Skip to main content

One of the most interesting and complex poems in which the meaning resides in the relationship between the two kinds of literal vision is "An Octopus." The poem is complex partly because its subject is complex. Its subject is truth and how one may approach it; and as a part of this subject the poem is concerned to show how the general view is attended by happiness while the more penetrating one--the one which will attain to truth--precludes it. The poem has two parts between which the division is indicated. The first part presents, not exclusively, an unfallen world, perceptible by those who look at it with a bird's-eye view. The second part, again not exclusively, presents the truth as it may be approached and discerned by fallen mortals. These two themes occur also in the two poems which respectively precede and follow "An Octopus" in the Collected Poems and which, as Kenneth Burke has pointed out, are associated with it. In "Marriage," Eden appears in "all its lavishness," while in "Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns" truth is imaged as a unicorn with "chain lightning" about its horn, "’impossible to take alive', / tamed only by a lady inoffensive like itself. . . .’" In "An Octopus," truth is imaged by the glacier, with "the lightning flashing at its base"; and the discipline required in approaching it--largely a matter of being inoffensive--is detailed:

It is self-evident

that it is frightful to have everything afraid of one;

that one must do as one is told  

and eat rice, prunes, raisins, hardtack, and tomatoes if one would ‘conquer the main peak of Mount Tacoma, this fossil flower concise without a shiver. . . .’

The terms one must accept in order to climb are, of course, a metaphor for the self-discipline of clear perception and "relentless accuracy" that the poet accepts prior to the discovery and utterance of truth in her poetry. The vision of the truth at the end of the poem--a vision not brashly arrogated but earned by the discipline--is a harsh one: the glacier

. . . receives one under winds that 'tear the snow to bits 

and hurl it like a sandblast 

shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees'.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

. . . the hard mountain 'planed by ice and polished by the wind'—

the white volcano with no weather side; 

the lightning flashing at its base. . . .

The first part of the poem presents on the whole a happy general view punctuated occasionally by uncomfortable glances into the real nature of things. It dwells mostly not upon the glacier itself nor the measures that must be taken to approach it but upon flora and fauna which may be observed in the surrounding park. There was, in fact, a ready-made hint for the poet that she should present this as a prelapsarian world, for the park around Mount Tacoma has the name "Paradise" and deserves it. Some of the perceptions in this romantic part of the poem are reminiscent of the tamed nature of eighteenth-century pastoral: ". . . the polite needles of the larches" are "'hung to filter, not to intercept the sunlight’"; or there are "dumps of gold and silver ore enclosing The Goat's Mirror-- / that ladyfingerlike depression in the shape of the left human foot. . . ."

The anthropomorphic distortion of real nature is extended to the descriptions of the animals: "the exacting porcupine," the rat pausing "to smell the heather," "’thoughtful beavers / making drains which seem the work of careful men with shovels,’" the water ouzel "with ‘its passion for rapids,’" and the marmot, a victim of "’a struggle between curiosity and caution.’" Among these creatures are the guides, presented as parts of the happy animal kingdom, who have withdrawn to this paradise from the complex world of hotels and are therefore safe in sloughing off their protective covering as animals sometimes do:

those who 'have lived in hotels


but who now live in camps--who prefer to';

the mountain guide evolving from the trapper, 

‘in two pairs of trousers, the outer one older,

wearing slowly away from the feet to the knees'. . . .

Enjoyment of this paradise depends upon ignorance and therefore upon the imperfection of vision. Some of the creatures here are so placed that they have a vantage point from which to view this world; and for the sake of their felicity it is as important that they should not see clearly as that S. Capossela, judging winners from his cupola, should. He is concerned to find truth; his felicity is not under consideration. Similarly, the poet may arrive at truth by her fallen approach; but the animals' happiness is contingent upon their avoiding it. The passage "He / sees deep and is glad" from "What are Years?" might seem at first sight to offer an opposite theory. But seeing deep here transpires, paradoxically, to be the prerogative of one who recognizes limitations. The poet's concern with the animals' felicity in "An Octopus" reminds one of her admitted tendency upon encountering animals "to wonder if they are happy."

In connection with her descriptions of the goat and the eagles the poet toys with the word "fall": to experience the sensation of a fall would be to experience the Fall. But the vision of these animals is vague enough to preclude them from knowledge: on its pedestal the goat has its eye "fixed on the waterfall which never seems to fall." The eagles are perched on places from which humans would fall, but they see nothing:

‘They make a nice appearance, don't they', 

happy seeing nothing?

Perched on treacherous lava and pumice—

those unadjusted chimney-pots and cleavers 

which stipulate 'names and addresses of persons to notify 

in case of disaster'. . . .

The distinction made earlier between the two parts of "An Octopus" as the products respectively of the romantic view and the realistic is only a relative one. The glacier, for instance, notwithstanding the horrendous description at the end of the poem, is referred to earlier in the second part as the "fossil flower" ; while in the first part, the word "misleadingly" in the following description of the glacier gives due warning that it may not be such a docile object as it looks from a distance and as the images from human fabrication suggest:

dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined pseudo-podia 

made of glass that will bend--a much needed invention. . . . 


it hovers forward 'spider fashion

on its arms’ misleadingly like lace. . . .

Some of the difficulty of the poem is due to its lack of recognizable structural form. As we shall see below, many of Marianne Moore’s poems have form--form gained from rhymes, rhythms, and patterned arrangements of lines. But she avoids form that results from the organization of parts--a process in which details are selected, shaped, and ordered to contribute and conform to the whole, such as the faculty of the imagination, the "shaping spirit," would follow. To subordinate particulars to a general picture is contrary to her characteristic practice; and, as will appear, it is equally uncharacteristic in Williams. When she does subordinate details, she does so to provide a foil for the kind of perception which appreciates them. For subordinating particulars for the sake of conformity, she pours contempt upon the steamroller, to which details are only interesting to the extent that they can be applied to something else:

The illustration

is nothing to you without the application.

    You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down

        into close conformity, and then walk back and forth

            on them.


Sparkling chips of rock

are crushed down to the level of the parent block.

Her way in "An Octopus" is to present and appreciate the details as they appear--she is not making a map, but engaging in what Ezra Pound called a "periplum," a voyage of discovery which gives, not a bird's-eye view but a series of images linked by the act of voyaging: "Not as land looks on a map," says Pound, "but as sea bord seen by men sailing." There is, of course, a degree of recognizable order in the broad difference between the two parts of the poem. But a too exact structural control would defeat the poet’s aim, which is to accommodate fragments which may perhaps give "piercing glances into the things.'" Then "An Octopus" may also be properly thought of as a poem in which discoveries are made by means of the fanciful relationships that are established: that is, one may conceive that in the act of composition, in the act of relating its fanciful items, truths that the poet had not initially intended to demonstrate became manifest in the poem. It is possible to suppose that as she read about the gay living the fauna and flora in Paradise Park enjoyed despite the proximity of the horrendous glacier, she experienced one of the truths the poem now conveys, that one may live in innocence and felicity by confining attention to immediate particular realities and avoiding the vast abstractions--an existence which is not less a paradise for being a fool's paradise. Or it is possible to imagine that, in the assortment of facts about Mount Tacoma assembled by fancy, the disciplines the mountain imposes upon its climbers flashed into recognition as analogous to the terms which the search for moral truth imposes upon a poet. If one may speak guardedly of discovery in this way, one may recognize it as a product of fancy.

The phrase above about piercing glances comes from the poem "When I Buy Pictures." Throughout the poetry, images are often presented as pictures, sometimes with the employment of the terms of painting; and often the pictures are sentimental. One example is the first view of the town in "The Steeple-Jack"; another is the goat in "An Octopus," which, watching the panorama with a romantic gaze, is itself deliberately presented as an objet d'art on a pedestal "in stag-at-bay position" as sentimental as one of Landseer's creations:

black feet, eyes, nose, and horns, engraved on dazzling ice-fields, 

the ermine body on the crystal peak; 

the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene,

    dyeing them white--


upon this antique pedestal.

But in the poem concerned with buying pictures, or pretending to own them rather, the poet appears to dislike the kind of picture which is too strongly bent upon making a point. She says,

Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that detracts      from one's enjoyment. It must not wish to disarm anything; nor may the approved triumph 

    easily be honoured--

that which is great because something else is small.

One assumes she would prefer Brueghel or such paintings of Dürer as provide the eye with opportunity for play among phenomena. She quotes Goya, having recovered from his paralysis, as follows: "In order to occupy an imagination mortified by the contemplation of my sufferings and recover, partially at all events, the expenses incurred by illness, I fell to painting a set of pictures in which I have given observation a place usually denied it in works made to order, in which little scope is left for fancy and invention." Miss Moore comments as follows:

Fancy and invention--not made to order--perfectly describe the work; the Burial of the Sardine, say: a careening throng in which one can identify a bear's mask and paws, a black monster wearing a horned hood, a huge turquoise quadracorne, a goblin mouth on a sepia fish-tailed banner, and twin dancers in filmy gowns with pink satin bows in their hair. Pieter Brueghel, the Elder, an observer as careful and as populous as Goya, "crossed the Alps and travelled the length of Italy, returning in 1555 to paint as though Michelangelo had never existed," so powerful was predilective intention.

In her own poetic practice she avoids the strong approach to a central theme, by way of the imagination for instance, preferring to dwell appreciatively among her images. A picture should be "’lit with piercing glances into the life of things’"; but a glance is not a gaze or the rapacious look of the arrogant man in "A Grave."


From The Edge of the Image: Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Some Other Poets. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967. Copyright © 1967 by the University of Washington Press.