Marianne Moore: Poetry

January 26, 2012

Gustavus Adolphus and George Washington

“Washington and Gustavus

Adolphus, forgive our decay.” (ll. 14-15)

“A Carriage from Sweden,” The Nation 158 (March 11, 1944) 311.

Written in 1943, this complex, wartime poem salutes Sweden’s seventeenth-century king and America’s eighteenth-century founding president as

Gustavus Adolphus

a pair. While Americans readily recognize Washington’s deeds and qualities, (“father of his country,” “the American Cincinnatus,” “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen”) his parallel with Sweden’s king is less obvious. Gustavus Adolphus has been called “the founder of modern warfare,” “the protector of Protestantism,” “the lion of the north.” He came to the throne at seventeen in 1611 and died in battle in 1632. As ruler, he reformed Sweden’s government by establishing four estates (nobles, clergy, burghers, and peasants) in the Riksdag (Diet), thus promoting unity within the groups; he fostered secondary and university education; he promoted the Swedish economy through immigration and infusion of foreign capital. As a military leader, he reformed the conduct of wars through the use of light artillery and coordination of military branches during battle. As a Protestant king, he opposed the Catholic League and preserved German Protestantism from the ravages of the Counter-Reformation. In short, he brought Sweden into the modern era.

“[F]orgive our decay” contrasts the world of 1943 with that of 1632 and 1781. In 1632, Gustavus Adolphus refused to compromise his principles and died fighting in Battle of Lützen, a turning point in the Thirty Years’ War in favor of his side, a Protestant victory.  In 1781, George Washington, who refused to compromise or give up even during the long siege at Valley Forge, received the

George Washington

surrender of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown, the site of the final battle of the Revolutionary War.  But “our decay” in 1943 may refer to the tensions created by Sweden’s neutrality during World War II which led the country to provide aid to both Axis and Allied powers, a position maintained in 1943 although later revised to refuse contributions to the Axis cause and to support the Allies. And if this position represents Sweden’s “decay,” perhaps the thinking, in 1943, about post-war recriminations against Germany suggested to Moore the kind of compromises that followed World War I and set the stage for the next war.


  1. Glad you’re back, Kirby. Your comments on the Finns’ role are most informative. Kiitos.

    Comment by moore123 — March 9, 2012 @ 10:45 am |Reply

  2. This is quite interesting. I’m sorry I missed it when it originally came out as I’ve been super busy. The idea of Protestant warfare is fantastic! Protestants have been at war a lot, and usually win, but I didn’t know this Swedish history. Moore would have also known about the Finnish war in which they had to fight with the Nazis against the Soviets and then against the Nazis to appease the Soviets. Outnumbered 50 to 1 they destroyed enormous numbers of Soviet troops. This was also widely hailed as a Protestant victory over Stalin’s Godless juggernaut. Many Finnish leaders had trained in Germany (Mannerheim) so they had a facility with German tactics, but they also protected Sweden’s eastern border. There are many Swedish speaking people inside of Finland. They constitute a kind of leftover elite going back to when Sweden owned the country (1809 I think the Russians took over Finland but it kept a kind of semi-autonomous status until they broke with the Soviet Union entirely in 1919). There are still Russians such as Zirinovsky who claim, “Finland is ours.” Finland is now part of the EU though so that might make a military takeover unlikely. At any rate, these are just some ideas. I appreciated your post!!

    Comment by — March 8, 2012 @ 9:03 pm |Reply

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