Marianne Moore: Poetry

July 5, 2010

“Nine Nectarines”

“William Billingsley (once poor,

like a monkey on a dolphin” (LL. 67-68)

refers to a fable by Aesop, “The Monkey and the Dolphin:”

Illustration by Milo Winter,

The Aesop for Children,

Chicago: Rand McNally,


Page 52

It happened once upon a time that a certain Greek ship bound for Athens was wrecked off the coast close to Piraeus, the port of Athens. Had it not been for the Dolphins, who at that time were very friendly toward mankind and especially toward Athenians, all would have perished. But the Dolphins took the shipwrecked people on their backs and swam with them to shore.

Now it was the custom among the Greeks to take their pet monkeys and dogs with them whenever they went on a voyage. So when one of the Dolphins saw a Monkey struggling in the water, he thought it was a man, and made the Monkey climb up on his back. Then off he swam with him toward the shore.

The Monkey sat up, grave and dignified, on the Dolphin’s back.

“You are a citizen of illustrious Athens, are you not?” asked the Dolphin politely.

“Yes,” answered the Monkey, proudly. “My family is one of the noblest in the city.”

“Indeed,” said the Dolphin. “Then of course you often visit Piraeus.”

“Yes, yes,” replied the Monkey. “Indeed, I do. I am with him constantly. Piraeus is my very best friend.”

This answer took the Dolphin by surprise, and, turning his head, he now saw what it was he was carrying. Without more ado, he dived and left the foolish Monkey to take care of himself, while he swam off in search of some human being to save.

One falsehood leads to another.

The Billingsley Rose (ll. 65-66)

It would appear that Billingsley and his hand-painted rose and his pottery invention are meant to stand in sharp contrast to Chinese porcelain–the fake versus the real:


Billingsley Rose


” ‘ Never heard of it,’ a gardener will answer you, even in the roseries at Kew; for few are aware of the Billingsley rose. It buds on no standard, it adorns no florist’s catalogue, and attar from it was never distilled. You may hunt it like the most precious of orchids, but the trail lies through Bloomsbury and the Kensingtons, and not in Amazonian forests or jungles of Mandalay. With patience and flair you may come upon it yet, though Glamorgan, Derbyshire, and ‘ the sweet shire of Cardigan’ have been scoured for it, Holland rifled of it, Cintra, Palermo, Montpellier, Tours, and all the haunts of the English resident abroad in the teens of last century meticulously searched for it, by keen-eyed votaries, illuminati, new Rosicrucians ready with gold for any disc of smooth and shining whiteness that bears the Billingsley rose.

It is a China rose, but it never bloomed in Cathay. Nippon nor Cashmere ever knew it; the European mainland never grew it; it flouts the flowers from Saxony and the valley of the Seine. In the Peak it budded, a century and a quarter ago, but still it lives in beauty; still the petals seem to throb with the sap of life; still this rose, as one enthusiast sings, ‘ has the soft bloom of youth and floats in being, as not by the agency of the brush but by the volition of the painter.’ For, yes, (perhaps you read the riddle at once?), a pencil of camel-hair produced the flower; it is upon suacers and cups and plates of old English porcelain that one finds the Billingsley rose.

Like every rare and peerless thing, it happened happily; the date of its blooming was fortunate. A little later there would have been no soft porcelain to paint on, a little earlier there was no English porcelain at all. The Billingsley rose is the very triumph and coronal of the efforts of English potters against invasions from the Orient, from Saxony and France. The illuminati know with their hearts the strange tale of that strife—how the Honourable East India Company kept pouring ‘ china’ in from the East; how Dresden and Sevres imposed upon us their splendid wares; how crowds of merchants and collectors awaited the ships and fought with their money-bags at the ports ; how ‘ Why should not we make porcelain ?’ said English potters, and how they began. Romance encircles the record of their doings; against royal subsidies and patronage by kings of Saxony and France they pitted private enterprise and petty capital; lacking the true material, they invented substitutes, composts, imitative amalgams and at last they came upon a kind of china that differed as much from the wares of Meissen and late Sevres as a lyric of Shelley’s contrasts with a page of Racine’s.

This English soft china was not true porcelain, I know. It was ‘ an ingenious and beautiful counterfeit,’ says Professor Church  but he does not rate the real thing the higher. No, it was something better than ‘ true’ porcelain; it was something unique and apart, something delicate and ephemeral, dainty and fragile, fit compeer for the Louis Seize fan, a pastel of Vigee Lebrun’s, or a Cosway miniature. It has left the china cupboard and the kitchen rack, to dwell in the realm of lost arts. The paste and the glaze of it, delightful in themselves, to the painter furnished a ‘ canvas’ opulently white, softly firm, and gently smooth, shot through with light, receptive, better than ivory; and upon such pleasant surfaces the pencil of William Billingsley began to play and create, at Derby, circa 1775. ”

–from J. H. Yoxhall, “The Billingsley Rose,” The Cornhill Magazine N. S. Vol. 22, January-June, 1907, pp, 365-76, via Google Books. The section above, pp, 365-66. The rest of the article confirms Billingsley’s successes and failures.

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