The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

“The Pangolin” is a long, unrhymed, syllabic poem of ninety-eight lines in nine stanzas; eight stanzas have eleven lines and one has ten. The title refers to the class of animals known commonly as anteaters.

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In the first half of the poem, Moore offers a rich and intense description of the anteater. She is fascinated by the armor plate, comparing the scaly covering to the layers of an artichoke with its tough, spiny leaves that protect a delicate and delectable inner meat. She focuses attention on the animal’s nocturnal habits, its night feeding, its walking on the edges of its hands to save its claws for digging. Nevertheless, for all its outer toughness, the anteater avoids fights; when threatened, it can wind itself around trees and curl up into a hard ball to protect itself against its enemies.

As day breaks, the pangolin withdraws into its nest of rocks, which it closes with earth from inside to shut out the light. In the third stanza, Moore pauses briefly to observe that both humans and pangolins have a splendor, an excellence, but in humans those qualities coexist with an innate vileness.

Returning to the anteater in stanza 4, Moore comments on the animal’s courage, manifested in a struggle with the dread driver ant, notorious for its warlike ferocity. Protected by its armor, the anteater attacks with both tongue and tail, an instrument of great power. If not threatened, the anteater will climb down from a tree; otherwise it will drop and walk away unhurt.

In stanza 5, Moore switches direction. Although she begins with a rich description of the anteater’s multipurpose tail, she introduces a new term that applies to this body part: “graceful.” Moore finds this grace in the anteater’s movements at night. She comments that the animal’s movements are not made graceful by virtue of its condition in life—it has not had to deal with “adversities” and “conversities.”

In stanza 6, Moore turns to a direct examination of grace. Yet instead of providing a definition of “grace,” she compounds the issue by raising a question of its nature, proposing various ways of looking at the meaning. Appearing to return to the subject of pangolins in stanza 7, she veers off into a consideration of the moral nature of humankind. In the inquiry, humans come up lacking.

This comparison is continued in stanza 8, where Moore declares that humans, the writing masters of the world, do not like comparisons that are denigrating. Nevertheless, humans have the capacity of humor that helps alleviate the struggle of existence. Moreover, humans have the qualities of “everlasting vigor,” the “power to grow,” though they also have the power to create fear and anxiety.

In the final stanza, Moore considers humans as a species of mammal—fearful, limited, and dependent on the sun, the light of day, for completing their enterprises and rejuvenating their souls.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

“The Pangolin” appears to be a sprawling, formless unrhymed poem with widely varying line lengths, irregular meter, and little or no stanza pattern. Indeed, the poem does not appear to resemble traditional poetry. This impression, however, is part of its method and its charm. As a radical modernist poet, Moore utilizes a variety of visual, typological, auditory, and stylistic devices to give the appearance that her poem does not conform to traditional expectations regarding the look, sound, and content of poetry. A more critical look at the poem quickly dispels this impression, however; the apparent formlessness gives way to highly formal and traditional elements.

The largest element of form is the nine stanzas that are identified only by the two line spaces separating them. Otherwise, the stanzas flow into one another, as the last lines of each run into the next stanza. Each stanza has eleven lines (with one exception, the fifth stanza has ten lines) that follow an almost regular pattern of line lengths, measured by syllable count.

The dominant pattern of line lengths is established in the first stanza (9-14-9-17-12-11-15-8-5-9-9). Although this pattern is not exactly adhered to, Moore tries to stick closely to it from stanza to stanza. Thus, in stanza 2, the pattern is 9-15-8-16-13-12-13-8-4-10-10. She takes similar liberties throughout the remaining stanzas, perhaps because it was impossible to do otherwise in order to use the words she wanted, or because she preferred to introduce variety.

Another element of the poem’s form is its music. Moore makes exquisite use of the musical devices of assonance, alliteration, and consonance. These devices of sound substitute for the more rhythmical pattern of standard meter and end rhyme, and they create a pattern of sound that is full of wit, whimsy, and surprise. The first line of the poem employs all three of these musical devices. The a in “another” “armored,” “animal,” and “scale” all combine to form an assonant pattern of vowel sounds that is supplemented by the alliteration of n, m, and r sounds and the consonantal sound of l in the same words. The accumulation of these sounds creates a sense of the whimsical treatment of the subject. The pattern also helps bind the words one to another, and each to the larger structure of meaning. Such elements appear throughout the poem and contribute to the rich pattern of sound and meaning.

Moore also uses a technique of incongruous associations of images, much like the English Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, who developed with great power the “conceit,” a device that telescoped images of widely different associations to create a startling and witty perception of reality. Such images appear in line 4, where Moore compares the pangolin to an artichoke, or in line 6, where she compares the pangolin to Leonardo da Vinci, who, as both artist and engineer, created a drawing of an armored vehicle. In the third stanza, Moore describes the pangolin in terms of the grace of the wrought-iron vine designed in 1290 by the famous smith named Thomas—from the town of Leighton Buzzard—for the tomb of Eleanor of Castile.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 125

Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Hadas, Pamela White. Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1977.

Joyce, Elisabeth W. Cultural Critique and Abstraction: Marianne Moore and the Avant-Garde. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Miller, Christine. Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Molesworth, Charles. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. New York: Atheneum, 1990.

Stamy, Cynthia. Marianne Moore and China: Orientalism and a Writing of America. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Stapleton, Laurence. Marianne Moore: The Poet’s Advance. 1978. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Tomlinson, Charles, ed. Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Willis, Patricia C., ed. Marianne Moore. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999.

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