The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The six-line stanzas (thirteen in all) of “The Steeple-Jack” look oddly ragged at first glance, until one sees that each stanza’s pattern is rigorously maintained throughout. Because the poem reads in straightforward sentences, the subject of the whole is easy to identify. A speaker with much information at his or her disposal is providing the reader with a description, full of out-of-the-way details, of a charming New England seaside town. Throughout the poem, the town is described as a peaceful, safe haven; the ocean’s waves are “formal,” and fishnets are “arranged” to dry. All sorts of people could find refuge here, from waifs to prisoners to presidents. Even a storm is no more dangerous than “whirlwind fife-and-drum” music.

In the course of praising the town as a place of unassuming beauty and inviting elegance, this speaker names three people who are, or would be, “at home” here, “each in his way”: first, the German painter Albrecht Dürer, whose close-viewing artistic sensibilities were also Marianne Moore’s; second, an out-of-town college student named Ambrose, who also likes to look at the town from a hillside perch; and third, the town’s own steeplejack, C. J. Poole, who repairs the steeple on a local church—no doubt one of those picture-postcard churches North American readers associate with New England. Moore published a revised version of the poem in 1961, shortened to eight stanzas, in which the student appears only briefly and is not mentioned by name. The steeplejack has set out two signs in front of the church where he is working; one gives his name, and the other warns, “Danger.” The steeplejack’s precarious position high in the air provides the only note of tension in the poem, and it hints that—no matter how secure things may appear—there is no haven that is completely safe.

The Steeple-Jack Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “The Steeple-Jack,” Moore uses an idiosyncratic meter that is typical of her verse—a meter that is neither counted in metrical feet nor grasped as “free verse,” but rather consists of an exacting syllable count in each line. What the eye cannot see nor the ear hear is that there are exactly eleven syllables in the first line of every stanza. There are ten syllables in all the second lines, thirteen syllables in all third lines, and eight syllables in all lines 4 and 5. Most of her poetry uses this odd method, in which there is an apparently arbitrary syllable count from line to line of an opening stanza which is then rigidly adhered to in subsequent stanzas. This remarkable versification is a Marianne Moore invention; no one writing in English verse had used it before. Most readers do not ever discover it, and no reader, short of counting out the syllables and keeping a record, can grasp by ear the peculiar method. Her famous poem “Poetry” uses a line count of exactly, and preposterously, nineteen, nineteen, eleven, five, nine, and seventeen syllables, repeated five times. The poet must often go to great lengths to keep score. Many lines throughout Moore’s opus end in mid-word or on a dangling “the.” In “The Steeple-Jack,” this delightful event occurs at the end of stanza 3.

Moore loved hiding form inside this mind-boggling tactic. One senses from the liveliness of her poems that Moore devised her method for the sheer fun of it, but in addition to such sport, Moore’s use of hidden formal properties is related to several of her themes.

The Steeple-Jack Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Hadas, Pamela White. Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1977.

Joyce, Elisabeth W. Cultural Critique and Abstraction: Marianne Moore and the Avant-Garde. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Miller, Christine. Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Molesworth, Charles. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. New York: Atheneum, 1990.

Stamy, Cynthia. Marianne Moore and China: Orientalism and a Writing of America. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Stapleton, Laurence. Marianne Moore: The Poet’s Advance. 1978. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Tomlinson, Charles, ed. Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Willis, Patricia C., ed. Marianne Moore. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999.