Marianne Moore: Poetry

September 21, 2010

“Monkey Puzzle:” Henry James

Filed under: Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 4:42 pm
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Monkey Puzzle Tree

Among the novels of Henry James that Moore mentions having read is The Princess Casamassima. Here, from the Scribner’s 1908 edition, taken from James’s Preface, page xxii, is the paragraph on which she might have drawn her line in “The Monkey Puzzle,” “these woods in which society’s not knowing is colossal.” [Boldface has been added.]

“Face to face with the idea of Hyacinth’s subterraneous politics and occult affiliations, I recollect perfectly feeling, in short, that I might well be ashamed if, with my advantages— and there wasn’t a street, a corner, an hour, of London that was not an advantage — I should n’t be able to piece together a proper semblance of those things, as indeed a proper semblance of all the odd parts of his life. There was always of course the chance that the propriety might be challenged — challenged by readers of a knowledge greater than mine. Yet knowledge, after all, of what ? My vision of the aspects I more or less fortunately rendered was, exactly, my knowledge. If I made my appearances live, what was this but the utmost one could do with them ? Let me at the same time not deny that, in answer to probable ironic reflexions on the full licence for sketchiness and vagueness and dimness taken indeed by my picture, I had to bethink myself in advance of a defence of my ” artistic position.” Should n’t I find it in the happy contention that the value I wished most to render and the effect I wished most to produce were precisely those of our not knowing, of society’s not knowing, but only guessing and suspecting and trying to ignore, what ” goes on” irreconcileably, subversively, beneath the vast smug surface ? I could n’t deal with that positive quantity for itself— my subject had another too exacting side; but I might perhaps show the social ear as on occasion applied to the ground, or catch some gust of the hot breath that I had at many an hour seemed to see escape and hover. What it all came back to was, no doubt, something like this wisdom—that if you have n’t, for fiction, the root of the matter in you, have n’t the sense of life and the penetrating imagination, you are a fool in the very presence of the revealed and assured; but that if you are so armed you are not really helpless, not without your resource, even before mysteries abysmal.”

Monkey Puzzle Tree Branch

In the novel, Hyacinth Robinson, the son of a French seamstress and an English aristocrat, joins Princess Casamassima and vows to pursue a working-class revolution in London. Just at the point that Hyacinth begins to detach himself from this cause, disillusioned about the “undeserving poor,” he is sent on a secret mission to murder an aristocrat but, instead, takes his own life.

August 23, 2010

“Monkey Puzzle:” Japan and China

Filed under: Marianne Moore,Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 4:38 pm
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Lafcadio Hearn

Moore notes Lafcadio Hearn as the source of line 18 concerning proportion. Here is the original

Hearn and His Wife


For after all, what we call beauty or grace in the best and deepest sense, represents physical force, with which the peasant is much better acquainted than we are. He is accustomed to observing life, and he does it instinctively. Beauty means a certain proportion in the skeleton which gives the best results of strength and of easy motion in the animal or the man.

Lafcadio Hearn. “Tolstoi’s Theory of Art” in Talks to Writers, New York: Dodd Mead, 1920, p. 170.

Famous for living in Japan and producing exquisite books of Japanese folk tales, Hearn (1850-1904) was born in Greece of an Irish father and a Greek mother. After school in England, Hearn became a newspaperman in Cincinnati and New Orleans, lived in Martinique for a few years, and in 1890 went to Japan as a correspondent. There he stayed, married the daughter of a samurai, and became a cultural ambassador and Japanese citizen. He taught university students in his last years in Japan and his writings on literary subjects are drawn from his students’ notes of his lectures.

A link that may not be a link: “The Monkey Puzzle” refers to “Flaubert’s Carthage,” that is, Salammbo, the Flaubert novel set in Carthage and much admired by Moore. Could she have known that Hearn spent years translating Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony (published in New York in 1911)?

Chinese Foo Dogs

Foo Dog, Female

Moore tells us not to ignore these creatures lest they behave as something other than canines. In fact, the  Foo Dog (or Fu Dog) is a lion that looks something like a dog. Made from bronze, they guarded imperial palaces and temples in China, always in pairs, the male with his paw on a ball, the female with hers on a cub. The sculptures originally served as totems for the elite, due to their cost, but they have been reproduced cheaply and universally in modern times.

According to Roy Bates in 29 Chinese Mysteries (Beijing: TuDragon Books, 2008, pp. 53-76), China had no lions except for diplomatic gifts. A disciple of Buddha, Manju’srii, appeared seated on a lion that symbolized the untrained mind open to understanding through meditation. When this notion arrived in China, it turned into the guard lion, shaped much like a Chinese dog, complete with collar and pendant. The sexes were distinguished by the ball or cub under the paws.

The story of the “dog” can be continued at great length as the images vary from place to place:

Foo Dog, Male

the ball is sometimes huge, the lion looks sleepy, or the head has a different number of bumps, more bumps denoting an owner’s  higher rank.

The two images shown here stand at the entrance to the Gate of Dispelling Clouds at the Summer Palace in Beijing. They date from the 18th Century.

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