Marianne Moore: Poetry

March 14, 2012

Hercules in “The Paper Nautilus”

Filed under: Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 4:58 pm
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“as Hercules, bitten / by a crab loyal to the hydra, / was hindered to succeed”

“The Paper Nautilus” Kenyon Review 2 (Summer 1940) 287-88.

Moore’s familiarity with Greek myth dated to her childhood. While we do not know precisely what books she saw as a young girl, the following work is contemporary to the period. The telling of the second labor of Hercules, the conquering of the Hydra, sometimes includes mention of the crab that nipped at Hercules’ legs during the fight; it occurs in this telling.

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On his return to Argos to report the successful termination of his first task, Hercules was told to repair to the marshes of Hydra of Lema, where lurked a seven-headed serpent, the Lema. Hydra, and put an end to its career of rapacity, for this snake devoured man and beast. Armed with a great sword, Hercules succeeded in cutting off one of the seven heads; but he had nosooner done so, than, to his dismay, he saw seven other heads suddenly spring from the bleeding stump. To prevent a repetition of this unpleasant miracle, Hercules bade his friend Iolaus, who had accompanied him thither to view his prowess, take a lighted brand and sear the wounds as soon as inflicted. Thanks to this wise plan, the monster was finally slain, although a friendly crab sent by Juno to defend Hydra continually pinched Hercules’ feet. The hero, angry at this intervention, crushed the crab, which, however, received its reward, for the Queen of Heaven placed it in the sky as the constellation of Cancer (the Crab). The country was thus freed from its long state of thraldom; but, before leaving the scene of his second labor, Hercules dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s venomous blood, knowing well that any wound they inflicted, however slight, would be sure to prove fatal.

–Hélène Adeline Guerber, Myths of Greece and Rome: narrated with special reference to literature and art. New York: American Book Company, 1893, pp. 175-76.

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