Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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 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...

(The entire section is 408 words.)