The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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:...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One of Moore’s favorite poetic devices is the paradox. This device of presenting an apparent contradiction that proves to be true after some reflection works well to express the thesis of “In Distrust of Merits.” Even the title suggests the author is questioning some concept that the rest of society not only accepts without question but also rewards. For example, the first two lines of the first stanza (“Strengthened to live, strengthened to die for/ medals and positioned victories?”) immediately set up a thematic paradox by repeating the same action (“Strengthened”) with opposite purposes (to live and to die). Yet the meaning is not contradictory, for soldiers are trained both to fight (“live”) and to die in combat. The feeling of contradiction provokes continued dialogue as the speaker tries to make sense of a senseless situation. Some other examples of paradoxes in the poem are “a blind man who/ can see,” the “enslaver” who is “enslaved,” and the “alive who are dead.” Most of these paradoxes are based on the gap between material and spiritual perception. People are more impressed when their senses experience success in battle and war; unfortunately, these tangible senses can veil intangible spiritual truth. In spite of witnessing turmoil, fighting, and death, the persona in this dialogue with self must uncover, chiefly by means of unraveling the paradox, the truth that lies beneath the external causes of war: the guilt of the...

(The entire section is 443 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.