Marianne Moore: Poetry

November 24, 2010

“In the Days of Prismatic Color” and Adam

“when Adam

was alone . . .

. . . . . . . . .

. . .nor did the once blue red yellow band

of incandescence that was colour, keep its stripe . . .”

Version from The Lantern 27 (Spring 1919) 35, ll. 1-2, 10-11.

The image of Adam alone, or being created by God, brings to mind Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling; however, that work has no prominent “band of incandescence.”  Blake’s “Elohim Creating Adam,” on the other hand, has what might be considered such a band:

“Elohim Creating Adam,” William Blake, 1795/circa 1805, Tate Online

The gift of W. Graham Robertson to the Tate, London, in 1939, this work was owned by Robertson in 1907 when an edition of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake was reprinted from the 1863 original, this time with an introduction by Robertson.  Commenting on “Elohim Creating Adam,” Robertson says:

In all the works of Blake are to be found deep and original thoughts.

As we look at his “Creation of Adam” we realise with a touch of awe that its suggestions of the gradual development of man from the elements were formulated many years before the Theory of Evolution dawned upon the world.

Despite his horror of Natural Science, his poetical insight leads him truth-wards almost against his will.

His philosophy and teaching were not for his own time. (p. ix)

This work was reproduced in color and described thus in the catalog accompanying the text: “18. 1795.—*Elohim creating Adam. [Capt. Butts.] Colour printed. The Creator is an amazingly grand figure, worthy of a primeval imagination or intuition. He is struggling, as it were, above Adam, who lies extended on the ground, a serpent twined around one leg. The colour has a terrible power in it; and the entire design is truly a mighty one—perhaps on the whole the greatest monument extant of Blake’s genius. Reproduced at page 406.” (p. 417)

Moore would have seen these texts and the image in November, 1910, when she had a copy of the Gilchrist book (letter to her brother, 1 November 1910, Rosenbach, not in SL).

Gilchrist, himself, has this to say about the image:

In the grand composition, “Elohim creating Adam,” he enters the lists with his life-long idol, Michael Angelo, yet avoids comparison by the complete originality of his conception. In the “Creation” of Michael Angelo—perhaps the noblest picture the world possesses—God sweeps past upborne by Cherubim and, with a touch of His extended finger, kindles life in man. Blake, on entirely different lines, sets before us an almost equally haunting vision.

A weary God, spent with ages of labour, broods over Adam on flagging wings. Virtue is gone out of Him and, as the great sun of the Sixth Day sinks below the newmade world, for the drawing of a breath He pauses before the final effort is made.

Michael Angelo represents the Creation of Man by the Deity. Blake shows the mystery of all Creations; the birth of anything or of everything, born of the Maker’s Agony and leaving Him weary—for God rested the Seventh Day.

Beneath His hands the first man takes shape and is resolved out of the elements; a piteous, helpless creature, marl-stained and almost without form, his weak limbs wrapped about by a monstrous worm.

Beyond the two figures the golden disk of the setting sun shoots forth dark purple rays across blue tracts of sky, lighting the overhanging cloud-canopies with a dim radiance. The great wings of God are golden, tinged here and there with crimson, and the colour throughout the picture is sombrely magnificent.

The whole surface has been so carefully worked over by hand that few traces of printing remain.

Please comment! Are there other candidates for “when Adam was alone?”

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