Marianne Moore: Poetry

March 23, 2010

Cellini in “Reprobate Silver” (1915)

Benvenuto Cellini, 1545-54

“Perseus with the Head of Medusa,” Benvenuto Cellini, 1545-54. In Florence, in the Loggia dei Lanzi gallery on the edge of the Piazza della Signoria.

Moore wrote to her brother on October 3, 1915, “I have just finished [Benvenuto] Cellini’s memoirs and if anything is calculated to make Don Quixote ‘look like a Cumberland timetable.’ they are. He had a ‘large hairy dog black as mulberry,’ which stood by him on may occasions and his intrepidity is beyond belief. He says on one occasion, ‘swelling like an asp, I resolved on a desperate thing,’ and again, ‘I clothed myself with patience than which nothing is harder to me.‘ You will have to read it for yourself.” (Selected Letters, 100-101)

She was reading The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, translated by John Aldington Symonds, New York: P. F. Collier, 1910 (or if not that printing, at least that translation). The raw material from which she quoted is as follows:

I had a dog, black as a mulberry, one of those hairy ones, who followed me admirably when I went out shooting, and never left my side. During the night he lay beneath my bed, and I had to call out at least three times to my servant to turn him out, because he howled so fearfully. When the servants entered, the dog flew at them and tried to bite them. They were frightened, and thought he must be mad, because he went on howling. . . . At the stroke of four the Bargello came into my room with a band of constables. Then the dog sprang forth and flew at them with such fury, tearing their capes and hose, that in their fright they fancied he was mad. But the Bargello, like an experienced person, told them : “It is the nature of good dogs to divine and foretell the mischance coming on their masters.” (P. 229)

Cellini had been arrested for some choleric misbehavior. “Albeit just then I felt as though I had been massacred, I sent for one of my cousins, . . . desiring that he should go bail for me. He refused to come, which made me so angry, that, fuming with fury and swelling like an asp, I took a desperate resolve. At this point one may observe how the stars do not so much sway as force our conduct. When I reflected on the great obligations which this Annibale owed my family, my rage grew to such a pitch that, turning wholly to evil, and being also by nature somewhat choleric, I waited till the magistrates had gone to dinner; and when I was alone, . . . in the fire of my anger, I left the palace, ran to my shop, seized a dagger and rushed to the house of my enemies, who were at home and shop together. I found them at table; and Gherardo, who had been the cause of the quarrel, flung himself upon me. I stabbed him in the breast, piercing doublet and jerkin through and through to the shirt, without however grazing his flesh or doing him the least harm in the world.” (P. 31)

In France, where he exercised his silver- and goldsmith craft on behalf of the King, Cellini fell out with an aristocratic woman. “I took the handsome little vase which I had made at the request of Madame d’Etampes, hoping, if I gave it her, to recover the favour I had lost. With this in my hand, then, I announced my presence to her nurse, and showed the gift which I had brought her mistress; the woman received me with demonstrations of good-will, and said that she would speak a word to Madame, who was still engaged upon her toilette; I should be admitted on the instant, when she had discharged her embassy. The nurse made her report in full to Madame, who retorted scornfully: “Tell him to wait.” On hearing this, I clothed myself with patience, which of all things I find the most difficult. Nevertheless, I kept myself under control until the hour for dinner was past. Then, seeing that time dragged on, and being maddened by hunger, I could no longer hold out, but flung off, sending her most devoutly to the devil.” (Pp. 296-297)

Clearly, if Don Quixote can be compared to the little trolley that plied between Harrisburg and Carlisle, Cellini’s memoirs are like “Panshin’s horse,” “Thor’s hammer,” or “Flaubert’s Carthage” (Salammbo). The latter trio appear in “Reprobate Silver” (The Poems of Marianne Moore, 2003, p. 43), used by Moore to describe the Cellini of his Autobiography.

The choice of the Cellini Perseus image, above, is a long shot: “Perseus to Polydectes” is a working title for Moore’s very early “I May, I Might, I Must,” a poem also about an intrepid person. For a while, I thought “Reprobate Silver,” as a phrase, must refer to one of Cellini’s exquisitely wrought pieces, like the famed gold and enamel salt-cellar. But “reprobate” to a Presbyterian probably invoked the doctrine of reprobation, the eternally lost condition of persons not elect, or given salvation. Cellini, who got away with murdering several people, may well have qualified in Moore’s mind, however intriguing his memoir.


  1. There are two other mentions of Cellini’s biography in the Complete Prose — one doesn’t come until the 1960s. Both mentions are positive.

    I think on a moral basis she was scandalized, but on an aesthetic basis, she loved it?

    Comment by kirby olson — March 25, 2010 @ 10:20 pm |Reply

  2. I think the sermons had to have a major affect on the family.

    Meanwhile, I’m reading through The Complete Prose and there’s a funny typo on p. 433 — the only typo I think I’ve caught in the book (I’m on p. 520).

    I think it’s the chorus in Antigone, or possibly Creon, speaking, and they are bemoaning the anarchy that Antigone has set forth by going against Creon’s dictates against the burial of her brother, who Creon has declared a traitor to the state.

    The text reads:

    Never may the ANTARCTIC man find rest at my heart;

    I confess that I laughed a lot when I read the line. It’s just a wonderful typo since for once the change actually makes some kind of sense that is also nonsense.

    At any rate, what a huge undertaking it must have been to assemble this book. I love it. I’m looking forward to getting to the blurbs, and questionnaires now at the end. It’s a very wonderful service to have all this compiled.

    I hope you don’t mind my amusement over “antarctic,” and I’m sure others have commented on it.

    I am knocked out by some of the verses she chooses from others’ work. Her piece on Max Bodenheim takes marvels out of his fairly mediocre poetry. She says of Edith Sitwell that she was capable of using a diamond-tipped wand when excerpting from others’ poetry.

    But this is also true of her.

    That said, do you think she reviews her own friends too much? There’s a lot of Bryher in here, and many of the poets are her pals.

    Comment by Kirby Olson — March 24, 2010 @ 10:13 pm |Reply

  3. I’m guessing that a Carlisle pastor used the phrase “reprobate silver” in a sermon that she and her brother had heard, and that they used between themselves as a code term?

    Comment by Kirby Olson — March 24, 2010 @ 7:57 pm |Reply

    • That is of course a real possibility. I’d love to have a list of the sermons of Dr. George Norcross of the Second Presbyterian Church in Carlisle!

      Comment by moore123 — March 24, 2010 @ 8:46 pm |Reply

  4. Unger’s Bible Dictionary offers this under the term Reprobate:

    “Used only once in the Old Testament: ‘Reprobate silver shall men call them, because the Lord hath rejected them” Jer. 6:30.

    In Rom 1:28 the apostle says of the Gentiles that “even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind,” etc. The meaning of reprobate here depends upon whether it means a blinded mind, one no longer capable of judging; if in the passive sense, then reprobate probably conveys the meaning of rejected.

    There are more uses of it in the NT but never again connected with “reprobate silver” as in Jer. 6:30.

    It generally means “void of judgment.”

    It’s an interesting term, and probably not one any longer permitted or understood in our times where judgment of any kind is declared anathema, and the whole idea is to tolerate just about anything. What makes Moore so interesting however is that she has kept her judgment.

    Without good judgment, as Kant says, there is no hope.

    Now you’ve made me want to read the poem anew. Nice!

    Comment by Kirby Olson — March 24, 2010 @ 1:30 am |Reply

  5. Maybe reprobate silver also refers to Judas?

    Cellini was quite the cad in his memoirs.

    He boasts endlessly.

    Nice ideas!

    I think the notion of a reprobate is generally in Christian thought meant to be someone without any idea of which way is up morally speaking.

    Comment by Kirby Olson — March 24, 2010 @ 12:24 am |Reply

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