Marianne Moore

Start Free Trial

Discuss the poem "What Are Years?" by Marianne Moore.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Every man is uncertain about the course of his life.  God bestows each of his children with certain talents and gifts.  These can serve as constraints or limitations.  Hopefully, each person can make the best of the course of his life.

Because God loves mankind, he wants man to use his time on earth wisely.  This is the message that Marianne Moore denotes in her poem “What Are Years?” It is most important to treat each other well with respect and humility. 

The poem is written in first person point of view with the poet as the narrator. She includes herself in the message as she asks the questions about mankind and his actions in the struggles of life.

 The poem is three stanzas with nine lines per stanza.  There is no set rhyming pattern.  In each of the stanzas, the first and third lines rhyme; however, the rest of the poem is primarily free verse.

As the poem progresses, it is apparent that the purpose of the poem is to point out that no one is perfect.  Hopefully, each person can make the run carefully the course of his life.

 1st stanza

The poet begins with a question to all men: what is the guilt or innocence of a person? The speaker uses abstract ideas that everyone thinks about as he grows older.  Guilt, innocence, courage, doubt—all are aspects that a man must face in his life.  A person will experience all of these feelings at some time.  No one is always brave or doubtful.  No one is always guilty or innocent.    These feelings are subject to change depending on what happens in a person’s life. 

They are raw emotions that impact a person’s life.  When a person faces these emotions, there are often no words heard or spoken.  Death and nakedness are visual images.  Death encounters these particular emotions, and sometimes loses to these feelings.    Courage and innocence may stir the soul. 

 2nd Stanza

When in times of despair or trouble, the pain makes the soul stronger.  Death comes to all and though it is difficult the person rises above the chaos and fights for his freedom. 

 He sees deep and is glad, who

Accedes to mortality

And in its imprisonment rises

upon himself  as

the sea in chasm…

He will not surrender to his problem.  Someone who feels the pain acts on it.

3rd stanza

The analogy is made of man in his most difficult situation to a captive bird that grows and stands tall despite his caged life.  His joy comes from being able to continue is life.  So he who strongly feels about a dire situation, gains his satisfaction from knowing the polar ends of life and facing them. 

Despite the bird's lack of “satisfaction” because of his loss of flight and freedom, he knows “joy”. In this case, "joy" is the spiritual strength to keep on living despite the difficult circumstances of life.  Understanding the depths of a man’s life includes the knowledge of death, and at the same time, knowledge of eternity -- an acute awareness of something beyond mortal existence which is eternity.

The entire poem is based on powerful metaphors used to discuss the emotions and feelings through various stages. The poet states:

 The very bird

grown taller as he sings, steels

his form straight up. Though he is captive...

The poet demonstrates the difficulties found in adulthood and the daily challenges with which a person is faced. The real emotional anguish leads to the recognition that satisfaction only comes to the humble. 




Approved by eNotes Editorial Team