Marianne Moore: Poetry

October 15, 2010

“Sea Unicorns”and Henry James

Filed under: Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 8:50 am
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Henry James by Swinnerton

In her notes to “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns,” Moore credits Henry James’s English Hours with these lines:

” ‘in politics, in trade, law, sport, religion,

china-collecting, tennis, and church-going.’ “

But in fact, the three lines preceding these,

“Thus personalities by nature much opposed,

can be combined in such a way

that when they do agree, their unanimity is great”

also derive from James. In the selection from James that follows, some of the words chosen to compose these lines have been rendered in bold type. One can see Moore’s creative use of quotation marks set around something she has put together, as well as the three lines supposedly NOT derived from James. Caveat lector, as always: quotations are slippery assets in Moore’s verse.

An English Easter

Rev. Arthur Tooth, Imprisoned for Use of Incense and Candles, "The Christian Martyr," Punch

IT may be said of the English, as is said of the council of war in Sheridan’s farce of The Critic by one of the spectators of the rehearsal, that when they do agree, their unanimity is wonderful. They differ among themselves greatly just now as regards the machinations of Russia, the derelictions of Turkey, the merits of the Reverend Arthur Tooth, the genius of Mr. Henry Irving, and a good many other matters; but neither just now nor at any other time do they fail to conform to those social observances on which respectability has set her seal. England is a country of curious anomalies, and this has much to do with her being so interesting to foreign observers. The national, the individual character is very positive, very independent, very much made up according to its own sentiment of things, very prone to startling eccentricities; and yet at the same time it has beyond any other this peculiar gift of squaring itself with fashion and custom. In no other country, I imagine, are so many people to be found doing the same thing in the same way at the same time—using the same slang, wearing the same hats and neckties, collecting the same china-plates, playing the same game of lawn-tennis or of polo, admiring the same professional beauty. The monotony of such a spectacle would soon become oppressive if the foreign observer were not conscious of this latent capacity in the performers for great freedom of action; he finds a good deal of entertainment in wondering how they reconcile the traditional insularit of the private person with this perpetual tribute to usage. Of course in all civilised societies the tribute to usage is constantly paid; if it is less apparent in America than elsewhere the reason is not, I think, because individual independence is greater, but because usage is more sparsely established. Where custom can be ascertained people certainly follow it; but for one definite precedent in American life there are fifty in English. I am very far from having discovered the secret; I have not in the least learned what becomes of that explosive personal force in the English character which is compressed and corked down by social conformity. I look with a certain awe at some of the manifestations of the conforming spirit, but the fermenting idiosyncrasies beneath it are hidden from my vision. The most striking example, to foreign eyes, of the power of custom in England is certainly the universal church-going. In the sight of the English people getting up from its tea and toast of a Sunday morning and brushing its hat, and drawing on its gloves, and taking its wife on its arm, and making its offspring march before, and so, for decency’s, respectability’s, propriety’s sake, wending its way to a place of worship appointed by the State, in which it repeats the formulas of a creed to which it attaches no positive sense and listens to a sermon over the length of which it explicitly haggles and grumbles—in this exhibition there is something very impressive to a stranger, something which he hardly knows whether to estimate as a great force or as a great futility.

–Henry James. English  Hours,London, Heinemann, 1905, pp. 117-118

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