The Poem

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.

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/...

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Forms and Devices

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...

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