Marianne Moore: Poetry

November 21, 2017

The Kylin in “Nine Nectarines”

Filed under: Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 7:46 pm

Theirs is a race that “understands
the spirit of the wilderness”
and the nectarine-loving kylin
of pony appearance—the long-
tailed or the tailless
small cinnamon-brown common
camel-haired unicorn
with antelope feet and no horn,
here enameled on porcelain.
It was a Chinese who
imagined this masterpiece.

Poetry 45 (November 1934):64-67, the last stanza.

Moore’s note to this poem quotes from the following paragraphs by Frank Davis article “The Unnatural History of China: The Lions of Buddha” in The Illustrated London News for March 7, 1931, p,384:

“Of all the pretty things in porcelain that reach England from China, not the least popular are those engaging animals in various shades of green, aubergine, and yellow known in the trade as “Kylins”. . . .There are thousands of these beasts to be seen, all more or less modelled to a traditional pattern and all horribly reminiscent of a Pekinese rampant.

“It is too late to alter the usual descriptions in trade-catalogues, but there is no reason why it should not be generally known that the Kiyln is an entirely different creature, charming enough to deserve an article in itself. It has the body of a stag, with a single horn, the tail of a cow, horse’s hoofs, a yellow belly, and hair of five colours, and is, moreover, a paragon of virtue.”

While Moore uses the description of the kylin from the second paragraph in her note, what she writes in the stanza–a creature of “cinnamon-brown” color and “no horn”–more aptly suits an image reproduced in the article (there in black and white):

Pekinese Kylin

The caption: “Reminiscent of ‘Pekinese Dogs Rampant’–but really a pair of Chinese lions of Buddha: A familiar type of Ming object often seen coloured green or aubergine.” Missing are Moore’s “antelope feet” (hooves not claws) and “pony appearance” and the creature is neither “long-/ tailed or tailless.”

A search for an image of the true kylin (now qilin, unicorn) brings a vast array of the creatures with every possible permutation as to hooves, horns, and tails. This bronze incense burner from the late Ming period has those characteristics but its body seems more dragon-like than that of a stag:

Qilin Ming Bronw

Our question, of course, is whether the highly precise poet was putting us on. Just as Davis pictured the Pekinese rampant lions but insisted on describing the “real” kylin which he did not picture, perhaps Moore was blending the two to make an “imagined” masterpiece.

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