Marianne Moore: Poetry

March 23, 2010

Cellini in “Reprobate Silver” (1915)

Benvenuto Cellini, 1545-54

“Perseus with the Head of Medusa,” Benvenuto Cellini, 1545-54. In Florence, in the Loggia dei Lanzi gallery on the edge of the Piazza della Signoria.

Moore wrote to her brother on October 3, 1915, “I have just finished [Benvenuto] Cellini’s memoirs and if anything is calculated to make Don Quixote ‘look like a Cumberland timetable.’ they are. He had a ‘large hairy dog black as mulberry,’ which stood by him on may occasions and his intrepidity is beyond belief. He says on one occasion, ‘swelling like an asp, I resolved on a desperate thing,’ and again, ‘I clothed myself with patience than which nothing is harder to me.‘ You will have to read it for yourself.” (Selected Letters, 100-101)

She was reading The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, translated by John Aldington Symonds, New York: P. F. Collier, 1910 (or if not that printing, at least that translation). The raw material from which she quoted is as follows:

I had a dog, black as a mulberry, one of those hairy ones, who followed me admirably when I went out shooting, and never left my side. During the night he lay beneath my bed, and I had to call out at least three times to my servant to turn him out, because he howled so fearfully. When the servants entered, the dog flew at them and tried to bite them. They were frightened, and thought he must be mad, because he went on howling. . . . At the stroke of four the Bargello came into my room with a band of constables. Then the dog sprang forth and flew at them with such fury, tearing their capes and hose, that in their fright they fancied he was mad. But the Bargello, like an experienced person, told them : “It is the nature of good dogs to divine and foretell the mischance coming on their masters.” (P. 229)

Cellini had been arrested for some choleric misbehavior. “Albeit just then I felt as though I had been massacred, I sent for one of my cousins, . . . desiring that he should go bail for me. He refused to come, which made me so angry, that, fuming with fury and swelling like an asp, I took a desperate resolve. At this point one may observe how the stars do not so much sway as force our conduct. When I reflected on the great obligations which this Annibale owed my family, my rage grew to such a pitch that, turning wholly to evil, and being also by nature somewhat choleric, I waited till the magistrates had gone to dinner; and when I was alone, . . . in the fire of my anger, I left the palace, ran to my shop, seized a dagger and rushed to the house of my enemies, who were at home and shop together. I found them at table; and Gherardo, who had been the cause of the quarrel, flung himself upon me. I stabbed him in the breast, piercing doublet and jerkin through and through to the shirt, without however grazing his flesh or doing him the least harm in the world.” (P. 31)

In France, where he exercised his silver- and goldsmith craft on behalf of the King, Cellini fell out with an aristocratic woman. “I took the handsome little vase which I had made at the request of Madame d’Etampes, hoping, if I gave it her, to recover the favour I had lost. With this in my hand, then, I announced my presence to her nurse, and showed the gift which I had brought her mistress; the woman received me with demonstrations of good-will, and said that she would speak a word to Madame, who was still engaged upon her toilette; I should be admitted on the instant, when she had discharged her embassy. The nurse made her report in full to Madame, who retorted scornfully: “Tell him to wait.” On hearing this, I clothed myself with patience, which of all things I find the most difficult. Nevertheless, I kept myself under control until the hour for dinner was past. Then, seeing that time dragged on, and being maddened by hunger, I could no longer hold out, but flung off, sending her most devoutly to the devil.” (Pp. 296-297)

Clearly, if Don Quixote can be compared to the little trolley that plied between Harrisburg and Carlisle, Cellini’s memoirs are like “Panshin’s horse,” “Thor’s hammer,” or “Flaubert’s Carthage” (Salammbo). The latter trio appear in “Reprobate Silver” (The Poems of Marianne Moore, 2003, p. 43), used by Moore to describe the Cellini of his Autobiography.

The choice of the Cellini Perseus image, above, is a long shot: “Perseus to Polydectes” is a working title for Moore’s very early “I May, I Might, I Must,” a poem also about an intrepid person. For a while, I thought “Reprobate Silver,” as a phrase, must refer to one of Cellini’s exquisitely wrought pieces, like the famed gold and enamel salt-cellar. But “reprobate” to a Presbyterian probably invoked the doctrine of reprobation, the eternally lost condition of persons not elect, or given salvation. Cellini, who got away with murdering several people, may well have qualified in Moore’s mind, however intriguing his memoir.

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