Marianne Moore: Poetry

June 2, 2012

“Then the Ermine” and Katherine Anne Porter

“Then the Ermine,” Poetry 81 (October 1952) 55-56.


On January 1, 1957, Katherine Anne Porter wrote to thank Moore for a copy of Like a Bulwark, her new book that contained “Then the Ermine,” a poem which Porter

G. P. Lynes, 1932

said gave her “a special kind of personal feeling.” (Isabel Bailey, ed. Letters of Katherine Anne Porter, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994, p. 519)­ 

Porter  refers to the lines:

So let the palisandre settee express

Change, “ebony violet,”

Master Corbo in full dress.

Porter’s apartment held an antique settee, upholstered in purple velvet. After Moore paid Porter a visit, Porter wrote to her on 27 November 1951 (A.L.S., Moore papers, Rosenbach), recalling how Moore looked  seated on the settee: “on the heliotrope velvet, that palissandre will never look so well again . . . .” Porter’s papers at the University of Maryland contain a manuscript of the finished poem.

Porter lived in Paris for four years beginning in 1933. That year, Harrison of Paris published her French Song-Book, an elegant slim volume designed by Monroe Wheeler, one of her, and Moore’s, best friends. The Song-Book covered early French music and provided original French texts, Porter’s translations, and the songs’ notation.  Moore, who surely knew about the book, no doubt forged a connection between Porter’s French efforts and her own. Moore’s lines about the crow

Master Corbo in full dress

And shepherdess

at once—exhilarating hoarse crow note

and dignity with intimacy

refer to La Fontaine’s second fable in Book I, “The Fox and the Crow,” which Moore was, in 1951, in the process of translating. In brief, a crow held a piece of cheese that the fox wanted. “Ah, superb Sir Ebony, well met. / How black! who else boasts your metallic jet” the fox said, and praised the crow’s “warbling.” “All aglow, Master Crow tried to run a few scales. / Risking trills and intervals, / Dropping the prize as his huge beak sang false.” (Marianne Moore. The Fables of La Fontaine, Viking, 1952, pp 14-15.)

But “shepherdess?” It is tempting to associate Porter’s French song “Shepherdess, Be Kind,” a charming poem containing a reference to a bird.  But

Louis XV Bergère Chairs

the purple-black settee is upholstered in the color of the crow and made in the shape of une bergère, ordinarily a shepherdess, but in terms of furniture, a French armchair from the same period as the settee, late Eighteenth Century.

Porter’s settee now adorns the Katherine Anne Porter room at the University of Maryland.  If Moore is right to call it palissandre, it is made from a Madagascar wood by that name. At Maryland, it is called an “eighteenth-century Louis XV fruitwood sofa.” Sadly, its purple upholstery had to be replaced some years after this poem appeared, having been adversely affected by a cat.

Palissandre Settee

Palissandre Settee

July 12, 2010

Mei Lan-Fang, Chinese Theater

Filed under: Marianne Moore — by moore123 @ 2:49 pm
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Moore wrote to Monroe Wheeler that she had enjoyed a performance by Mei Lan-Fang in New York (SL 502). Lan-Fang made only one tour of New York, in 1930 when his company played at the 49th Street Theater. A two-week run had been planned but so popular was the program that it was extended to five weeks and moved to the much larger National Theater. Among the pieces performed were “The Suspected Slipper,” “The End of the Tiger General,” and “The King’s Parting with His Favorite.”

In 1935,  Sergei Eisenstein met Lan-Fang in Moscow and persuaded him to permit filming of “The King’s Parting with His Favorite.” The film was never completed, but a short clip survives, a taste of what Moore would have seen. Lan-Fang,  following the custom of classical Chinese theater where only men acted, as always took the woman’s role.

Moore’s assessment of the performance she attended: ” I liked [Mei Lan-Fang] so much the one time I saw him in New York, that I was well satisfied not to go to anything else at the theatre afterward that season.” (SL 502)

Coincidentally, Bryher would publish Bertold Brecht’s article on Lan-Fang in Life and Letters Today in 1936, after Brecht had met the Chinese actor in Moscow.

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