Skip to main content

In "The Pangolin" (1936) the anteater of the title is the focal center of the poet's thoughts, affording the means by which she works through to a new definition of man. Although the animal's exemplary virtues are given in the poem (it is nonaggressive, graceful, a model of exactness), they are presented in a form that approximates thought. The poem opens with a sentence fragment whose disjointedness signifies reflection: "Another armored animal--scale lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity." The device of self-correction is used to introduce observations about the closing sense organs ("the closing earridge-- / or bare ear"). There are contradictions, too, in the imagery that is used to present these organs ("contracting nose and eye apertures / impenetrably closeable").

The device of self-correction is also fused with the metamorphic image of the moon. In the second stanza the anteater is described as a night creature, "stepping in the moonlight, / on the moonlight peculiarly" that it may preserve the strength of its claws and wear only the outer edges of its hands. Repetition is fused with metamorphic imagery in the heightened exclamation ending stanza three:

Sun and moon and day and night and man and beast 

    each with a splendor

        which man in all his vileness cannot 

        set aside; each with an excellence!

In a subtle way the poet is working through to the idea that the pangolin, a night creature, is not a seeing animal. The true subject of this poem is man as a seeing being. The emphasis on man becomes apparent in the penultimate stanza, with its shift in tone: "Bedizened or stark / naked, man, the self, the being we call human." When man is described as being unafraid yet fearing ("Not afraid of anything is he / and then goes cowering forth"), we recall that the pangolin is "'fearful yet to be feared.’" The pangolin, for all its virtues, is hampered by consistency; man, on the other hand, is characterized by contradictions and opposites, and this very inconsistency is his greatness. He is consistent only with the "formula": "warm blood, no gills, two pairs of hands and a few hairs--that is a mammal." In the final lines the emergent vision of man is accompanied by a metamorphic image of the sun, in which the poet adverts to its power to generate energy that produces change:

                    The prey of fear, he, always 

curtailed, extinguished, thwarted by the dusk, work 

                                                            partly done, 

says to the alternating blaze,

    "Again the sun!

anew each day; and new and new and new, 

that comes into and steadies my soul."

The poetic rightness of this passage is in the way the language enacts the fusion of the experiential aspect of things and the inner vision, and this fusion is supported by the poet's adherence to the actual progression of thought. The poem moves from idea to radiant image in a process that Freud tells us is characteristic of the unconscious: in nearly all dreams, he writes, thoughts are transformed into visual images. Further, the union of man and anteater suggests that dream technique of combining two or more persons so that a new image emerges. As Freud states:

In composition, where this is extended to persons, the dream-image contains features which are peculiar to one or the other of the persons concerned but not common to them; so that the combination of these features leads to the appearance of a new unity, a composite figure.

The poet has created a new human image by means of the form that imitates consciousness. Aside from the approximation of thought and of economy which characterize the unconscious as well as poetic speech, the use of these devices enables the poet to contemplate man while ostensibly focusing on the animal. The transformation of thought to visual image and the use of composite dream persons are further aids to this process.

In addition, the poet assimilates the mental process of referring back to previous images and transforming them. The concluding passage quoted above, depicting man, recalls the description of the pangolin in its like images used in opposite ways. Man is "curtailed" (limited), a word whose etymologic meaning (tail cut) contains a pun: man, being tailless, is inferior to the pangolin in that he lacks the animal's graceful tail, used as a tool. Further, man is "extinguished," recalling in an inverse way the pangolin's impenetrable armor. Man is "thwarted by dusk," calling back the pangolin's solitary trips at night.

One of the most striking effects of this passage, though, is the way in which techniques of the unconscious are used not only as form but as theme, contributing to the concluding picture of man. Man thrives on change ("the alternating blaze") and on repetition ("and new and new and new"), and on the struggle between alternating images. We recall that the pangolin is compelled to shut out "sun and moon and day and night," leaving his nest only after nightfall. Man, on the other hand, finding strength in the very intensity of his frustration, lives on fluctuation and light. Man's limitations, then, are his potential excellence: The blazing, alternating image of the sun, and the transformation of day and night give us the rhythm of tragedy as well as of consciousness.


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.