Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862

One of Moore’s themes in “The Steeple-Jack” is boldly stated early in the poem: “it is a privilege to see so/ much confusion” (lines 23-24). In listing the special features of the town, Moore has placed the banalities of lighthouse and town clock right alongside very painterly specifics, such as...

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One of Moore’s themes in “The Steeple-Jack” is boldly stated early in the poem: “it is a privilege to see so/ much confusion” (lines 23-24). In listing the special features of the town, Moore has placed the banalities of lighthouse and town clock right alongside very painterly specifics, such as the exact names of the changing color of the sea. These two vantage points—the banal and the artistic—cannot be brought together easily without her medium: language. A faith in the aesthetics of odd and ironic juxtapositions places Moore squarely in the high modernist tradition of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens. The speaker, looking down on this tiny whaling town, loves employing, as richly as she can, her strange language palette. Poetry has a reality of sound all its own. On a stroll through this town, anyone might enjoy the flowers, but it is Moore’s special privilege to bombard the ear and the language eye: “snap-dragon and salpiglossis.” It is especially within her province to rhyme however she wishes, and she wishes to rhyme some very unlikely words, rhyming “diffident” with “serpent,” and “fishing-twine” with “trumpet-vine.” These kinds of rhymes are not for convenience; they make frames of reference collide. Such collisions are only possible through the poet’s special language tools. Trust Moore to have learned how many whales have been said to have washed up in this town from time to time; she then gives the reader the pleasure of all eight whales at once—in a kind of surreal timeless image. This poem is as much about its own bravura as it is about the real town it describes. In fact, one purpose of the poem may be to help one question what is meant by a “real” place. Fundamentally, place is something larger than what can be noted as buildings and population.

Understanding this underlying theme and meaning—how poetry bountifully gathers reality in its own way—will help readers understand what happens when Moore finally arrives at the ostensible topic of the poem: There has been a steeplejack on top of the church the whole time. Part of the poem’s meaning is to disclose the steeplejack’s odd connection to the “ring lizard” and “little newt/ with white pin-dots on black horizontal spaced/ out bands.”

For one thing, ring lizards and newts and Mr. Poole provide an odd grouping which, in part, releases readers from stereotypes of comfortable New England towns with sugar-bowl-shaped summer houses and sugar-coated sentimentality. Usually one does not think of waifs and stray animals as being tolerated easily in such a place. Moore would have readers see the postcard notions of New England as one frame of reference among many others that bring fresher vision. There is the vision of the painter, of the student, and of Mr. Poole—each removed and elevated. Mr. Poole is so high up he needs a sign to alert the ordinary passerby.

Once readers hear this urbane and amused tone in Moore, they are faced with exactly what makes her challenging and complicated. Her last odd gathering under the church portico, for example, of waifs, children, animals, and prisoners is made altogether lopsided by her fifth category in the list: presidents. Presumably, like everyone else, presidents may also find release from their normal frame of reference (other politicians who have moral agendas). Poetry is a “place” where one can travel, at least in the mind and soul, far beyond the ambitions and one-dimensional concerns of politics and business. There is a poetic sphere—a sphere of sight, sound, and accuracy—which has little to do with piety or judgment. The accuracy of the newt’s markings and Mr. Poole’s hand-painted signs provide a reader at times, if by no means always, with a larger truth from which one needs to be at some distance in order to see and enjoy. One must not presume that Moore, for her own convenience, has deliberately ignored small-town stuffiness or prejudices. Few have any illusions that the citizens of such towns actually permit waifs to stand on church doorsteps for long. Nothing is pat in Moore’s thinking, either. Something above small-town mentality is more important and vital to the speaker—and to Ambrose, Dürer, and the steeplejack: elegance. Elegance is a key word and underlying theme of the poem.

One rarely knows how to account for elegance (“of which the source is not bravado,” line 50). Moore suggests that true elegance eludes human strivings and pride. Elegance is achieved by a poetic ordering of the sort she has managed here, in which the world is not judged nor the hypocrisy in people proved. Moore’s is the studious, meditative elegance achieved by disinterested love. Like Mr. Poole, she puts out her danger sign and then goes ahead and climbs that faulty steeple—always in need of repairs, yet always a symbol for humankind’s highest spiritual transportation from one small frame of reference to another, larger one. From the top one will have, at the very least, a spectacular view and, at the very most, a new way of seeing and believing.

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