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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 738

“The Jerboa” is a poem in two sections. In the first, Moore weaves together references to Egyptian art and the animals kept by Egypt’s royal courts. In the second, she juxtaposes those articles of opulent living with the jerboa, a tiny desert rat which uses natural powers of survival. These contrasting images illustrate one of Moore’s favorite themes: the value of the natural unity of form and function over the tendency of human cultures to perfect, transform, or possess nature, both in art and in life.

The opening stanza of the first section, “Too Much,” contains the word “contrive,” indicating that what follows will be unfavorable. Moore’s images describe an honest picture of wasteful and artificial luxury. A crafter in ancient Rome fashions an indeterminate shape, a “pine cone/ or fir-cone,” to serve as a fountain. Because Moore values precision, this indicates the first serious fault. This piece “passed for art” because it looked like something the ancient Egyptians would have liked for their courts.

The remaining fifteen stanzas describe the excesses of wealth, waste, and artificiality of the Egyptian pharaohs. They exploited animals by making them into possessions. They kept crocodiles and put baboons on the necks of giraffes to pick fruit.

They bred “dog-cats,” unnatural creatures, to chase other small animals. They viewed all nature as theirs: impalas, ostriches, cranes, and geese. They liked “small things” and made playthings of nests of eggs and carved bone. These people destroyed the grace and form of nature by parodying it, by elevating some animals to the status of gods and degrading others.

Meanwhile, they were insensitive to human life. Slaves built colossi, dying in the process. Drought plagued the poor. Amid famine and death, the court kept dwarfs to make life a “fantasy.” The whole environment, in fact, perverted what life should be. In games, they continued this masquerade by having men and women dress as each other. The pharaoh was the height of this fakeness, for he “gave his name” to images of serpents and beetles and was also named for them. He was no different from the other lifeless parodies.

The last three stanzas in “Too Much” are transitional. They introduce the pharaoh’s mongoose, kept to kill snakes used in court rituals and games. This mongoose is restless under the restraint of its artificial existence. Unlike this animal, the jerboa has rest and joy in its desert home, “a shining silver house/ of sand” that lacks the artificial comforts of the court. Moore’s meaning is clear: The life of the jerboa is preferable.

The second section, “Abundance,” begins with a reference to Africanus, the native blacks who live like the jerboa when they are untouched by those motivated by greed and pride. Nine stanzas detailing the life of the jerboa follow. Moore does not moralize, but presents exhilarating images of an animal living harmoniously with its surroundings. Its color blends perfectly with the desert surroundings; it runs in a fashion that is musical. The jerboa approaches true artistry of simplicity and harmony.

Moore’s poetic style enhances this theme. In the first section, the pace is slower, as though she wanted to make sure that the scorn in her lines is clear. The metrics of the second section are the same as the first—the same number of syllables in parallel lines, the same number of lines in stanzas, the same rhyme scheme. It moves faster, however; the imagery drawn from music and nature creates a lighter, more flowing effect. This contributes to the celebratory tone praising the animal that lives best because it lives in true harmony and true abundance rather than in artificial plenty.

In this poem, as in many others, Moore puts forth her value system by celebrating this uncomplicated life of an animal. Survival in the world depends on honesty in function and behavior, simplicity, modesty, and courage. Threats are ever-present, but the jerboa survives because it is fast, resourceful, and self-reliant; it is an ideal creature.

Human culture cannot realize this perfect condition, and Moore is aware of the paradoxical situation of the poet. In writing the poem she, too, has transformed the world to suit her purposes. What saves the poet from the same fate as the Egyptians is that she acknowledges that her comparisons are purely imaginary, having no power or authority. Instead, they allow the mind to imagine and pursue its own needs.

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