“In Distrust of Merits” is one of Marianne Moore’s best-known poems, but it marked new territory for the Illinois-born modernist, who had won acclaim in the 1920’s and 1930’s for masterfully descriptive, rhythmically innovative, and highly restrained poems about animals and objects, all imbued with human character but never rendered with overt emotion or heavy-handed morality. Indeed, before “In Distrust of Merits” was published in The Nation in 1943, Moore had been likened to Imagist poets William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, pioneers of spare poetry about concrete things. Renowned for her elegant reserve in New York’s lively circle of early twentieth century poets and artists, Moore upheld fastidious standards of craftsmanship in her own verse and as editor of the literary magazine The Dial.
“Emotion overpowered me,” admitted Moore about writing an idea poem about war. Reputedly stirred by a Life magazine cover of a fallen soldier, she wrote “In Distrust of Merits” as “testimony—to the fact that war is intolerable, and unjust.” Some critics have found the war poem too forthright and predictable, lacking the characteristically objective voice, subtle acerbity, and understated verve of Moore’s early verse. However, the poem has struck a sustained chord with the public; “In Distrust of Merits” continues to be included in poetry anthologies, and Moore eventually won the National Book Award, the Bollinger Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for her collected works.
The poem probes different layers and verities of war, weaving together the perspectives of soldiers, a civilian speaker-poet, and a public to whom rhetorical questions are posed. It begins with a question about what drives war. The early stanzas outline a conflict between good and evil, with soldiers of “blessed deeds” on one side and a hateful, enslaving, and strikingly Hitlerian “blind/ man who...
(The entire section is 797 words.)