Marianne Moore: Poetry

November 18, 2010

“Reinforcements” and Greeks

” . . . .The words of the Greeks

Ring in our ears, but they are vain in comparison with a sight like this.”

Reinforcements,” The Egoist 6.5 (June-July 1918): 83

About the time of  the United States’ declaration of war on Germany on 8 April 1917, or perhaps at the time her brother filed his draft card on 5 June 1917, Moore began a poem about going to war.


“The words of the Greeks / Ring in our ears” goes undocumented by footnote but I would like to suggest a possible source. In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Alcibiades’ speech to the Athenians, urging them to attack Sicily in an effort to control the Mediterranean world, whips his audience  into fighting readiness. He deplores non-intervention, the policy of President Wilson until World War I had blasted our European allies for nearly three years. Moore certainly had thoughts about involving the United States in the war–her brother was already in the Naval Militia, and were he to enlist as a Navy chaplain (as he subsequently did), Marianne and her mother would lose their home in his Manse in Chatham, New Jersey, and have a very real reason to fear the war machine.

Below is the end of the speech, from Benjamin Jowett’s translation: Thucydides Translated into English. . . . Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881, pp. 421-23.

Never were the Peloponnesians more hopeless of success than at the present moment; and let them be ever so confident, they can only invade us by land, which they will equally do whether we go to Sicily or not. But on the sea they cannot hurt us, for we shall leave behind us a navy equal to theirs.

What reason can we give to ourselves for hesitation? Why then what excuse can we make to our allies for denying for an them aid? We have sworn to them, and have no right to argue that they never assisted us. In seeking their true policy alliance we did not intend that they should come and help us here, but that they should harass our enemies in Sicily, and prevent them from coming hither. Like probably all other imperial powers, we have acquired our dominion
by our readiiness to assist any one, whether Barbarian or Hellene, who may have invoked our aid. If we are all to sit and do nothing, or to draw distinctions of race when our help is requested, we shall add little to our empire, and run a great risk of losing it altogether. For mankind do not await the attack of a superior power, they anticipate it. We cannot cut down an empire as we might a household but having once gained our present position, we must keep a firm hold upon some, and contrive occasion against others; for if we are not rulers we shall be subjects. You cannot afford to regard inaction in the same light as others might, unless you impose a corresponding restriction on your policy. Convinced then that we shall be most likely to increase our power here if we attack our enemies there, let us sail. We shall humble the pride of the Peloponnesians when they see that, scorning the delights of repose, we have attacked Sicily. By the help of our acquisitions there, we shall probably become masters of all Hellas; at any rate we shall injure the Syracusans, and at the same time benefit ourselves and our allies. Whether we succeed and remain or depart, in either case our navy will ensure our safety; for at sea we shall be more than a match for all Sicily. Nicias must not divert you from your purpose by preaching indolence, and by trying to set the young against the old; rather in your accustomed order, old and young taking counsel together, after the manner of your fathers who raised Athens to this height of greatness, strive to rise yet higher. Consider that youth and age have no power unless united ; but that the lighter and the more exact and the middle sort of judgment, when duly attempered, are likely to be most efficient. The state, if at rest, like everything else will wear herself out by internal friction. Every pursuit which requires skill will bear the impress of decay, whereas by conflict fresh experience is always being gained, and the city learns to defend herself, not in theory, but in practice. My opinion in short is, that a state used to activity will quickly be ruined by the change to inaction; and that they of all men enjoy the greatest security who are truest to themselves and their institutions even when they are not the best.

Alcibiades got it wrong. Athens was badly defeated at Syracuse, having lost most of its military force; the Peloponnesian wars drew to a close, Athenian democracy yielded to oligarchy, and Sparta became the dominant force, occupying Athens. Was this bit of history the words of the Greeks that Moore heard in the summer of 1917?

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