The six-line stanzas (thirteen in all) of “The Steeple-Jack” look oddly ragged at first glance, until one sees that each stanza’s pattern is rigorously maintained throughout. Because the poem reads in straightforward sentences, the subject of the whole is easy to identify. A speaker with much information at his or her disposal is providing the reader with a description, full of out-of-the-way details, of a charming New England seaside town. Throughout the poem, the town is described as a peaceful, safe haven; the ocean’s waves are “formal,” and fishnets are “arranged” to dry. All sorts of people could find refuge here, from waifs to prisoners to presidents. Even a storm is no more dangerous than “whirlwind fife-and-drum” music.
In the course of praising the town as a place of unassuming beauty and inviting elegance, this speaker names three people who are, or would be, “at home” here, “each in his way”: first, the German painter Albrecht Dürer, whose close-viewing artistic sensibilities were also Marianne Moore’s; second, an out-of-town college student named Ambrose, who also likes to look at the town from a hillside perch; and third, the town’s own steeplejack, C. J. Poole, who repairs the steeple on a local church—no doubt one of those picture-postcard churches North American readers associate with New England. Moore published a revised version of the poem in 1961, shortened to eight stanzas, in which the student appears only briefly and is not mentioned by name. The steeplejack has set out two signs in front of the church where he is working; one gives his name, and the other warns, “Danger.” The steeplejack’s precarious position high in the air provides the only note of tension in the poem, and it hints that—no matter how secure things may appear—there is no haven that is completely safe.