Themes and Meanings
A museum is literally the abode of the muses, goddesses of poetic, dramatic, and astronomical inspiration. The Swedish cart is a “put-away/museum piece.” When Moore went to check on it a decade after she first saw it, it was gone. Thus, in a sense, her poem operates like Keats’s as pure ekphrasis, for now the cart exists only as words. She remembers it was made in Sweden, “therea sweeter airthan we have here;/ a Hamlet’s castle atmosphere.” Hamlet may have known something was rotten in Denmark, but, on the whole, Scandinavia has a “sweeter air” than the poet’s Brooklyn. Yet the poet is very comfortable in her own place: “At all events there is in Brooklyn/ something that makes me feel at home.” Like the cart, the poet has been made by her atmosphere. Whatever is true of the cart is likely to be true of her as well.
Not a perfect place, hers is a “city of freckled/ integrity” against which the Swedish cart stands with “resined straightness” as if to take the city’s measure. Aware of the shortcomings of her native place, Moore prays, “Washington and Gustavus/ Adolphus, forgive our decay.” The rectitude of these two men is proverbial. The fabled George Washington, who could not tell a lie, and the worthy King Gustavus Adolphus, who ruled the land of the cart, are imposing standards of behavior.
A paradox of the carriage from Sweden is that now “no one may see this put-away/ museum piece.” Things in museums are meant to be seen. Yet even when they are on display, some inner quality of the art object, “that inner happiness made art,” is quite invisible. It is for the words of the poet to make this quality visible to the reader. As a standard of beauty and inner happiness, the carriage has a Platonic otherworldliness, a universality which can be grasped only in bits and pieces. Moore tries, by invoking bits and pieces of Swedish history and culture, to grasp the fullness of the cart’s meaning.
The fourth stanza praises the cart’s design from “a flowered step [and] swan-/ dart brake” to the “swirling crustacean-/ tailed equine amphibious creatures/ that garnish the axletree.” As she beholds the riotous decorations which raise the useful cart to art object, the poet can only exclaim, “What// a fine thing!” Enjambment from stanza to stanza as well as from line to line keeps the poem rolling along like a cart racing down a country road. Moore can even imagine the beautiful woman waiting for its arrival, she “with the natural stoop of the/ snowy egret/or whom it should come to the door.” She herself is that woman.
Stanza 6 is a veritable personification of Sweden: “the split/ pine fair hairgannet-clear/ eyespine needled-path deer-/ swift step.” The cart embodies all these qualities of its homeland; it has a life, too. It is straight like the spruce tree “vertical though a seedling.” As the tree is bent, so it grows, but in Sweden, trees and people grow straight. There, people dance “in thick-soled/ shoes!” When the Nazis threatened Europe, “Denmark’s sanctuaried Jews” found refuge in compassionate Sweden. The texture of folk arts and material culture, from jugs and rugs to stools to buttons and ornamental braid (“frogs”), captures the essence of Sweden, as does the cart itself.
Moore was a sports fan, so to her the spirit of Sweden was nowhere more visible than in “a runner called the Deer, who// when he’s won a race, likes to run/ more.” The last Olympic Games before the poem was written in 1944 had been the so-called Nazi Olympics of 1936. World War II forced the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Games. In 1948, three Swedish “deer” swept the 3,000-meter steeplechase for gold, silver, and bronze medals. This same exuberant, athletic spirit has produced the cart and is at work in the poem. It is akin to that “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion” that William Wordsworth claimed to be the very source of poetry itself.
In an apostrophe (direct address), the poet asks, “Sweden,/ what makes the people dress that way/ and those who see you wish to stay?” What made the runner “not too tired to run more”? What made the cart so “dolphin-graceful”? What, she asks, accounts for the genius of a Nils Gustaf Dalen, who invented a “lighthouse, self-lit?—responsive and responsible”? She answers her own question in line 8: “that inner happiness made art.”
As the poem concludes, it circles back upon itself dolphinlike, as graceful as the amphibians on the cart. It began with “a Hamlet’s castle atmosphere,” so it ends with “moated white castles,” with the letter S picked out in “white flowers densely grown,” with S for “Sweden,” for “stalwartness,” for “skill.” To be “made in Sweden” is Moore’s final metaphor for something that is well made, for the making of her well-wrought poem itself. “Carts are my trade,” she says, both seriously and mischievously. The cart and her poem are now one.