Marianne Moore: Poetry

February 10, 2018

Albrecht Dürer

Filed under: Poem Sources,Poem Texts — by moore123 @ 8:03 pm

While Moore was editor of The Dial, in her editor’s “Comment” in the issue for July, 1928, she concentrated on an exhibition of Albrecht Dürer prints at the New York Public Library (Complete Prose, 203-204). Her choice of epigraph, in Dürer’s words, refers to the artist’s apprenticeship and its challenges: “During that time, God granted me diligence, so that I might learn well.” Moore’s salute to the artist is replete with language reflecting her admiration for that diligence: “sensitiveness to magnificence,” “an art so robust,” “a living energy.”

More to the point, Moore names works by Dürer that she borrows for her poems: “Dürer’s “Rhinoceros” . . . [has] for us that attraction which originality with precision can exert, and liking is increased perhaps when the concept is primarily an imagined one—in the instance of the rhinoceros, based apparently on a traveler’s sketch or description. The conjunction of fantasy and calculation is unusual, but many sagacities seem in Dürer not to starve one another. St.  Jerome and his beast of burden the lion, in the room with the bottle-glass window-lights, the “St. Eustachius,” a small Turner-like water-color of the Tyrol in the Ashmolean, tempt one to have favorites . . . .”

When this “Comment” was published, Moore had already made use of the St. Jerome woodcut in “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns” (1924). The Tyrolean watercolor would appear in “The Steeple-Jack” (1932), the “Rhinoceros” in “Apparition of Splendor” (1952) and “St Eustachius,” it can be argued, can be seen in “St. Nicholas” (1958).  Long after this “Comment,” there is mention of Dürer’s “Violet Bouquet” in “Then the Ermine” (1952).  Because the Tyrolean watercolor has already been treated in this blog for June 20, 2010, I will not repeat it here.

Durer jerome

St. Jerome in His Study

First St. Jerome and his lion:

“A puzzle to the hunters, is this haughtiest of beasts,

To be distinguished from those born without a horn,

In use like St. Jerome’s tame lion, as domestics . . . .” (ll. 44-46)

Here the lion is likened to a horse, a no-horned beast, a domestic animal. St. Jerome’s lion comes with more of a story: A lion arrived at Jerome’s monastery, frightening away the other monks. Jerome realized that the lion had a thorn in its paw and healed it. In return, the lion became a useful member of the monastery. The Metropolitan Museum acquired a copy of this engraving in 1919 and it is possible that it appeared in the library exhibition.

“Apparition of Splendor” gives us the rhinoceros:

Partaking of the miraculous

Since never known literally,

Dürer’s rhinoceros

Might have startled us equally

If black-and-white-spined elaborately. . .  (ll. 1-5)


Moore uses this image as a foil to the porcupine, her central subject, chosen for the rodent armed black-and-white quills. Dürer’s beast represents a rhinoceros said to have arrived in Portugal from India; it was covered in thick scales and could eviscerate an elephant using its single horn.

There is one more Dürer image and it occurs in “Then the Ermine:”

Foiled explosiveness is yet

a kind of prophet,

a perfecter, and so a concealer —

with the power of implosion;

like violets by Durer,

even darker.

Durer violets

Bouquet of Violets

This watercolor and gouache on vellum painting, sometimes called “Bouquet of Violets,” held by the Albertina in Vienna, was attributed to Dürer until fairly recently when it appeared in a Dürer exhibition catalog as the work of an “anonymous German,” “second half of the sixteenth century. Dürer died in 1528. But this cautious note has nothing to do with Moore’s choice; Dürer was an accomplished painter of plants. In “Then the Ermine,” Moore was concentrating on the color—violet or purple—as a salute to Katherine Anne Porter who was partial to it in her apartment décor

November 16, 2015

“Suavitur in Modo”

Filed under: Poem Texts — by moore123 @ 7:27 pm

When as curator of the Moore papers at the Rosenbach, I first sorted the poetry manuscripts, I saw no reason to suspect Moore’s authorship of “Suaviter in Modo.” The manuscript was typed with Moore’s typewriter of the time on the blue stationary that she customarily used for poems she sent to little magazines and it bears her Carlisle return address in the upper left corner. Everything about the manuscript suggests a Moore creation. I was confident enough that the work was Moore’s that, with the permission of her estate, I included it in Unfinished Poems, a photocopy edition prepared to secure copyright in unpublished poems. It also appears in the 2003 edition of the poems.

Forty years later, there are new tools: the internet and Google advanced book search. It did not take long to discover that Moore crafted what looks like a poem of her own from two rhymes found in Afternoon Tea: Rhymes for Children with Original Illustrations by John G. Sowerby and Henry Hetherington Emerson (New York: Rhodes and Washburn, 1881). She called it “Suaviter in Modo,” that is, “gentle in manner.”

The poem’s first two stanzas quote “The Puffed-up Smoker” (Afternoon Tea, p. 60) exactly except that the first two stanzas are run together, as are the last two stanzas. Here is the 1881 version:


The Puffed-up Smoker


Oh, Gordon, how naughty!

Now, don’t look so haughty,–

That’s Uncle’s pet pipe you’ve got in your hand.


If you go on smoking,

We’ll soon have you choking.

We’ll then have to bury you under the sand.


Said Gordon to Nellie,

“Go home and cook jelly,

And don’t interfere so with me and my pipe!


Or else go and garden,

First begging my pardon.

And see if the plums have begun to get ripe!”

To skip to the last stanza and the second poem, Moore quotes “The Puritan’s Daughter” (Afternoon Tea, p. 48) almost exactly. The original is in two stanzas:

Long, long years ago

Lived this Johanna,

Sweet was her face, also

Sweet was her manner.


Reading as she went to church,

     This was her manner;

The very birdies on their perch

Sang to Johanna.

The changes Moore makes are few. She includes the title in a line preceding the quoted poem:

(Joanna was a “Puritan’s daughter.”)

She spells “Johanna” as “Joanna” and “manner” as “mannah” and she closes up the stanza break. So far, the borrowing is nearly complete.

The third stanza of the Moore version is clearly created to bring together both “The Puffed-up Smoker” and “The Puritan’s Daughter”:

Be more like Joanna,

Dear Gordon, in mannah–

More bland, so that Nellie will not see your pipe,

And cut short your smoking

And possible choking.

Don’t ask her to see if the plums have got ripe.

Written in the rhythm of the first poem, the new stanza refers to its Gordon and his pipe while it also incorporates Johanna/Joanna of the second poem. (The lineation in Moore’s typed manuscript differs from both that of the original poem and the 2003 version. It is not reproduced here.)

See a digitized copy of the original book from the New York Public Library here:;view=1up;seq=15 

For some time, I thought I might find the originals for Gordon, Nellie, Uncle, and Joanna in Carlisle, people whose speech Moore was imitating.  Now seeing that the voices represent an 1881 publication, was Moore just amusing herself–or her family?

–Patricia C. Willis



September 27, 2014

“Bowls” and Precision

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The red lacquer throne from the court of the Chinese emperor Ch’ien-lung, who reigned from 1735 to 1796, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum



“. . . this survival of ancient punctilio

in the manner of Chinese lacquer carving,

layer after layer exposed by certainty of touch and unhurried incision

so that only so much color shall be revealed as is necessary to the picture,

I learn that we are precisionists. . . .”

“Bowls,” first published in Secession, No. 5 (July 1923), 12. This version is from Comlete Poems, p. 59.


“The throne here illustrated was made for the emperor Kien-Lung, in whose sixty-year reign Chinese art was at its height. It is one of the only two such thrones in existence, and probably is the largest single piece of eighteenth-century carved red lacquer in the world. . . . It is 4 ft. high and 4 ft. wide. The seat is still covered with the original pad of silk and gold brocade. It forms the pièce de résistance of a wonderful collection of old Chinese red lacquer . . . on view at the galleries of Messrs. Spink and Son, in King Street, St. James.”

From “An Emperor of China’s Throne: 18th-century Red Lacquer.” Illustrated London News [London, England] 8 July 1922: 59.


“Lacquer, as used in China and Japan,  is a purely vegetable substance, the product of a tree indigenous to China, the Rhus vernicifera. The sap is extracted from this tree . . . by means of incisions in the bark, purified by straining through a hempen cloth, and, in the form of a viscid, evenly flowing liquid, is then ready for the lacquerer’s use. On exposure t the air, it rapidly takes on an extreme hardness and is capable of receiving a brilliant, translucent polish which at its best, surpasses that of any other known substance with which it can be compared.  It can be coloured, without losing its quality, by the addition of the necessary substances; and, when once set, will resist both heat and moisture. Its chief enemy is light, which, if too strong, destroys its brilliancy and gives it a dried-up, faded appearance. The basis of carved, and indeed, of almost all Chinese and Japanese is wood, worked to extreme smoothness of surface, very carefully fitted, and the joints luted with lacquer composition, hardened and polished. . . . [The] next process was the over-laying of the wood with linen or hempen cloth, then the application of a coat of lacquer composition,  on which come various successive layers of true lacquer, forming the material at the disposal of the carver. To build up a thickness of lacquer sufficient for the work of the latter, a considerable number of these layers was necessary–not less than ten in any piece of importance, and probably many more in the examples described here. As each of these layers needed three or four weeks to harden, and then had to be polished before any addition could be made, it will be realized that the preliminary processes only–before the carver could get to work–involved a period of months or even years.

“. . . The fine red was obtained by grinding native cinnabar (chu sha) with raw lac . . . . The carver, working with sharp knives and gravers, then cut inwards from the surface, working with absolute precision [emphasis added], so as to expose precisely the layer of colour–and no more–that was needed for his design. It will at once be seen how necessary was the building up of the lacquer. Were it applied more hurriedly and without each layer being given time to dry and harden, the inside textures would be uneven and the perfection of workmanship seen in all the best examples could never have been reached.  , , , It is especially to the Emperor Ch’ien Lung [Kien Lung] (A.D. 1736-1796) that we owe the final perfection of technique. . . .

“With the exception of the seat and the inner portion of the base, the whole of the surface, back and front, is richly carved. The lacquer is mainly red, of an unusually fine quality, cut through into layers of light or dark olive green, brown and yellow.”

–Lieut. Colonel E. F. Strange, “Chinese Carved Red Lacquer.” Illustrated London News [London, England] 8 July 1922: 72-73.

The article further describes the carvings on the throne, from an elephant bearing jewels, five bats for the Five Blessings, a pair of fish, the Musical Stone, a frieze of dragons pursuing the Sacred Jewel, and, on the elephant-shaped legs, a Taoist symbol of the mountain in the Isles of the Blessed. Despite this description’s allusions to elephants and bats, favorites of Moore, it is likely the process of creating the piece and its demand for precision that appealed most to the poet.

May 16, 2010

“What Are Years”: Sulpture “Are Years What” by Suvero

Filed under: Poem Texts — by moore123 @ 5:40 pm
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“Are Years What”

Mark di Suvero, 1967. Painted Steel.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D. C.

This sculpture salutes Moore’s poem:

What Are Years?

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, -
dumbly calling, deafly listening-that
in misfortune, even death,
encourage others
and in it's defeat, stirs

the soul to be strong?

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