In Distrust of Merits

by Marianne Moore

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The Poem

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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.

Forms and Devices

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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...

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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 individual conscience that does not express the ideals in which it intuitively believes.

Moore uses some rather traditional metaphors: “hate’s crown,” “dust of the earth,” “heart of iron,” the world as “an orphans’ home,” and Iscariot’s “crime.” Critics debate whether frequent use has turned these phrases into trite clichés or whether they are being used because they express certain universal feelings and experiences. Like the apostrophe that expresses hope that the “star of David, star of Bethlehem” and “the black imperial lion/ of the Lord” be “joined at last,” the well-known phrases point to thousands of years of conflict that preceded the anti-Semitic attacks and claims of Aryan superiority that provoked World War II, which was in progress at the time of the poem’s composition. By using these conventional phrases, the author is perhaps saying that war and suffering will continue until individuals in each generation face their moral responsibility and end the underlying causes of war. Like the use of recognizable symbolic phrases, the repetition of certain words such as “fighting” and “patience” provides both a feeling of intensity and a feeling of longevity. The persona is asking, “When will people see themselves as the solution to the horrors of war?”


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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.