Marianne Moore: Poetry

November 5, 2012

“The Labors of Hercules”

Filed under: Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 5:04 pm
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“to prove to the high priests of caste

that snobbishness is a stupidity,

the best side out, of age-old toadyism—

kissing the feet of the man above,

kicking the face of the man below:”

The Dial 71 (December 1921) p. 168, ll. 18-22

Moore developed these lines after reading Thinking Black: 22 Years without a Break in the Long Grass of Central Africa by Daniel Crawford (London: Morgan and Scott, 1913, or perhaps an edition from the previous year). The quoted lines are in boldface type.

Now for the darkest despotism in all slavery; I mean, the ex-slave ruling the ex-lord with an iron rod. And all this according to that most ancient of sayings passed along in whispers from one bondsman to another: “If thou art an anvil, be patient, 0 slave my brother; but if thou art a hammer, strike hard!” One such exclave, called “The Python,” ultimately lorded it over our huge caravan, and instead of being abashed at his slave blood, he was precious proud of it: “0 white man, you are proud of your descent, but I am proud of my ascent, was his idea. Coleridge it was who wrote of ” the pride that apes humility,” and our friend ” The Python ” had it, for if not pride of race it was pride of place. But make it a rule never, oh! never to argue with such a fellow—if you fight with a sweep you cannot blacken him, but he may blacken you. Tantalising though he often was and worthy a well-merited wigging, there he stood, head and shoulders above them all, a go-ahead boss just “up from slavery.” He did not cringe to us, and did not mind running risks with his bread-and-butter. Wise, too, with a corrosive sort of wisdom, some things he said were a clever echo of Epictetus (and who by the by was he, if not a slave ?). Even Horace would pardon me for calling him eloquent. (Horace, too, who was he if not a slave’s son ?) Yet this man finally became as tame as a friendly mastiff, although all the time a snob to his fellows. And a slave snob, remember, is king of all the snobs; proves it, too, by kissing the feet of the man above him on the social ladder, while he kicks the other who is below him. Himself a slave by purchase and with a commercial instinct quite in accord with the best traditions of Bihe, he would sell his own father and mother for an old song. Q.E.D.: The Romans were right, “As many slaves, so many enemies “—bad slavery makes a bad slave. (p. 50)

Daniel Crawford about 1915

Daniel Crawford (1870-1926 )was a Scottish missionary to Zaire. Feeling called to Africa, in March 1889 Crawford set off as an independent missionary associated with the Plymouth Brethren of Scotland and England and spent the rest of his life in Katanga (modern Shaba, in southeast Zaire). After some months working with others, he struck out alone and settled among the Nyamwezi. With headquarters on Lake Mweru, he itinerated constantly, preaching and setting up local schools, aiming simply at literacy in the local language. Crawford’s spent two years  (1913-15) pleading the cause of African missions in Europe and the United States. He was a brilliant linguist and by 1926 had completed the translation of the whole Bible into Luba. This and other languages he learned by living as the sole European among Africans, thus learning to “think black,” an attitude that made him something of an exception among missionaries of that era.

–adapted from Andrew C. Ross, Dictionary of African Christian Biography, online

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