Marianne Moore: Poetry

August 7, 2011

“To a Snail,” “New York,” and Duns Scotus

Filed under: Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 11:57 am
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John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-8 November 1308), Scottish Franciscan theologian, was known as the Subtle Doctor for the intricacy of his theological arguments.

John Duns Scotus

Whether in tribute to his methods or simply to their characterizations found in her reading, Moore quotes twice from a work that discusses his writings, first in “To a Snail” (lines 10-11­) and later in “New York (lines 15-16).” The notes in Observations (1924) provide references to the quotations in “To a Snail;” no text of “New York” gives any reference to Scotus or her source.

The work Moore had in hand was Henry Osborn Taylor, The Mediaeval Mind: A History of the Development of Thought and Emotion in the Middle Ages, Vol. 2 New York: Macmillan, 1911. Here is the text from which the quotations are drawn {bold face added):

The constructive processes of his genius appear to issue out of the action of its critical energies. Duns was the most penetrating critic produced by scholasticism. Whatever he considered from the systems of other men he subjected to tests that were apt to leave the argument in tatters. No logical inconsequence escaped him. And when every point had been examined with respect to its rational consistency, this dialectic genius was inclined to bring the matter to the bar of psychological experience. On the other hand he was a churchman, holding that even as Scripture and dogma were above question, so were the decrees of the Church, God’s sanctioned earthly Civitas.

Having thus tested whatever was presented by human reason, and accepting what was declared by Scripture or the Church, Duns proceeds to build out his doctrine as the case may call for. No man ever drove either constructive logic or the subtilties of critical distinctions closer to the limits of human comprehension or human patience than Duns Scotus. And here lies the trouble with him. The endless ramification and refinement of his dialectic, his devious processes of conclusion, make his work a reductio ad absurdum of scholastic ways of reasoning. Logically, eristically, the argumentation is inerrant. It never wanders aimlessly, but winding and circling, at last it reaches a conclusion from some point unforeseen. Would you run a course with this master of the syllogism? If you enter his lists, you are lost. The right way to attack him, is to stand without, and laugh. That is what was done afterwards, when whoever cared for such reasonings was called a Dunce, after the name of this most subtle of mediaeval metaphysicians. . . . (pp. 513-514)

Is theology, then, properly a science? Duns will not deny it; but thinks it may more properly be called a sapientia, since according to its nature, it is rather a knowledge of principles than a method of conclusions. It consists in knowledge of God directly revealed. Therefore its principles are not those of the human sciences: for example, it does not accept its principles from metaphysics, although that science treats of much that is contained in theology. Nor are the sciences—we can hardly say the other sciences —-subordinated to it; since their province is natural knowledge obtained through natural means. Theology, if it be a science, is one apart from the rest. The knowledge which makes its substance is never its end, but always means to its end; which is to say, that it is practical and not speculative. By virtue of its primacy as well as character, theology pertains to the Will, and works itself out in practice: practical alike are its principles and conclusions. Apparently, with Duns, theology is a science only in this respect, that its substance, which is most rational, may be logically treated with a view to a complete and consistent understanding of it. (p. 516)

March 8, 2010

Lord Cromer on the Greek Anthology, 1913

In her notebook 1250/1 in which she jotted down interesting passages from her reading, Moore writes “Spectator, 12 May” and transcribes the following lines: “On entre, on crie,/ et c’est la vie;/ on crie, on sort,/ et c’est la mort.” The lines appear as the epigraph to “As You Know”,” a four-line poem about the persistence of the soul after death, written in the summer of 1914 (she first sent it out to a little magazine on 14 August 1914, according to her list of submissions). The poem itself appears in the advance uncorrected proofs of The Poems of Marianne Moore (2003) but was dropped from the first edition.

The Spectator (London) for 10 May 1914 carried a review essay by Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromerr of Ancient Gems in Modern Settings;Being Versions of the Greek Anthology in English Rhyme, by Various Writers, ed. by G.B. Grundy, Oxford, B.H. Blackwell; London, New York : H. Frowde, 1913. Cromer collected this essay, “The Greek Anthology” in his Political and Literary Essays, 1908-1913. London: Macmillan, 1913. In addition to the lines noted, Moore would have found several other passages of interest.

Cromer addresses the translators’ challenges, writing: “Then again, the translator must struggle with the difficulties arising from the fact that the Greeks regarded condensation in speech as a fine art. Demetrius, or whoever was the author of De Elocutione, said: ‘The first grace of style is that which results from compression.’” See “To a Snail,” “If ‘compression is the first grace of style,’ / you have it.” To be fair, W. Rhys Roberts in his edition of De Elocutione (Cambridge, 1902) translates this sentence “The very first grace of style . . .” and it is possible that Moore read his bi-lingual edition.

A few paragraphs later, Cromer ponders why most of the Anthology’s poems, insubstantial as they are compared to the greatest literature of Greece, continue to fascinate readers. “The reasons are not far to seek. In the first place, no productions of the Greek genius conform more wholly to the Aristotelian canon that poetry should be an imitation of the universal. Few of the poems in the Anthology depict any ephemeral phase or fashion of opinion, like the Euphuism of the sixteenth century. All appeal to emotions which endure for all time, and which it has been aptly said, are the true raw material of poetry.” The phrase “the raw material of poetry” had some currency in the period 1910-1917 which might be called the years of gestation for Moore’s “Poetry”; it appears most often in the context of Greek poetry. An unsigned piece on “Free Verse” in The Outlook for August, 1915, blasts that form with: “It would be foolish to deny that some poetry of surpassing worth has been written in the less formal manner. It would be impossible to deny that much free verse contains a rhythm and a cadence that are both effective in the excitation of emotion and as a vehicle for the conveyance of thought. It would be equally foolish to deny that much of what currently passes for free verse is at best little more than the raw material of poetry, that its formlessness results from laziness rather than imagination, and that its span of life will be as brief as its rhythm is breathless.”

Cromer continues his remarks on poetic brevity: “Then again, the pungent brevity of such of the poetry of the Anthology as is epigrammatic is highly attractive. Much has at times been said as to what constitutes an epigram, but the case for brevity has probably never been better stated than by a witty Frenchwoman of the eighteenth century. Madame de Boufflers wrote: ‘Il faut dire en deux mots / Ce qu’on veut dire; / Les longs propos / Sont sots.’ In this respect, indeed. French can perhaps compete more successfully than any other modern language with Greek. Democritus (410 B.C.) wrote ‘O kosmos skene, ‘o Bios Parados, / elthes, eides, apelthes.’ [The world is a stage, life is a performance; you come, you see, you go away.] The French version of the same idea is in no way inferior to the Greek: ‘On entre, on crie,/ Et c’est la vie! / On crie, on sort / Et c’est la mort!’ Here Cromer joins the last pithy verse, the one Moore noted in 1913 and used in “As You Know” to the first verse of Boufflers’ “Sentir Avec Ardeur,” Moore waited exactly forty years to use the latter in “Tom Fool at Jamaica,” the title appearing in the text of her work and the entire French poem in its notes.

We cannot know for certain whether Moore’s use of these elements in her poems came directly from Cromer’s piece in The Spectator—with the exception of “As You Know.” But in any case, there is real pleasure in finding them all in one essay.

Two online sources for Cromer’s Poltical and Literary Essays, 1913:

This address goes to a full reproduction of the Cromer’s book at “”. The essay “The Greek Anthology” is at pages 226-36.,+on+crie%22+spectator&ei=sgKVS-SmL5KCywSri4ncAg&cd=2#v=onepage&q=&f=false

This address is for Google Books’ limited preview of the book; the last page of the essay is suppressed.

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