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

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