Marianne Moore: Poetry

February 15, 2012

“Masks” and Egyptian Vultures

“Egyptian vultures, clean as cherubim, / All ivory and jet”

“Masks,” Contemporary Verse 1.1 (January 1916), 6.  Later “A Fool, A Foul Thing, A Distressful Lunatic” in Observations, 1924, greatly revised.

Moore submitted her poem about three maligned birds to Harper’s in January, 1915, and published it a year later in Contemporary Verse. This version, “Masks” differs in its first half from the Observations “A Fool, A Foul Thing, A Distressful Lunatic,” but the passage about Egyptian vultures remains unchanged.

Moore found the passage on the vultures in a weekly she seems to have read regularly, The Living Age.  Published in Boston, it brought  together full articles from other magazines. “A Naturalist in North America” was reprinted from Nineteenth Century and After, the British journal. Here is the passage in question, bold face added:

Meantime those Griffons had taken alarm: a covey of vultures, huge birds, as big as swans and far wider of pinion, took wing silently, casting

Egyptian Vulture

reproachful glances over their shoulders as they swept out and up, a sight which drew cries of wonder and delight from the stupid Arabs above. Twenty times did these great and reverend-looking creatures pass and repass beneath the eyes of the solitary cragsman. Their anxieties drew other birds into their orbits. A pair of Black Kites flickered and whinnied above them: they may have had young in some neighboring cleft, for the tail of a lizard stuck out beyond the bill of the mother-bird and wriggled as she flew. A Red Kite, handsomer, more agile, and with more deeply cleft tail, came to see and to protest in shriller tones. So did a couple of Ravens hoarsely, and a Peregrine imperatively. This last, being spitefully minded, was for knocking the kites about had they not avoided his stoops with graceful ease; one beard the clash of penfeathers in contact overhead. As if these were insufficient, Egyptian Vultures, clean as cherubim, all ivory and jet, swung slowly in rings above the tangle of crossing, diving aud crying birds, and grandly did these latecomers contrast now with the blue sky, and now with the smoke-gray of the wlld-ollve covert across the glen.

-–H. M. Wallis, “A Naturalist in North Africa.” Living Age,  LXVI (January 16, 1915), 162.

Henry Marriage Wallis (1854-1941) was a British corn and seed merchant who wrote novels and verse and contributed to magazines articles on many subjects, including travel and natural history, often under the pseudonym Ashton Hilliers.  Ornithology was his favorite subject, particularly the birds of Algeria and Morocco. A correspondent of Charles Darwin, he often spent part of the winter in North Africa and there recorded many discoveries among its birds.

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