Marianne Moore: Poetry

January 26, 2012

Gustavus Adolphus and George Washington

“Washington and Gustavus

Adolphus, forgive our decay.” (ll. 14-15)

“A Carriage from Sweden,” The Nation 158 (March 11, 1944) 311.

Written in 1943, this complex, wartime poem salutes Sweden’s seventeenth-century king and America’s eighteenth-century founding president as

Gustavus Adolphus

a pair. While Americans readily recognize Washington’s deeds and qualities, (“father of his country,” “the American Cincinnatus,” “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen”) his parallel with Sweden’s king is less obvious. Gustavus Adolphus has been called “the founder of modern warfare,” “the protector of Protestantism,” “the lion of the north.” He came to the throne at seventeen in 1611 and died in battle in 1632. As ruler, he reformed Sweden’s government by establishing four estates (nobles, clergy, burghers, and peasants) in the Riksdag (Diet), thus promoting unity within the groups; he fostered secondary and university education; he promoted the Swedish economy through immigration and infusion of foreign capital. As a military leader, he reformed the conduct of wars through the use of light artillery and coordination of military branches during battle. As a Protestant king, he opposed the Catholic League and preserved German Protestantism from the ravages of the Counter-Reformation. In short, he brought Sweden into the modern era.

“[F]orgive our decay” contrasts the world of 1943 with that of 1632 and 1781. In 1632, Gustavus Adolphus refused to compromise his principles and died fighting in Battle of Lützen, a turning point in the Thirty Years’ War in favor of his side, a Protestant victory.  In 1781, George Washington, who refused to compromise or give up even during the long siege at Valley Forge, received the

George Washington

surrender of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown, the site of the final battle of the Revolutionary War.  But “our decay” in 1943 may refer to the tensions created by Sweden’s neutrality during World War II which led the country to provide aid to both Axis and Allied powers, a position maintained in 1943 although later revised to refuse contributions to the Axis cause and to support the Allies. And if this position represents Sweden’s “decay,” perhaps the thinking, in 1943, about post-war recriminations against Germany suggested to Moore the kind of compromises that followed World War I and set the stage for the next war.

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