Moore, Marianne 1887–1972
Moore, possibly the foremost American woman poet of this century, combined technical virtuosity with a profound moral vision. Her poetry is both vivid and subtle, and often relates the soul in nature. Moore was a recipient of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36.)
Our only domesticated poet, at least the only one whom we can take seriously, is Marianne Moore. Her vital optimism and good will have a Christian source and an American flavor. She is at home in the community of her imagination, just as "the hero, the student, the steeple-jack, each in his way, is at home." However much we may be tempted to impute an ironic meaning—conditioned as we are by modern verse—to the job of the steeple-jack and to his danger-sign, we must not suppose that [in "The Steeple-Jack"] Miss Moore is, even obliquely, mocking the "simple people" of this town or being acerbic about their faith. It is prudent and right for a man to protect his neighbors against injury. And the church, though it appeals to the townsfolk as a provident and practical institution, is also the house of mystery and transcendence—hence fittingly labeled "dangerous." This fishing town, with its stranded whales and proliferating seaside vegetation, has its elements of fantasy, but we realize in the clear light that, after all, "the climate is not right for the banyan, frangipani, or jack-fruit trees; or an exotic serpent life…. They've cats, not cobras, to keep down the rats." Neither is it a town meant for an exotic spirituality, a fanatic religious life. Maybe hope is as much transcendence as it can bear. The last lines of the poem … are appropriately matter-of-fact. Miss Moore, indeed, almost never seeks the smash ending. Her poems are not orchestrated for brasses and kettledrums. Suspended at the close, by-passing the full stop, they seem to drift back into life. (pp. 223-24)
Miss Moore's inductive method of composition is not conducive to economy. Generally she needs to accumulate a palpable mass of data before she is willing to let go of her poem. If she seems to be in no hurry to reach her destination, it may be that she has no destination in view. Her mind is like Stendhal's mirror dawdling along a road, enchanted by the succession of unpredictable reflections, which we in turn are permitted to enjoy. She will know, when she gets there, where to stop. If she did not have a conviction about the unity of experience, she would get nowhere….
We need constantly to remind ourselves that Miss Moore's poems are works of the imagination, despite their lack of afflatus. Their quality depends on her gift for picking and choosing. Miss Moore, who does not pretend to be a bard, has a scrupulous sense of limits. On this rock she has built her house. The workmanship is more than honest: it is passionately fastidious. I suspect it will stand. (p. 225)
Miss Moore has made a great triumph by building an art out of a lifetime of trust in small, real virtues. She is our Moral Eye, saved from platitude by accuracy, by honesty, by coolness, and by joy. One of her convictions is that "poetry watches life with affection." She is fond of quoting from Confucius, who taught her, "If there be a knife of resentment in the heart, the mind will not attain precision." (p. 227)
Stanley Kunitz, "Responses, Glosses, Refractions" (originally published in Festschrift for Marianne Moore's Seventy-Seventh Birthday, edited by Tambimuttu; Tambimuttu & Mass, New York, 1964), in his A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly (© 1935, 1937, 1938, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1949, 1957, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Stanley Kunitz; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1975, pp. 223-27.
Mistress of quirks and oddities, Marianne Moore writes poems that look like nothing so much as a magpie's nest of precisely fitted trivia and that almost inevitably surprise us by or into abrupt, oblique, and superficially capricious generalizations. Her home truths, her moral assertions seem to relate in something other than a cause-and-effect way to the material she has assembled. Neither pertinent nor altogether impertinent, those outrageous accuracies seem, when she is in top form, really to have animated a world of pure fact until that world, like one of the gods laboring a thought, gives birth to figures that are heroic, intractable, pure. In her characteristic work, the commonplace assumes a regal strut.
Inimitable, she is also unpredictable. Her revisions—such as the spectacular reduction of "Poetry" from an initial thirty lines to a final three—exasperate some readers and delight others. But they also serve to remind us that, for the living poet who sees his work as indigenously part of himself, the poem is likely to continue to change whenever the poet changes. When he no longer wants to tinker with it, it may be dead. There is no doubt at all in Miss Moore's mind that the best thing to do with a poem that is not living is to discard it. (pp. v-vi)
In the face of what may be universal disaster, she offers us primary values, a poetry of plain fact transmuted—at its best—into wisdom. Admiring the unique, the odd, the peculiar, she reminds us that these qualities—conspicuously her own—make life worthwhile. It is these qualities that make Brooklyn's "crowning curio," the Camperdown elm, worth preserving, and that may preserve, if we are lucky enough and curious enough and possessive enough, the world's other crowning curio, us. (p. vi)
It would be absurd to deny that Marianne Moore is frequently obscure, enigmatic, or peculiar; it would be still more absurd, however, to suggest either that such characteristics seriously interfere with an enjoyment of her poems, even those in which the courage of her peculiarities is most in evidence, or that patience and familiarity are any less effectual with her than they are with Eliot, Emily Dickinson, or Donne. And to place Miss Moore among such poets is, in kind if not always in degree, to place her among her peers—among poets of formidable intelligence, formidable wit, and formidable eccentricity, poets who characteristically achieve their effects through surprise and the strategic violation of decorum. (p. 17)
[One] peculiarity of most Marianne Moore poems is that they are symmetrically rigid, if not frigid, that they are "strict with tension" between the prose elegance of the thing said and the verse elegance of formal regularity…. Of such tensions, it may be said with absolute literality that "it is not for us to understand art," since whatever it is that makes us respond to such tensions is a matter not of understanding but precisely of response, something probably organic in nature rather than rational—a "beautiful element of unreason." (pp. 25-6)
[Event] and anecdote in Marianne Moore's writing are rarely presented either for their own sake or for the sake of their unadorned intensity. Those happenings that she observes or invents, that seem to her the appropriate stuff of poetry, interest her because they embody or suggest values, ideas, or modes of conduct. Rather than let sleeping cats lie, she finds in them occasion for comment on the life of man, and she is willing to risk a considerable degree of obliquity in the process of making them give up their significance; her moralities are seldom as straightforward and uncomplicated as that of the grasshopper and the ant, for instance. On the one hand, she has, as moralist, a taste for aphorism; on the other hand, the aphorisms tend to appear in contexts that limit their applicability:
As for the disposition invariably to affront, an animal with claws should have an opportunity to use them,
and this is something less than a categorical imperative, even for animals, not all of whom have claws. Such an interest in ethics is exploratory, conditional, and even experimental rather than absolutist or dogmatic; Miss Moore detects ethical implications in conduct, but she does not necessarily advocate all she detects.
In [addition], the interest in ethics is matched by an interest in art. Art, once more, is "feeling, modified by the writer's moral and technical insights," and it may be worth noting that moral insights modify feeling rather than the other way round; that is to say that when Miss Moore is thinking explicitly of her role as artist, moral insight is not primary…. [Ethics] and esthetics have a symbiotic relationship throughout Miss Moore's body of work. There is not much question which of the two is finally prior for her as a person. (pp. 27-8)
Marianne Moore has written poems in traditional metrical forms ("To Military Progress," for example) and others in what may as well be called free verse ("New York"). But more frequent and more characteristic are those written in the peculiar prosody of "Bird-Witted" and "The Monkeys," with stanzas based on syllable count and inconspicuous rhyme working against a cadence that is essentially that of elegant and precise prose. Quite simply, there is no one among her contemporaries who writes in quite this way. The point here is not really that of having a voice and manner of one's own, though Miss Moore surely has one, as characteristic and individual as that of Frost or Auden, for example. But the prosody has little to do with the voice because it is never more than partially heard, and this is not accidental. Miss Moore remarks on "my own fondness for the unaccented rhyme," attributing it to "an instinctive effort to ensure naturalness," and again, "concealed rhyme and the interiorized climax usually please me better than the open rhyme and the insisted-on climax…." [Her] rhyming is eccentric, but there is no question of its not having been intended; it testifies not to a defective ear but to a prickly and rigorous, perhaps almost an obsessive, concern for craft.
Such a concern for craft is risky but not unprecedented; there is in fact a plausible case to be made that sees Marianne Moore as occupying one of the two possible attitudes, at least for poets in English, toward a relatively strict prosody. Roughly speaking, one may cooperate with one's prosody or one may set oneself in opposition to it. (pp. 28-30)
That harmony of form and content evident in [a] Shakespeare sonnet is in Milton, if not a dissonance, at least a radically strained counterpointing. Shakespeare cooperates with his prosody, Milton opposes it.
In this admittedly limited sense, Marianne Moore is more Miltonic than Shakespearean—more Miltonic in fact than Milton. Milton does not bury his systematic rhymes as does Miss Moore in some instances, and while he counts syllables quite as scrupulously as she, he also maintains at least diplomatic relations with an iambic pentameter norm. She does not, nor with any other norm that the ear can detect; her stance of opposition to her prosody is as complete as she can make it. (p. 33)
For Miss Moore, it seems clear that her prosody expresses a fastidious dislike to sprawl, either verbal or emotional; a sense that cadence alone is not a sufficient safeguard against such excesses; a compelling taste for schematic arrangements of things, indicated not only in counted syllables but in orderly patterns of indentation in her left margins; an equally compelling taste for the freer arrangements and patterns of highly skilled talk (like Samuel Johnson and Oscar Wilde, she is herself an extraordinary and eccentric talker); and I suspect most important of all, her moral and esthetic imperative toward discipline, particularly self-discipline, in all things. To Marianne Moore,… Pavlova's sense of style was also a moral quality; [her] essay on Pavlova is a praise of discipline, of values that can be achieved through rigorous devotion of oneself to a craft, and that emphasis provides a constant theme of her critical writing. Of gusto as a literary quality, she writes that it "thrives on freedom, and freedom in art, as in life, is the result of a discipline imposed by ourselves."… And for a poet, at least for Miss Moore's kind of poet, law means prosody, those regulations and organizations of language that make possible both the exercise of a more or less impersonal craft and the maneuverings of personal insight and ability through which craft may become art. (pp. 34-5)
[Inconsistencies] make it almost impossible to generalize meaningfully about Miss Moore's revisions, especially in their most recent stages. Some need no defense, others admit of no explanation except the impulse to tinker, or perhaps to make sacrifices. (p. 51)
Even her friend William Carlos Williams has testified to her unwillingness to clarify her poems, and Allen Tate detects a similar reluctance to expose herself in her whimsical rejection of Roman Catholicism on the grounds that her sins were too numerous to inflict on a confessor. "Writing," Miss Moore tells us, "is an undertaking for the modest," and modesty evidently precludes a parading of those reservations that have led to her persistent refashioning of her work…. [Her] whims presumably operate in defense of something, some feeling of integrity, some "beautiful element of unreason," but it is clearly whim that operates.
Does it matter? To Miss Moore, it evidently does, but without a clearer sense than we are ever likely to get of just what it is that has troubled her in omitted and revised poems, we have little choice but to regard her tinkering as one of those things which an elephant does and which please no one but itself. Lacking that clearer sense, one may wonder whether it need matter to anyone except Miss Moore, and one need not question her genuineness or personal integrity in order to think that it matters a good deal. But it may be difficult to indicate precisely why it matters. Randall Jarrell gives part of the answer in his comment on the shortened version of "The Steeple-Jack" that appeared in Collected Poems: "The reader may feel like saying, 'Let her do as she pleases with the poem; it's hers, isn't it?' No; it's much too good a poem for that, it long ago became everybody's, and we can protest just as we could if Donatello cut off David's left leg." (pp. 70-1)
Jarrell's response is surely sound. And yet it is not precisely, or not simply, a matter of a poem's being too good to be altered. There are, it seems to me, at least two other elements involved. In the first place, for a poem to register itself on one's awareness as a thing, it has to have some sort of shape. This need not be an arbitrary shape, like a sonnet or a five-line syllabic stanza; it may equally well be its own uniquely organic shape, like a chestnut tree or a thumbprint or "Howl." But a poem that is subject to persistent tinkering, that appears first in strict syllabic stanzas, then as thirteen lines of freely cadenced verse, then twice in loosely syllabic stanzas, and then as three irregular lines with a long footnote, that uses double quotation marks in its first two appearances, single quotation marks in its third and fourth, and double again in the footnote to its fifth, and whose third version is identified by its author as original—such a poem is less a thing than an open-ended process; it is Polonius's cloud. Its successive revisions call attention less to the poem, which one can never grasp because it is never finished, than to the poet, who excites one's curiosity. Actually, what probably happens under such circumstances is that one really accepts that version of the poem in which it first called itself to one's attention, and writes off the others as interesting or exasperating aberrations; one can ordinarily neither entertain equally four different versions of a poem nor simply cancel earlier versions when a later appears. Clearly, a poet is under no obligation to concern himself with such problems; but a poem whose history is one of never quite finding its shape suffers because of them. (pp. 71-2)
"The past is the present," as Miss Moore reminds us in the poem of that name, but in Complete Poems the past comes dangerously close to being what one wishes it had been. Confusion, though perhaps not confusion alone, is well served by a volume that, evidently intended to be definitive, fudges with history in this way. (p. 73)
Miss Moore as poet persistently manifests certain tensions, certain opposed impulses that in large measure determine both her successes and her failures. Briefly, the impulse to generalize, to reduce particularities in the interests of the Johnsonian "great though," is constantly involved with the counterimpulse to note particularities despite, or even because of, their refusal to lend themselves to application, to be generalized…. When the one mode fails, the result is steam-roller stuffiness; when the other mode fails, the result is mere eccentricity, the accumulation of bric-a-bric or the pointlessly cryptic anecdote. Characteristically, they do not fail but help to define those tensions that make their poems objects of interest. Miss Moore's best work, perhaps like all best work, embodies a kind of dialectical tension between theoretically incompatible modes of knowledge and ideas of value. (p. 81)
With hindsight wisdom, one may say that the dominant movement in Collected Poems, and perhaps in Miss Moore's work as a whole, is from an attractive but sometimes dreadfully superior concern with life lived, or failing to be lived, in terms of an esthetic of naturalness, fastidiousness, and enlightened self-interest, to an often humble examination of partialities and objects of concern that have no prior obligations to principle and that are valued not because they illustrate a point but because, illustrating only themselves, they liberate emotion. The difference is that between, for example, the cat in "The Monkeys," and the pangolin; between the snail, whose economy we may admire, and the paper nautilus, carrying its eggs with arms wound around
as if they knew love
is the only fortress
strong enough to trust to.
Perhaps only a jaundiced eye will detect in Miss Moore's poems of the 1920s a loss of momentum, a tendency to become more and more special, defensive, and somehow lost; but even a jaundiced eye would be hard put to find such qualities in the poems of the early 1930s. They have in some fashion come to terms with the necessities of ordinary life, no longer finding themselves in contemplation of ocean and glaciers, the vast and the inorganic. Even "the boundless sand,/the stupendous sandspout" in "The Jerboa" is not so much a mere surrounding, a final judgment, or a bleak object of contemplation as it is a place to live. (p. 111)
What Are Years? moves from its opening celebration of the one to its closing insistence on the other, and the dates of first publication for the various poems in the collection indicate that these poles really are poles rather than accidents of chronology…. What Are Years? is an organized body of work, and its objective is the affirming of values.
"You must not be surprised," writes Auden of the poet's moral affirmations, "if he should have nothing but platitudes to say; firstly because he will always find it hard to believe that a poem needs expounding, and secondly because he doesn't consider poetry quite that important." And though the context of his observation is general, he concludes, "any poet, I believe, will echo Miss Marianne Moore's words: 'I, too, dislike it.'" Certainly one can say that the values Miss Moore affirms in these poems—courage, love, humility, patience—are the stuff of platitude, like Auden's "You shall love your crooked neighbor/With your crooked heart," or for that matter Dante's "In la sua voluntade e nostra pace." When Miss Moore's moral affirmations startle us, it is never by virtue of their exoticism, like those eggs laid by tigers for which Dylan Thomas somewhere confessed to an early love. But startle us they sometimes do, not just by their energy and wit (this at least the earlier work had prepared us for), but by their quiet intensity.
"What Are Years?" praises courage in such terms. (pp. 120-21)
Miss Moore gives us no sense of a lost power, as does Wordsworth, and she is not prepared, as Wordsworth is, to base her affirmation on details of personal crisis. But the mortality that is eternity, that achieves joy by its capacity to endure misfortune, even death, has kinship with that humanizing of his soul that Wordsworth experienced as a result of his brother's drowning…. "What Are Years?" may perhaps be described as Miss Moore's "Character of the Happy Warrior." (pp. 122-23)
A powerfully moving elegiac poem, ["Virginia Britannia"] has a sense of place about it that is without precedent in Miss Moore's work, suggestive of Coleridge's conversation poems or Eliot's quartets…. Its characteristic strategy is to hold up something that man, particularly white European man, has made of himself and his surroundings in oblique confrontation with something indigenous…. [If "What Are Years?"] is her "Character of the Happy Warrior," this perhaps is her "Lycidas." It is surely one of our great poems. (pp. 125-26)
What Are Years? moves triumphantly from courage to love; Nevertheless opens in much the same way, with instances of hindered mortality rising upon itself to demonstrate that even in the vegetable world there is nothing like fortitude. But it is a different book—more troubled, more aware or more painfully aware of the distance between commitment to belief or principle and the uncomfortable facts of immediate emotional experience. It moves from simple praise of fortitude, in the title poem, to something much more complicated and uncertain in the last, "In Distrust of Merits," a poem that, echoing many earlier poems, shifts uncertainly between an effort to assume a burden of responsibility for the Second World War and a sin-ridden sense of the task's impossibility. It is Auden's "We must love one another or die," but without Auden's perhaps unconvincing cheeriness in his poem's concluding lines, and equally without Auden's framework of historical determinism and his clear sense of purpose. The fight to be affectionate is still the central fact of moral experience, the one overriding categorical imperative that Miss Moore recognizes, but here it is supported by no ironic or triumphant rhetoric. This poem, more starkly than Auden's, expresses the abiding fear that the fight may be a lost cause.
Does it sum up its volume? Perhaps not. At least the certainties of "Nevertheless" ("The weak overcomes its/menace, the strong over-/comes itself") have become uncertain, and the other four poems in the book do little to prepare us for the expense of spirit that "In Distrust of Merits" involves. (pp. 129-30)
"In Distrust of Merits" is the final poem in Nevertheless, and deliberately so; in terms of original publication, only "The Wood-Weasel" is earlier; "In Distrust of Merits" comes last because Miss Moore wanted it to come last. And what it does to the other poems is to throw their innocences into sharp relief. Like What Are Years?, Nevertheless is a book in praise of courage and love, but its dynamic is less the sense of grace than it is the loss of innocence. To sleep on an elephant may very well be repose, but it is the human condition to have to ride on tigers. (p. 132)
"Beauty is everlasting," says "In Distrust of Merits"; and if mortal aspiration is eternity, as in "What Are Years?," still "dust is for a time" and behaves at its peril—its moral peril—when it attempts to find rest in some timeless absolute. (pp. 132-33)
"In Distrust of Merits" owes much of its special quality in the Moore canon to its conspicuous refusal to simplify the heart's confusions. This of course is not new with Miss Moore; she has always been attracted by dialectically related impulses to generalize and to particularize, but it may be safe to say that as a rule such tensions resolve themselves in some witty synthesis—the image of a steam roller, a statue of Daniel Webster, an imaginary garden with real toads in it. Even "Virginia Britannia" has its great closing image of particularities gradually absorbed into sunset, cloudscape, and gathering darkness as an intimation of glory. "In Distrust of Merits" offers no such synthesizing image, only its final sense of helpless, almost hopeless guilt and inadequacy, like that of Milton's Samson before his testing. Its closing aphorism—"Beauty is everlasting/and dust is for a time"—is less a synthesis than it is a giving up, a taking refuge in the fact that life is finite. As we have seen, Miss Moore has expressed herself as dissatisfied with the poem on formal grounds, and in a way it is perfectly clear that she is right.
I suppose the real trouble is that "In Distrust of Merits" deals with intolerables. "It's truthful," Miss Moore says; "it is testimony—to the fact that war is intolerable, and unjust." And here, as perhaps always in such cases, the statement serves to suppress partially the more disturbing subject of the moral status and responsibility of those, particularly oneself, who tolerate the intolerable, who inwardly do nothing. (pp. 134-35)
"In Distrust of Merits" is a remarkable performance, but in its uninsistent way, a quite different way, the group of nine poems closing Collected Poems is equally remarkable, effecting something much like a musical modulation of key and final resolution. Nevertheless closes with an almost schizoid sense of personal fragmentation, of formulations that do not work, of duties to be carried out but that cannot be carried out, and of self-loathing. The mind's enchantment, in the destructive sense of the term, is virtually complete; it has looked into itself and found an abyss. (p. 138)
Miss Moore is not Milton, but she shares his tradition in some important ways. Milton's Protestant humanism, with its emphasis on man as fallen but heroic, as responsible for his own desperations but capable of surviving them, and as dependent for guidance largely on recta ratio and his own experience—Milton's humanism differs from Miss Moore's with respect to magnitude and to philosophical and theological explicitness. But Pope's humanism differs from Milton's in much the same way, and if these poems of the 1930s and 1940s cannot be thought of as "Paradise Lost" or "Samson Agonistes," they are a more than respectable "Essay on Man." (p. 146)
[The] poems of [the] late volumes in a way seem to matter less to her. The volumes themselves seem less constructions, like Collected Poems and its component parts, than collections; Like a Bulwark, in which Miss Moore lists dates of publication as part of her acknowledgments, appears to be a straight chronological assembly of poems, without the concern for arrangement evident in What Are Years? and Collected Later. And though, as Randall Jarrell observes, "it is most barbarously unjust to treat her … as what she is only when she parodies herself," nevertheless the tendency to self-parody, if that is what it is, manifests itself in these late poems. "In This Age of Hard Trying, Nonchalance Is Good and" has a sharply defined point, even though one may be quite unclear what that point is; "A Jellyfish," on the other hand, seems perfectly clear, but has very little to be clear about. "To a Snail" was short and brilliant; "O to Be a Dragon" is only short.
There is, of course, another way to regard these contrasts. "In This Age of Hard Trying, Nonchalance Is Good and" may be suspected of pretending to say much more than it really does, of being all machinery and no function, like a Rube Goldberg creation; "A Jellyfish" makes no pretense to delivering more than its own precise but limited observation. "O to Be a Dragon" can enter the same modest claim, exemplifying principles laid down in "To a Snail"…. In its own way, it is an extraordinarily funny poem, and it sums up certain preoccupations of Miss Moore's, though one must approach it with almost infinite tolerance in order to enjoy it.
That may be the problem with these later poems: they demand tolerance. "Like a Bulwark" … seems a case in point. It says that resistance strengthens one and that the strong endure. There would be no point in quarreling with the statement or with Miss Moore's admiration for the person, real or hypothetical, who exemplifies it. Yet the poem is essentially rhetoric, with little indeed of the fine surprise that makes "Nevertheless," for example, something more than its rhetoric. It remains a verbalized thought for the day, admirable in its way, applicable in its way. But it moves one less to admiration than to sympathy…. (pp. 148-50)
Some of Miss Moore's feeblest work is in these late volumes, work about which there is simply nothing to be said except that she wrote it and has found it worthy of being preserved, which may, of course, be all that needs saying. (p. 150)
Up to about the time of What Are Years?, with "The Pangolin" as critical poem, Miss Moore's animal poems, though looking toward people, clearly preferred the simpler creatures who prefigured them—jerboas, basilisks, frigate pelicans. The hard job of preferring people, sticky and complicated as they are, was accomplished in the thirties and forties; and now in these later poems the animals seem to be coming back. (pp. 153-54)
The later sections of Collected Poems seem to have been organized around and to express an emotional and intellectual crisis; Like a Bulwark is more loosely organized,… but it has a kind of center in its persistent concern with tensions between wholeness and multiplicity, change and permanence, between that which can be rationalized into a formula and that which can only be experienced. O to Be a Dragon is still more loosely organized, though the evidence provided by dates of initial publication of its individual poems suggests something other than chronology as the organizing principle. (Tell Me, Tell Me changes the principle yet again by printing poems in reverse chronological order.) … [It] contains a number of old poems as well as new work. The title poem, evidently new, concerns those problems of identity that appear in Like a Bulwark. No more than the rosemary will its dragon say "mutare sperno"; its capacity to be anything or nothing and still to be a dragon expresses, though it does not resolve, a good many contradictions.
Chameleons too change yet remain chameleons, which may account for the reappearance of "To a Chameleon"; minimally, the same thing can be said of the jellyfish in "A Jellyfish." And "I May, I Might, I Must" deals with the necessary changes one must be prepared for if one is to confront such experiential difficulties as crossing fens. I suppose that chameleons, jellyfish, and fen-crossers all exemplify values in use, but the poem of that name seems extraordinarily oblique, a warning against undue abstraction in writing and speaking; someone is evidently being found guilty of violating his own standards. But the bit quoted in the poem, and equally the larger bit quoted in the note, is not hopelessly abstruse, even judged on its own ground; it is not clear that its means defeat its ends, as did those of the ibis in "To Statecraft Embalmed." Hugh Kenner's remark that "few of the later poems enact as did so many of the earlier ones their lesson of probity" seems precisely applicable. (pp. 157-58)
Tell Me, Tell Me seems a thoroughly mixed grill, even omitting as it does in Complete Poems the four prose pieces that appeared when the volume was published separately. The doggerel whimsy of "To Victor Hugo of My Crow Pluto" must establish some sort of outside limit of the admissible, even for school mistresses. Yet "Tell Me, Tell Me" suggests, at least, that the school mistress is still practicing dippiness according to strategy. I am not sure what this poem is about, but I suspect that it may be about me, about egocentricity that mistakes and misunderstands, that ventures to ask why such flatness as "To Victor Hugo of My Crow Pluto" should be set on the cindery pinnacle of publication. The answer is clear: like Mt. Everest, it was there…. And one must add that she chose ["Tell Me, Tell Me"] to provide the title for the volume in which it appeared.
Such a view of one's writing can be faulted only on grounds that have little relevance to the function the writing serves, thus rendering criticism absurd, as perhaps it is anyway. (pp. 163-64)
Miss Moore knows that the world is not good and evil but good-and-evil, as her ironic sense of man in "Virginia Britannia," "The Pangolin," and "Armor's Undermining Modesty" makes clear; she knows that Marianne Moore is not good or evil but good-and-evil, as "In Distrust of Merits" and "A Face" make equally clear. But reticence, decorum, propriety, an unwillingness to foul the nest in however marvelous a way, or perhaps a mere choice of subject matter operate to hold such knowledge at arm's length…. Virtue, rectitude—Miss Moore's work shines with them, but an ideologue might be forgiven for murmuring, "Bourgeois virtue, bourgeois rectitude." "Art," she writes, "is but an expression of our needs." Perhaps one of our deepest needs—politically, morally, personally—is the clear sense of our capacity for reversion, of the inadequacy of our good intentions. (p. 172)
Of the Georgian poets, David Daiches remarks that they "seem to have their eyes averted from something"; and Marianne Moore, praising moderate heroes, constructing her moralized bestiary, upholding fastidiousness in small things and integrity in large—manifesting, in fact, personal goodness, a daily beauty that needs no defense—leaves a similar impression as part of the cost of her way of art.
What else does it leave? What are the characteristic excitements of that way of art? Tricky prosody contributes something, as do the sometimes astringent wit and the capacity for an almost pedantically precise, and therefore surprising and amusing, observation. (p. 173)
What is a Marianne Moore poem about? It is about the odd and interesting way Marianne Moore's mind works as it moves from object to object and from aspect to aspect…. What attracts Miss Moore, and us, is her mind's very uncertainness, its unpredictable capacity to associate—"the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement," as Wordsworth put it in the preface to Lyrical Ballads.
For Miss Moore, such associations sometimes approach Wordsworth's experience in the Wye valley near Tintern Abbey, discovering what he did not know he knew—that things have life, that we share in an organically continuous whole, that there is something in existence far more deeply interfused even than the still, sad music of humanity. But Miss Moore's discoveries are characteristically smaller; she knows that the theater she looks into is not the living plenum Wordsworth saw but her own quirky consciousness. (p. 175)
Unlike the romantics, Miss Moore has never overvalued poetry…. Miss Moore, like Pope and with something of his capacity for self-irony, stoops to truth, speaking of a mind that is often enchanting, sometimes intractable, but never nobly vague, never pinnacled dim in the intense inane. (pp. 175-76)
"Humility, indeed, is armor [Miss Moore wrote], for it realizes that it is impossible to be original, in the sense of doing something that has never been thought of before." Humility may be excessive, as may a concern for armor, though there is little to gain from speculating on the imaginable work of a humble Wordsworth or an egotistically sublime Marianne Moore. Nor is there really any need. Marianne Moore's mind, whether walking along with its eyes on the ground or being rebuked for its deformities by John Roebling's catenary curve, grinding its own ax, dealing with pent-up emotion, or wishing it had invented the zipper, is at the very least a worthy counterpart of the Camperdown elm, one of our crowning curios. And Marianne Moore, armored with humility, might well take that to be quite enough.
As perhaps it is. Yet epigrammatic brilliance, intellectual fastidiousness, and an unwillingness to falsify one's sense of one's own limitations may have an exemplary value of their own, in art as well as in life. 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 exercises the courage of her peculiarities. She gives us imaginary gardens with real toads in them; she also gives us the sick horror of decency trying to confront honestly the fact of modern war, and the undramatic, faintly humiliating, matter-of-fact discovery that decency recovers from that confrontation. Without heroics and without chatter, she tells us that "originality is … a by-product of sincerity"—that is, a moral phenomenon, like Pavlova's dancing—and for half a century now she has been demonstrating what that means. As she wrote of Eliot, "The effect of [such] confidences, elucidations, and precepts … is to disgust us with affectation; to encourage respect for spiritual humility; and to encourage us to do our ardent undeviating best with the medium in which we work." Auden was right; in reading Miss Moore, one responds as much to a person as to a work. (pp. 177-78)
George W. Nitchie, in his Marianne Moore: An Introduction to the Poetry (copyright © 1969 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1969.