Marianne Moore: Poetry

March 8, 2011

“Virginia Britannia” and Captain Smith’s Coat of Arms

“ostrich, Latin motto,

and small gold horse-shoe”

Life and Letters Today, 13 (December 1935), 66.

In writing about Virginia, Moore investigated the arms of Captain John Smith. She reports the

Captain John Smith, Jamestown

motto, Vincere est vivere (to conquer is to live), and the image of an ostrich with a horse-shoe in its beak (Collected Poems, 1951, note,  p. 171-72).  Representations of Smith’s arms are legion. Their chief components are three Turks’ heads, recalling a slaughter of three Turks by Smith in a battle in Europe before his Virginia adventure, the ostrich with horseshoe, and the motto.

Moore may have met the coat of arms of Captain John Smith during her summer visit in 1935 to Norfolk, Virginia. No doubt she stopped at the site of historic Jamestown and viewed the statue of Smith by Couper which displays the arms on its base. The detail is difficult to see in a photograph but all three elements are present. The statue was erected in 1909..

In any case, Moore writes of an ostrich with a horseshoe that was both small and gold. Only one source found so far supplies the detail of the gold horseshoe, namely The True Story of Captain John Smith by Katherine Pearson Woods (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1901), p. 61. To shorten a long story, Smith received his coat of arms after his battle with the Turks through the offices of Sigismund Báthory, a prince of Transylvania where the fighting took place. The resulting arms represent Smith’s mother and father (wheat sheaves and fleurs de lis) and Smith himself (Turk’s heads).  Page continues:

The crest of Smith of Hough, in Cheshire, which was confirmed in July, 1579, is “An ostrich

Smith's Coat of Arms

argent, holding in its beak a horseshoe, or.” This crest was probably the foundation of our hero’s; the significance of the ostrich (Oestrich or Austria) and of the lucky horseshoe, was likely to suggest itself to a herald of the times. . . . This coat-of-arms was not entered at the Heralds’ College until after the publication in 1625 of Purchas’s “Pilgrims,” in vol. ii, of which may be found a full account of Smith’s doings in Transylvania, taken from “A Booke intituled, The Warres of Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia, written by Francisco Farnese, a learned Italian, Secretarie to Sigismundus Bathor, the Prince.”

Woods provides an image of this coat of arms; although uncolored, we know from the description that the ostrich is silver and the horseshoe gold.

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