The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

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Marianne Moore’s “In Distrust of Merits” is a poem so artfully constructed that although it seems to read like prose, it actually follows a consistent pattern that contains many conventional poetic forms. Each of the eight stanzas comprises ten lines. The first four lines of each stanza form a quatrain in which the second and fourth lines rhyme, while the next two lines are decasyllabic (ten syllables to a line). These lines are followed by another quatrain that differs from the first one in that both alternating lines rhyme. Although Moore imposes this formal pattern of syllabic grouping and internal as well as end rhyme, the rhymes are muted and the lines remain flexible.

The first line of the first stanza immediately sets up a thematic paradox by asking whether those who are prepared (“strengthened”) to fight or to die are adequately compensated by the “medals and positioned victories” of war. The paradox continues in the next four lines: The soldiers are fighting a “blind/ man who thinks he sees” and who, because of his moral blindness, is “enslaved” and “harmed.” The questioner appeals to nature (“firm stars”—perhaps truth) to guide humankind. This apostrophe includes the need for the individual to “know/ depth”: In order to understand what motivates humankind to the violence of war, the speaker must plumb the depths of history and of herself.

The second stanza alludes to the possible causes of war: religious differences (the “star of David” of Judaism and the “star of Bethlehem” of Christianity) and racial differences (the “black imperial lion,” a title given to Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia and one of the first victims of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s fascist aggression). The third stanza describes the ongoing fighting in terms of a disease that will kill some and not others; however, the paradox “we devour ourselves” moves the guilt from the external enemy to an internal one.

The fourth stanza continues to express the need for people to see themselves and not be like the hypocritical “false comforters” who placed blame on a guiltless Job in the Bible. However, the fifth stanza explains the difficulty of trying to make promises not to discriminate when the speaker is not sure whether or not she is the enemy herself. Because of this quandary, the sixth stanza points out the easier decision to fight the foreign enemy as opposed to the more difficult choice of being patient (fighting oneself?) as a form of defense. Finally, the seventh stanza galvanizes the internal dialogue of the persona by describing the results that war always produces: the pain of the survivors (“The world’s an orphans’ home”). The speaker must learn the lessons that so many dead and suffering people have paid for. In conclusion, the speaker addresses her own “Hate-hardened heart.” The merits of fighting are to be distrusted because battles are not directed against the real problem: the inability of people to acknowledge their own guilt.