Virginia Britannia

by Marianne Moore

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598

The twelve stanzas of this poem focus on the visual aspects of Virginia (the colony and then the state), with an emphasis on the British and Latin origins of its early settlers and nomenclature. The poem’s title combines both elements: “Virginia,” in deference to England’s Elizabeth I (known as “the virgin Queen”), and “Britannia,” the Latin name for Britain. Approaching the subject of the poem like an English mariner arriving at the New World, the poet describes the shore of “Old Dominion,” Virginia’s first name. Natural elements mingle with bits of history and architecture, crowding the poem’s stanzas with vivid, evocative details. The new land is seen as a “cedar-dotted emerald shore” (line 3) on which are found the flora and fauna indigenous to Virginia: the redbird, the trumpet flower, the hackberry, the ivy flower, and the sycamore. Into this world came the musketeer, cavalier, parson, and “wild parishioner,” who built churches, laid ornamental brickwork, and created the cemetery, where God’s natural wonders surround the graves of sinners.

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In all stanzas except the first, the poet interweaves religion, history, and nature. “A fritillary zigzags” opens stanza 2, reflecting the design of the poem itself as the poet’s eye zigzags through Virginia’s history and natural features. The encounter between the early settlers and a well-established native culture and its members results in an odd blend, “We-re-wo/ co-mo-co’s fur crown” (lines 16-17) with a “Latin motto” (line 18). In the third stanza, the poet returns to the natural context in which history took place, “all-green box-sculptured grounds” (line 28), for example, and hints at incongruity, “almost English green” and “un-English insect sounds” (lines 29-30). In the next stanza, the “terse Virginiandrives the/ owl from tree to tree” (lines 37-39), and the wild creatures mingle with ornamental stone work. The odd mixture proliferates throughout the next three stanzas, which focus on man-made designs among ivy, pansies, and a variety of horses, jumpers, mounts, “work-mule and/ show-mule” (lines 62-63). The presence of the African American is evidenced, his “Black idiom” used to characterize what in Virginia “has come about” (line 64), an “inconsistent flowerbed!” (line 72).

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Literal flower beds continue to be described as the metaphorical flowerbed-state takes shape. The seventh stanza is almost wholly a description or listing of flowers, which merges in stanza 8 with a portrait of a Native American princess and the inharmonious mixture that emerged from the combination of land, native, and settler. The disarray is reflected in the state’s first flag, a “tactless symbol” (line 99), and in the state’s other features, both natural and imported: “cotton-mouth snakes and cot-/ ton fields” (lines 102-103) and “tobacco-crop/ records on walls” (lines 107-108). This serpentine configuration, created as European civilization spread over the state and mingled with the wildlife, has had a deleterious effect on the land itself: The settler has been “Like strangler figs choking/ a banyan” (lines 110-111). The land seems to have suffered the most.

The poem ends on this bleak note. The vision of the green, wild land darkens as man’s influence spreads, mixing European with indigenous elements until the cypress is “indivisible” from the English hackberry. The land loses its identity as the atmosphere becomes polluted, “as sunset flames increasingly” (line 138), as the mountains are gouged and blackened, and as the town spreads. Above this evidence of man’s “arrogance,” however, clouds retain the image of nature’s unspoiled condition. The poet suggests that a new generation may see in those clouds “an intimation of what glory is.” In the child’s vision lies hope of a regeneration of nature.

Forms and Devices

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

The poem’s unity is created in part by the structure of the stanzas, which combines duplicate rhyme schemes throughout with stressed lines to give the poem regularity. Visual clues add to the appearance of sameness—all the stanzas have twelve lines, for instance, and the lines are indented the same way, each stanza having four different left margins. The third, seventh, and twelfth lines are all flush with the left margin, creating divisions of three, four, and five lines, within which groups of lines are given their own indentation. Indentation divides the stanzas into overlapping units of thought and enhances the complex texture of the poem. The rhyme scheme is also complex: abcdddcefggc. Within a sequence of triple rhyme (ccc), Marianne Moore places three consecutive rhymes (ddd) and a pair (gg). The rhyme scheme reflects disharmony as well as complexity. The regular rhymes (“shore/-floor” and “flower/tower”) mingle with a variety of other kinds, more or less incongruous, including slant rhymes (“has/was”) and many others that require some effort to hear or see (such as “prison/and on/Dominion” and “imperialist/deer-/Madeira-”).

The lines show a similar complex pattern of stresses, although Moore is much less concerned with regular patterning in this regard. In each stanza, the opening pair of lines (ab) generally contains four stresses each, and the pair of rhymes (gg) is stressed in a three-two sequence, followed by a long final line. Regularity is therefore only approximate; long lines are combined with medium and short lines in the same order within each stanza. Attention is drawn to line length throughout the poem, particularly in the way some words are broken up: “unscent-/ed, provident-/ly hot.” (lines 70-71). In this example, two lines are made to begin with an “ed” and an “ly,” respectively. Were it not for the approximate consistency in the pattern of stresses, the poem might be said to contain lines of free verse set within a regular stanzaic pattern.

A variety of sounds also adds diversity, the traditional appearing among the unusual. An occasional line is laden with alliteration—“spotted sparrow perched in the dew-drenched juniper” (line 129)—helping the line move smoothly along, whereas elsewhere, sound and rhythm slow the line: “the one-brick-/ thick serpentine wall built by” (lines 108-109). Many of the lines read more like prose than poetry (those in stanza 10, for example), yet on the whole, the array of sounds and rhythms elevates the tone of the poem, especially in combination with the poem’s richly visual features. The lines are densely crowded with colorful details, rare combinations of things, and shapes that create a tapestry corresponding to the poem’s subject, Britain Virginia: a garden, a cradle, an exotic blend of geographic and cultural features. The resultant mosaic of imagery, structural design, and sound enables the reader to see, hear, and feel the poem’s subject.


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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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