In Distrust of Merits

by Marianne Moore

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Themes and Meanings

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Although a photograph of a slain soldier in Life magazine sparked the immediate compassion and the reaction Moore expressed in “In Distrust of Merits,” the poet, throughout her later years, frequently expressed her concern with moral issues in her poetry. When she was asked how she felt about this frequently anthologized poem, she responded that she believed that it expressed her deep and sincere emotion but that it was perhaps somewhat disjointed in form. However, it seems tenable that the form reflects the speaker’s feelings: When personal feelings do not conform with those of people with whom one usually agrees, the normal reaction is to feel cut off or disjointed.

The title expresses the feeling the persona explores in the poem. The word “distrust” sets up a rejection of trust in what is usually considered to have merit. The poem attempts to penetrate the positive veneer of society’s merits by looking beneath the surface to the reality. In World War II, for example, leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Mussolini were successful in their bids for power; however, beneath the merit of success lay the suffering Jews and the conquered Ethiopians. Such a “successful” leader is “the blind/ man who thinks he sees.” The same description is used in reference to those who give “false comfort” to a “disheartened” Job. These comforters suggest the apparent moral uprightness of those who are more concerned about external rectitude than spiritual integrity. They believe that if Job is suffering, he must have deserved it. The poem suggests such merits also are suspect.

The final expression of distrust is directed at the speaker: “I must/ fight till I have conquered in myself what/ causes war, but I would not believe it.” The speaker explicitly identifies her inability to accept personal responsibility. Therefore, she does nothing and betrays herself and humanity (“O Iscariot-like crime!”). The final two lines complete the circle from distrust to trust by affirming the perspective at which the speaker has arrived: “Beauty is everlasting/ and dust is for a time.” The merits that the world supports are but transient dust; however, true merit will always last. The word “everlasting” also affirms a central theme of the poem: The situations that are usually identified as leading to war may vary, but the underlying cause, a “Hate-hardened heart,” remains constant. Recognition of this cause must precede and support the vow “We’ll/ never hate black, white, red, yellow, Jew,/ Gentile, Untouchable.”

Throughout the poem, the author points to the need for the individual to make hard personal choices and then to express those choices so that others will feel supported in the choices their consciences make. One way the author expresses this movement from one individual toward other individuals (but not toward the collective society that supports the distrusted merits) is simply to use the first-person singular pronoun (“I”), the third-person singular pronoun (“he”), and the first-person plural pronoun (“we”). The syntax supports Moore’s concern that the individuals must announce their beliefs publicly, unlike the cowardly Judas Iscariot who betrayed his friend Jesus.

Christian Themes

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Poet Stanley Kunitz wrote about Moore, “her vital optimism and good will have a Christian source and an American flavor.” As granddaughter of a scholarly Presbyterian minister and sister of a naval chaplain, the intellectually gifted Bryn Mawr College graduate was thoroughly versed in the Bible and the classics, and she advocated traditional pieties. Biblical allusions and religious ideas—humility, steadfastness, the value of service to others, the role of suffering among the faithful, the lasting power of spiritual over material comforts—abound in this war poem and in...

(This entire section contains 408 words.)

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Moore’s other work.

In “In Distrust of Merits,” the star of Bethlehem provides guidance for soldiers, just as it was a heavenly compass for wise men. The lion of the Lord, “emblem of a risen world,” is summoned to make love king. Job, the quintessential figure of Christian suffering and a favorite subject of study for Moore, contends with the spiritually blind and misdirected.

The theme of redemption is prominent. Like Christ, soldiers dedicate themselves to curing disease, making numb hearts feel, and “fighting that where/ there was death there may/ be life.” They challenge enslavers and exhort love’s power over hate. Their “great patient dying,” like the Crucifixion, strives to redeem the selfish world and set it on a new path. In Christian terms, however, the tentative final note of the poem is problematic: “Beauty is everlasting/ and dust is for a time.” The image of dust is drawn from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. Here, it represents death, the soldiers’ return to earthly substance from which God had fashioned them. Like the armored animals of Moore’s early poems, Christlike soldiers prove themselves noble. Why, then, does the poem not end on a higher note, if not a victory? The well-meaning warriors are, after all, human and flawed: They devour others and make vows incompetently. Critic George W. Nitchie (in Marianne Moore: An Introduction to the Poetry, 1969) says that the poem’s concluding note is not a failure of faith but an acknowledgment of reality.Marianne Moore does not tell us the meaning of history, the nature of sin, or the right way to conduct our lives. She keeps things in order; she observes and annotates; . . . she also gives us the sick horror of decency trying to confront honestly the fact of modern war. . . .

While avoiding timeless absolutes, “In Distrust of Merits,” offers morally minded windows into individual behavior and armed conflict.