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:...

(The entire section is 494 words.)