Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1543
First published: 1943 in The Nation, 1944 in Nevertheless
Edition(s) used: “In Distrust of Merits,” in The Poems of Marianne Moore, edited by Grace Schulman. New York: Viking, 2003
Subgenre(s): Lyric poetry
Core issue(s): Death; peace; redemption; sacrifice; salvation; suffering
“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 thinks he sees” on the other. In a series of invocations to stars, to an ocean, and to the symbols of three different religious faiths, the poet calls for unity; “be joined at last, be/ joined,” she urges, indicating that momentous conflicts have been waged before. Love, power, and trust are jumbled with hate, contagion, and false comfort in the mountainous wave of war she depicts.
Initially, the poet observes conflict from afar, describing soldiers in the third person; “they” form battalions, “they” are lost at sea, “they” fight in deserts and caves. By the third stanza, however, she begins utilizing the first-person “I,” linking what happens in distant battlefields to what she and other individuals do—or don’t do—at home.they’re fighting that Imay yet recover from the disease, MySelf; some have it lightly; some will die. . . .
The disease of self—call it self-involvement, complacency, or the “Iscariot-like crime” of doing nothing for others—is at the root of war, suggests Moore, and the fighting is relentless. (The drumming phrase “fighting, fighting, fighting” appears three times in the poem; solo, the word appears another three times.) By continually juxtaposing what the frontline soldiers endure and what the guilty poet feels from afar, the middle stanzas of the poem further connect soldierly defense with civilian duty. The poet cannot bear to see a soldier reduced to a “quiet form upon the dust” but says she must look. Moreover, after the first-person “I” enters the poem, the once-distinct voices of “they,” “I,” and “we” become intermingled, and the lines between defender and enemy blur. From that point forward, one is never quite certain—as Moore probably intended—who is observing, who is speaking, and who is meant to be listening. Thus, the soldiers’ battle promise (“We’ll/ never hate black, white, red, yellow, Jew,/ Gentile, Untouchable”) also might be a universal moral imperative, and individual tolerance is pivotal in thwarting global conflict:There never was a war that wasnot inward; I mustfight till I have conquered in myself whatcauses war. . . .
The last stanzas of the poem describe the orphans, agonies, wounds, and death in the wake of war. One of the final rhetorical questions, “Shall/ we never have peace without sorrow?,” is directed to the broadest, most inclusive audience: the haters and the harmed, the arrogant and the faithful, and all who contribute to war explicitly with their actions or implicitly with prejudice or inertia. Dark human inclinations, then, as well as the speaker’s own uncertainty about whether she can overcome them (“am I what/ I can’t believe in?”) and the overwhelming suffering of war account for the poem’s wary conclusion. War taxes life, tests faith, and raises uneasy questions about authority.
By strategically placing “In Distrust of Merits” last in the order of poems for her 1944 publication of Nevertheless, Moore prolonged the dark and lasting impression. The collection of poems is about fortitude and war, and in 1944 World War II continued to imperil all.
Poet Stanley Kunitz wrote about Moore, “her vital optimism and good will have a Christian source and an American flavor.” As granddaughter of a scholarly Presbyterian minister and sister of a naval chaplain, the intellectually gifted Bryn Mawr College graduate was thoroughly versed in the Bible and the classics, and she advocated traditional pieties. Biblical allusions and religious ideas—humility, steadfastness, the value of service to others, the role of suffering among the faithful, the lasting power of spiritual over material comforts—abound in this war poem and in Moore’s other work.
In “In Distrust of Merits,” the star of Bethlehem provides guidance for soldiers, just as it was a heavenly compass for wise men. The lion of the Lord, “emblem of a risen world,” is summoned to make love king. Job, the quintessential figure of Christian suffering and a favorite subject of study for Moore, contends with the spiritually blind and misdirected.
The theme of redemption is prominent. Like Christ, soldiers dedicate themselves to curing disease, making numb hearts feel, and “fighting that where/ there was death there may/ be life.” They challenge enslavers and exhort love’s power over hate. Their “great patient dying,” like the Crucifixion, strives to redeem the selfish world and set it on a new path. In Christian terms, however, the tentative final note of the poem is problematic: “Beauty is everlasting/ and dust is for a time.” The image of dust is drawn from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. Here, it represents death, the soldiers’ return to earthly substance from which God had fashioned them. Like the armored animals of Moore’s early poems, Christlike soldiers prove themselves noble. Why, then, does the poem not end on a higher note, if not a victory? The well-meaning warriors are, after all, human and flawed: They devour others and make vows incompetently. Critic George W. Nitchie (in Marianne Moore: An Introduction to the Poetry, 1969) says that the poem’s concluding note is not a failure of faith but an acknowledgment of reality.
Marianne Moore does not tell us the meaning of history, the nature of sin, or the right way to conduct our lives. She keeps things in order; she observes and annotates; . . . she also gives us the sick horror of decency trying to confront honestly the fact of modern war. . . .
While avoiding timeless absolutes, “In Distrust of Merits,” offers morally minded windows into individual behavior and armed conflict.
Sources for Further Study
- Costello, Bonnie, ed. The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Offers insight into Moore’s moral and spiritual reflections, aesthetics, wit, and influences. A glossary of correspondents reads as a literary who’s who of Moore’s time.
- Engel, Bernard M. Marianne Moore. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Close textual readings of poems uncover values—such as courage, self-sufficiency, and restraint—that Moore esteems. Explains biblical images in her work.
- Hadas, Pamela White. Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1977.
- Holley, Margaret. The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Shows how Moore’s early satirical voice gave way to that of a wise observer, a virtuoso, and eventually a meditator.
- Joyce, Elisabeth W. Cultural Critique and Abstraction: Marianne Moore and the Avant-Garde. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.
- Miller, Cristanne. Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. A feminist perspective on the language, structure, and impact of Moore’s poetry, distinguishing it from romantic, sentimental, and modern impersonal verse.
- Molesworth, Charles. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. New York: Atheneum, 1990. This biography traces the sense of responsibility and community, as well as the technical accomplishments, in Moore’s poetry over time.
- 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. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. Draws on Moore’s conversation notebooks, personal correspondence, and revisions of poems to explain the changing aims of her work.
- 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.