Marianne Moore: Poetry

March 26, 2010

Balbus the Elusive

Filed under: Marianne Moore,Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 4:26 pm
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“It Makes No Difference to Balbus Whether He Drinks Wine or Water” (Poems 2003, p. 58) offers this titular character as a lead-in to contrasting statements about aesthetic preferences. Were we students of Latin composition from about 1839 through the early Twentieth Century—or even today—we might have used A Practical Guide to Latin Prose Composition by Thomas Kerchever Arnold or its successors. This work appeared in countless editions before being reissued in 1884 by G. G. Bradley and known today as Bradley’s Arnold Latin Prose Composition.

Moore may have had her own experience of this manual: she took Latin composition both semesters of her freshman year at Bryn Mawr; but as we will see, she might have gone elsewhere for her inspiration.

Here is an exercise from the New York, Appleton, 1873, edition of the original Arnold work:

“Exercise 30.

What are the various ways of translating whether—or? What difference does it make to Caius, whether he drinks wine or water?.lt makes a great difference to me why he did this.” (Pp. 75-76.)

Note, though, that the one who cares not what he drinks is “Caius,” not Balbus. But A. D. Whittemore, a member of the Yale class of 1873, wrote in the Yale Literary Magazine (83: May 1873, pp. 339-43) a satirical story “Balbus; A Sketch of College Life 2000 Years Ago,” in which he strings together many of the sentences from Arnold’s exercises that use both Balbus and Caius as subjects: ” ‘I will enquire of Caius whether Balbus should be consulted,” among scores of examples. Small wonder, then, if some of the activities Arnold assigned to Caius became those of Balbus.

When Yale president Arthur Twining Hadley, class of 1876, published The Education of the American Citizen (New York: Scribner’s, 1902), he remembered Balbus. He argued that once colleges taught principles rather than specific knowledge and that by 1902, the reverse prevailed: “In whatever studies we may select for our school course, we should lay emphasis on training in principles rather than on attention to details. . . . The pupil’s natural tendency to lay stress on accessories and incidents is so great that it needs no artificial encouragement. I can testify personally that, though I spent nearly a year in the study of Arnold’s Latin Prose Composition, the salient facts which remain in my mind are that Balbus built a wall, and that it makes no difference to Balbus whether he drinks wine or water; while the methods of translating these things into Latin have passed wholly out of mind.”(P. 184)

Hadley was not the only Yalie to conflate Caius and Balbus. So oddly memorable was Latin composition to the class of 1873 that its 40th reunion documents bring it up again:

” Here [at Yale] dwells the Benignant Mother, under whose elms I learned the baccalaureate arts of keeping a base-ball score, balancing on a fence, and other such knowledge, which is perfectly invaluable . . . . Here we acquired that information of Balbus, the reckless Roman youth, of whom it was stated, ‘It makes no difference to Balbus whether he drinks wine or water,’ and so on in his checkered career down to that final ‘stunt,’ ‘Balbus, being struck by lightning, lighted his funeral pyre with an equal mind.’” (Frederick K. Shepard, ed.) History of the Yale Class of 1873, New Haven, 1904. p. 305)

Moore must have found her Balbus in one of the Yale sources (her brother was class of 1908) or something similar. When Bradley put his stamp on Arnold’s work in the 1880s, he banished Balbus and Caius, perhaps sensitive to a hilarious spoof in The Illustrated Magazine, 1880, pp. 318-19, “Balbus: A Biography” by W. E. Wilcox, frequently reprinted.

This is a long footnote on twelve words from a 1920 poem, its length in proportion to the years I have been hunting for Balbus. As always, where Moore found something is subordinate to what use she made of it. In this case, there may be a clue from a 1964 reflection. She answered a questionnaire on “Classics and the Man of Letters” for Arion as follows:

“Q. Claims are still made for a living continuity between Graeco-Roman civilization and our own. If these claims are anything more than familiar cultural gestures, at what levels, and in what contexts, can they still be valuably made?

“A. Opportunity  to compare standards of beauty and acquire innate speech.”(Prose, 688-69)

One might argue that the poem compares standards of beauty, wine and water. For anyone interested in pursuing the point, there is an unpublished, quite different version of the poem (at Rosenbach) entitled “He Said” written at Chatham, NJ, between the fall of 1916 and summer of 1918. The poem as “It Makes No Difference. . .” was submitted to The Dial on October 4, 1920, and rejected.


  1. Hello,

    You date this poem to 1920. In Grace Schulman’s edition of The Poems of M.M., she cites it as an unpublished poem between 1907-1913. Has there since been verification of the date of composition?

    Thanks very much for your help!

    Comment by VR — February 24, 2011 @ 11:36 am |Reply

    • Moore maintained a tiny notebook from the time of her first submissions of poetry to little magazines. She recorded the name of the poem, the dates it went out and to whom, and the dates returned, if any. She dates this poem as having been sent out for the first time on 4 October 1920. Of course that dies not prove that she wrote the poem that year but for most of the poems listed in the notebook, it seems to be a pretty good guide. The notebook is at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.

      Comment by moore123 — February 25, 2011 @ 12:25 pm |Reply

      • Thank you; that’s great. I’ve yet to visit the Rosenbach but I’m hoping to go this April. I really appreciate the leads on poem sources you’ve provided here–quite fascinating!

        Comment by VR — February 25, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  2. The poetry editor was chiefly Thayer although others may have substituted in his absence, Watson or Alyse Gregory. If there was a rejection notice, it does not survive.

    Comment by moore123 — April 5, 2010 @ 11:05 am |Reply

  3. Also, there appears to be a distinction between this early poetry, and her later poetry. Her mother said much of the early poetry was “ephemera.” Did the mother approve of the later poetry? What distinction had the mother made?

    Comment by Kirby Olson — March 28, 2010 @ 2:19 pm |Reply

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