "darting down," paradoxically "nerved by what chills / the blood," and the bird is "by hope rewarded—of toil." The syntax is not straightforward here, but the meaning seems to be that hope is rewarded only when there is the attendant toil—surely a sentiment in which Mrs. Moore and both her children would emphatically concur. If the birds' nest is seen as a sort of "flower bed" or garden of innocence, then it requires more than vigilance to protect it.

Moore wrote of "Bird-Witted" in terms that might well support a complex reading of the poem, for she was to claim for it a tightness of form and a level of struggle that are considerable. Along with "The Paper Nautilus" of a few years later, "Bird-Witted" is Moore's reflection on the closeness of maternal love, and also the dynamic tensions it can create in the drama of individuation. In a letter to Warner on November 27, 1934, Mrs. Moore, called "Mouse," is described as having shared the compositional process with her daughter, and the poet saw herself in animal terms, as well as a protective, maternal figure. Being "bird-witted" for Moore may well have involved not only a feeling of belonging to a well-guarded nest but also having the self-protection needed to achieve one's own expressiveness.


From Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Charles Molesworth.