The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

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“His Shield” is a thirty-three-line poem in five stanzas, with an end-line rhyming scheme. Moore chose the title “His Shield” (originally “The Magic Shield”) in an attempt to explain the life of Presbyter John, a legendary Christian of medieval times from Asia or Africa who was said to wear a salamander’s skin for protection, thus shielding him from heat, fire, and other natural phenomena. Making the name “John” doubly interesting is the fact that her own father was named John, as was her grandfather, who was himself a “Presbyter”: He was a Presbyterian minister in St. Louis, Missouri, where Moore was born in 1887.

Moore’s poetry has been compared to the poetry of John Donne and, like Donne’s poetry, is often called “metaphysical” because she uses images from nature and expands them by using metaphors. The central metaphor of nature’s protective devices is used throughout “His Shield.” In the first stanza Moore immediately mentions a number of animals, including the hedgehog, porcupine, and rhinoceros, that wear some sort of protection on their bodies. Her point is that many animals are prepared for life as they might be prepared for war; life is so dangerous that animals must evolve shields to battle the elements, as well as other animals, every day: “everything is battle-dressed.”

In the second stanza Moore recognizes that human beings have very little protection in life, and she turns to the legendary Presbyter John for a clue as to how to save herself from the dangerous elements that might bombard her skin. She decides to use salamander skin, which supposedly has asbestoslike qualities, to shield her from fire and the sun. If John could protect himself in Africa with salamander skin, she too can become “asbestos-eyed asbestos-eared” to “withstand fire” and avoid drowning.

Attending to the Presbyter John legend in greater detail in stanza 3, Moore states that in Africa, where Presbyter John might have lived in perhaps the twelfth century, the land was rich with gold and rubies, yet no one valued these items greatly. No one was envious or greedy. Presbyter John was able to gird himself even more effectively than with salamander skin: He donned a coat of humility that deflected all jealousy and harm.

Stanza 4 explains that a shield of humility, similar perhaps to that used by Presbyter John, could provide protection for the leader of the African country of Ethiopia in the 1940’s (the time when the poem was written). This dimension of the poem is difficult to grasp from the text alone, but Moore provided some explanation in other writings and interviews. Haile Selassie (also called the “Lion of Judah”) was the emperor of Ethiopia, which was being besieged by Italy during World War II. Perhaps, Moore suggests, Selassie and Ethiopia could remain free without actually being free. Surrounded by his enemies, Selassie is advised to stay humble, avoid greed, avoid pomp, and avoid provoking the enemy.

In the final stanza Moore gives direct advice to readers on how they might avoid battles in their own lives. “Become dinosaur-/ skulled” and “ironshod,” she suggests. More important, along with this armor, readers are urged to “be/ dull. Don’t be envied.” In other words, they should not be pompous, should not appear proud and haughty. People should stop counting their money and counting their victories. They should put aside their “measuring-rod” for sizing up their enemies and their friends. Remaining humble and avoiding confrontations is the way to survival.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 390

Marianne Moore often used works of art, photographs, or newspaper articles to trigger ideas for poems. In addition, common animals such as porcupines, elephants, swans, and snakes often inspired her. As Patricia C. Willis explains in her book Marianne Moore: Vision into Verse (1987), “His Shield” was inspired by an article in The New York Times entitled “Rare Animal Freak Is Echidna in Zoo.” Moore read and clipped the article, and later she combined what she had read with a book she had been reading about Haile Selassie. This book also included the legend of Presbyter John. The newspaper article described the echidna as an animal with “spines as defense armor.” Moore added to this the idea of Presbyter John living his life in humility and the World War II theme of protection for Ethiopia, where Haile Selassie was facing the enemy in a battle for freedom.

Thus Moore began with an animal and built a metaphor that is challenging for the reader to decipher. The echidna, an Australian animal, is somewhat like a porcupine except that it hatches its young from eggs and then raises them in a kangaroolike pouch. The echidna is a very obscure creature to use as the central metaphor in a poem. Moore explained the problem of challenging the reader, yet being understood, when she said to Donald Hall (A Marianne Moore Reader, 1961), “I think the most difficult thing for me is to be satisfactorily lucid, yet have enough implication in it to suit myself.”

The problems in understanding “His Shield” are not resolved once one can picture the echidna. One must also be able to picture a religious man living centuries ago in Africa, perhaps Ethiopia, preaching the gospel and wearing the skin of the salamander (another unusual animal) to protect himself from the heat. There is also the problem of understanding the situation in 1944 Ethiopia, where Haile Selassie was in reality battling his Italian enemies, using weapons and armor to save his country. In a sense, Moore’s poem seems to be written to the world at large in 1944. The poem is sufficiently ambiguous that the reader wonders exactly what Moore intends. Is “His Shield” an antiwar poem? Is Moore advocating that Selassie become humble to avoid death? Should he and Ethiopia put down their armor and rely only on being humble and “dull”?


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