Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

“The Pangolin” is a manifestation of Moore’s passion for observation and rendering what the Germans called the ding an sich (“the thing in itself”). She turned her keen eye to the pangolin for the purpose of creating a real anteater in an imaginary world. Above all, her aim is to provide the reader with such a rich and powerful description of this creature that it will become a living imaginary presence. Her training in biology and in the methods of science are put to excellent use, as stanza by stanza the pangolin takes on a more substantial existence.

The poet’s frame of reference for bringing this creature to life is not rooted in biology alone, but rather in human culture. In the initial stanzas where Moore details the major characteristics of the pangolin, she makes three references to give the pangolin added dimension: In stanza 1, she refers to da Vinci; in stanza 3, to Thomas (the medieval smith); and in stanza 4, to the modern Spanish sculptor, Pablo Gargallo y Catalán.

These cultural references are part of a structure of meaning that evolves within the poem. Not content to rest with observation of the pangolin, Moore takes the reader on an imaginative flight into the consideration of the moral condition of humans. This transition occurs in the final four stanzas, in which the pangolin falls into the background and human behavior becomes Moore’s focus.

In stanza 6, she begins with the question of “grace.” Following her logic is no simple matter, but it appears that she asks why—given the fact that grace promises eternal salvation—those who developed the idea would confuse it with lesser meaning, such as a “kindly manner,” the period in which to repay debts, the cure for sins, or the stone mullions that are part of the architecture of a church ceiling?

Her answer is no answer, but an image of the “sail boat,” “the first machine,” followed by the image of pangolins that also move quietly and are “models of exactness.” These images are clues to the poetic and moral sensibility toward which this poem evolves. Poems can be “models of exactness,” and the enterprise of the poet can be to create such models. Such activity has high moral value for Moore, who seems to subscribe to the Romantic idea that poetry has a high moral purpose.

Life, on the other hand, is far from exact—it is messy and confusing. In the next two stanzas, Moore presents an ambivalent view of humans, whom she sees as destructive of the natural world, but nevertheless industrious, and paradoxically, unemotional and emotional. Torn between these perceptions of humankind, she allows that among animals only “one has a sense of humor,” which to her is clearly a mitigating factor, a saving grace in humans, whom she otherwise castigates for their failings.

In the final paragraph, Moore’s attention shifts clearly from pangolin to human. Implicitly contrasting humans to the nocturnal pangolins, she presents humans as creatures—mammals—who inhabit the light and for whom the sun provides a constant source of renewal and strength. Despite her reservations, she concludes with a celebration of human existence.

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