The Bestiary of Marianne Moore

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

The Bestiary of Marianne Moore

La Repubblica, May 19, 1981.

I am sorry to say that I have never seen a mockingbird or heard one sing, but I am always glad when I meet one in the pages of American writers and poets, where this bird often appears as a garrulous and mysterious spiritus loci. I find mockingbirds in two of Marianne Moore’s poems, one of which is of the kind I admire most in the work of this always admirable poet: that is, a snapshot of nature observed in a way that acquires a totally implicit moral meaning, as in an emblem.

The poem starts with three mockingbirds still too young to fly, waiting on a branch for their mother to come and feed them. In short lines and immediate images, Marianne Moore shows us these fledgling birds who are already as big as their mother but almost featherless, “feebly solemn,” with their awkward movements and insatiable greed. The exactness of description Marianne Moore manages to get into her lines, with their complex metrical lightness and elaborate alliteration (for example, “toward the trim trio on the tree-stem”), succeeds in conveying a mass of information arranged around a perfectly precise subject—in this case the biological question of camouflage both visual (the plumage, which is grayish-black on the outside but has white stripes beneath the wings and tail) and above all sonic (with the various kinds of song that mingle with those of other birds).

When they are fed, the three young birds spread their wings and tails and become visible. Their mother realizes the danger of this, but though her voice has become harsh, as happens after hatching a brood, she manages to recover the musical warblings of a past season. Her voice

   comes back to one from

the remote

  unenergetic sun-

  lit air before

the brood was here… .

as if to ignore the presence of the nest and the nervous tension it implies for her. If there is a link between these events, it is not made explicit. There is just one adjective—“astute,” said of the mother bird—that gives us a clue. And, in fact, a cat has seen them and is climbing up the tree. The youngsters, who do not know how to fly, shift along the branch; at that moment the mother flies at the cat and attacks it with her bayonet of a beak.

This ending combines two themes that Marianne Moore is particularly fond of. One is the contrast between the lightning instinct of the bird (the poem is called “Bird-Witted”) and the way the cat behaves on the basis of a prudent, well-thought-out plan:


intellectual cautious-

ly creeping cat.

Then the other theme is the courage and above all the uneconomical self-sacrifice of the mother, because saving her family meant exposing herself to even greater efforts (“by hope rewarded”).

This is one of her shortest and simplest poems, which means that to understand it properly in all its implications might take a whole evening, even if one had a good book on ornithology at hand (and with a facing-page translation that would give one a start). But of the many ways of enjoying poetry this is one of the best, though not the only one.

The other poem with a mockingbird in it, “Virginia Britannia,” is of the fuller, more complex, and more ramified type, in which I get a little lost. The subject matter is drawn not just from moral reflection and the observation of nature, but from a great number of books of widely differing kinds. In a mosaic of data and quotations Marianne Moore gives us a historical and biological description of Virginia, presenting us with the most various types of plant life and human destiny (the mockingbird is an image of this multiplicity). Dominant here as well is the sense of the pitilessness of life, both biological and human:

    Like strangler figs choking

a banyan, not an explorer, no imperialist,

 not one of us, in taking what we

 pleased—in colonizing as the

 saying is—has been a synonym for mercy.

If this is the background, we cannot be surprised at Marianne Moore’s predilection for the theme of armor or the shield. Among the animals in her bestiary is an abundance of those equipped with shells or armor of some sort, such as the pangolin or scaly anteater “made graceful by adversities, con-/versities.” (I imagine that “conversities” is a word coined for the occasion. Could it mean that the adversities are converted into ways of overcoming themselves?) But although she exalts them as models of exactitude, it seems that the poet does not wish to propose them as a model for humanity: man is the animal who manages to exceed his limitations by a process of unprogrammed creativity, simply because he is without any natural defenses.

I say “it seems” because with Marianne Moore things are never that simple. The mathematical exactitude of nature (for example, the birds’ nests built “in parabolic concentric curves”) and evolution’s fondness for difficult and costly solutions are praised by Marianne Moore in comparison with the inaccurate calculations of human greed (“The Iconosphere”).

What is certain (see “Armor’s Undermining Modesty”) is that if this poet is always fascinated by armored animals, because the image corresponds to some inescapable existential problem of hers, the solution she provides to the problem is clean contrary to the spectacular, warlike armor of which zoology gives us a great variety of examples (like illustrations of the Knights of the Round Table, which, as Marianne Moore points out, do not correspond to the historical truth: the knights must have gone around dressed like Roman soldiers).

The true armor must be moral. This is the point made in a fine essay by Randall Jarrell, who in his discussion of “Armor’s Undermining Modesty” makes a remark that we may agree with even when applied to Marianne Moore’s poetry in general: “I do not understand everything, but what I understand I like, and what I don’t understand I like almost better.”

The most eloquent poem on this subject (“His Shield”) opens with a list of spiny creatures—hedgehog, porcupine, sea urchin, rhinoceros with horned snout. But for defense the poet’s preference goes to the salamander skin. This was worn by the mythical Prester John, who reigned over a land of fabulous riches, yet “his shield was his humility” because “the power of relinquishing / what one would keep; that is freedom.”

Her final word of advice in this poem is, believe it or not, “be dull”: as depressing a moral as has ever been expressed. More depressing than repressive, even if a good dose of repression is not lacking in our poet. A thing of importance to her is what can “countenance continence.” Maybe she identifies with “impassioned Handel” who “never was known to have fallen in love.” In another of her famous poems, “The Jerboa,” she speaks of the desert rat, admiring its ability to live on little and contrasting this with the excess of wealth in the Roman Empire.

Marianne Moore never speaks of herself or her state of mind, but the prickly morality that constantly emerges from her lines gives us some idea of the life of this Missouri spinster, who lived much of her life with her mother (and her brother, an army chaplain) and at the same time was part of the most sophisticated literary avant-garde. What I mean is the inner struggle to forge psychological armor around her fragility, and a cheerful serenity based on a way of looking at things that was always both acute and on the alert. In photographs of her we can recognize a tough, mordacious old lady, all eyes (like her mockingbirds), and always winged with a broad-brimmed hat.

For some years she was a librarian at the New York Public Library, and, in common with all other writer-librarians, she was an omnivorous and encyclopedic reader. Her lines play host to a collage of quotations from books of all sorts, from zoology to heraldry, local history or biography, geographical magazines, explorers’ memoirs, or treatises on economy in the use of steel.

In “Poetry,” which is one of her statements on poetics, she replies to Tolstoy, who saw poetry in everything except “business documents and school-books,” that anyone truly interested in poetry demands on the one hand “the raw material” and on the other “that which is … genuine.”

Few poets can match Marianne Moore in combining on the same level both erudite bibliomania and the direct, instantaneous observation of a photographer of nature. Animals are the element common to these two opposing slopes in her territory. The imaginary animals of medieval bestiaries, the peculiarities of domestic fauna or exotic animals—all are equally interesting to her. In “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns,” or in “The Buffalo,” the gamut runs from the mythical emblem to the zoological documentary. In “The Plumed Basilisk” and in “Elephants” it happens the other way around. I do not know Marianne Moore’s translation of The Fables of La Fontaine, but I think they might be illuminating with regard to this matter. Anyway, what is important is the progression from animal life to moral life, as in Montale’s poem “L’anguilla.” (T. S. Eliot’s bestiary is quite another thing. His delightfully rhymed forms are entirely at the service of theological allegory.)

In “The Frigate Pelican,” “the unconfiding frigate-bird” teaches us the relationship with natural forces, whereas the other birds “blow back, allowing the wind to reverse their direction”; in the midst of this gliding of wings come the words Festina lente. And Marianne Moore follows this Latin motto, as it were in an attempt at translation, with a question: “Be gay / civilly?”

The snail, on the other hand, gives us a memorable lesson in poetic style: “contractability,” modesty without adornment, holding to “the principle that is hid”; while even the absence of feet becomes “a method of conclusion.” (I can’t help recalling Francis Ponge’s Escargots. He was another great zoo-moralist, though in comparison his work seems less concise.)

Animals help Marianne Moore to express her own antiromantic moral stance (man gazes at the moon, while the frigate bird is wary to stay clear of the python), which is antimoralizing (talking about snakes, she says: “The passion for setting people right is in itself an afflictive disease / Distaste which takes no credit to itself is best”). It is also antisophisticated (“Principally throat, sophistication as it al- / ways has been—at the antipodes from the init- / ial great truths”), antieconomical (Randall Jarrell says that she is moved only by useless labors and difficulties faced for the sheer love of difficulty, like the intricate shell of the nautilus), and antipompous because of its fierce renunciation and amor fati.


the sea in a chasm, struggling to be

free and unable to be,

 in its surrendering

 finds its continuing

so the imprisoned bird tells us by his song that

satisfaction is a lowly

thing, how pure a thing is joy.

Her ideal (as in the poem “Propriety,” with its monosyllabic drumming) is a rightness and appropriateness of words, rhythms, and images: a note in Brahms and in the throat of a bird, the pecking of a woodpecker as it goes “spiraling a tree—/ up up up like mercury.”