“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...

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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.