Marianne Moore: Poetry

December 6, 2013

“In This Age of Hard Trying”

Filed under: Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 7:06 pm
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“Really, it is not the

business of the gods to bake clay pots.”

“In This Age of Hard Trying, Nonchalance Is Good”

Chimaera  I (July 1916), 52, ll. 1-2.



Moore wrote to her brother, Warner, on July 22, 1915, that she was reading “four or five” novels by Turgenev that she had borrowed from a friend, Mary Bosler. She thought they were excellently constructed and “hummers.”  Then, in the journal into which she entered quotations that appealed to her, she copied a line from Fathers and Children: “Really, it is not the business of the gods to bake pots!”  This wording leads to the translation by Isabel F. Hapgood that appeared  on page 187 in several editions, 1903, 1911, 1915, all from Charles Scribner’s Sons.

The immediate context in the Turgenev work is a scene in which Bazarov, a young nihilist who believes his age group should renounce everything that smacks of Russian tradition, and Arkady, his more traditional fellow student, argue about the uninvited appearance of Sitnikoff. Sitnikoff has been praising George Sand as a champion of women’s rights, a position Bazaroff thinks hopelessly out of date.

“What the devil did that blockhead Sitnikoff come for?”

Bazaroff first moved in his bed and then emitted the following:—”Thou, brother, art still stupid, I perceive. Sitnikoffs are indispensable to us. I—mark this—I need such dolts. Really, it is not the business of the gods to bake pots! . .”

“Aha, ha! … .” thought Arkady to himself, and only then was the whole bottomless abyss of Bazaroff’s pride disclosed to him for an instant. “So thou and I are gods? that is—thou art a god, and am I the dolt, I wonder?”

“Yes,”—repeated Bazaroff grimly,—” thou art still stupid.”

While Moore begins her poem with Bazaroff’ line, it is likely that the quotation simply pointed her in a direction, possibly concerning the contemporary literary scene. Whoever is being addressed in the first two stanzas—perhaps a writer or writers—are found to be lacking in humility, missing the main chance to succeed.

The last two stanzas begin with another quotation:

“Taller by the length of

a conversation of five hundred years than all

the others,” there was one, whose tales

of what could never have been actual—

were better than the haggish, uncompanionable drawl

of certitude[.]

Here again Moore works with a quotation from an article, “Angels” in The New Statesman for June 26, 1915. After describing stories similar to what we would call urban myths, such as angels siding with the winning Boers, the writer says:

[Angels] are represented as beings of various sizes. According to a Jewish tradition, each angel is one-third of a world; but the angel Sandalfon is said to be taller than his fellows by the length of a journey of five hundred years.”

Moore interpolates “conversation” for “journey” in praise of the storyteller with highly effective “by-play” and his weapon, “self protectiveness.”

In this instance, it seems likely that the quotations were chosen for their wording and not necessarily for their context. A clue to this thought lies in Moore’s having put an end note in the Observations version to the first quotation: “Dostoievsky.” However, the two are paired in a way that balances the argument of the poem through contrast.

April 15, 2013

Panshin’s Horse in “Reprobate Silver”

Like Panshin’s horse, not permitted to be willful,

Trembling incessantly and champing the bit–

It is worthy of examination.



“Reprobate Silver”

Written by September 24, 1915

First published in The Poems of Marianne Moore, ed. Grace Schulman, New York: Viking, 2003, p. 43, ll. 3-5.

These lines comprise one of a series of similes for the “Reprobate Silver” of the title. They are suggested by Ivan Turgenev’s novel  A House of Gentlefolk which tells the story of a young man betrayed by wife.

Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev

Away on a visit to his cousin, Marya, he reads in the press that his wife has died. Thinking himself free, he falls in love with Marya’s daughter, Liza, and they plan to marry. Panshin returns home after the visit and finds his wife alive and well. They do not divorce but live apart; Liza enters a convent.

Moore is clearly concentrating on the horse; perhaps the story is only incidental to the poem, or even merely occasional. Here is the context from a translation that Moore might have read:

Marya Dmitrievna went up to the window.

 How do you do, Woldemar! Ah, what a splendid horse! Where did you buy it ?’

‘ I bought it from the army contractor. . . . He made me pay for it too, the brigand!’

‘ What’s its name ?’

‘ Orlando. . . . But it’s a stupid name; I want to change it . . . Eh bien, eh bien, mon garcon. . . . What a restless beast it is!’

The horse snorted, stamped, pawed the ground, and shook the foam off the bit.

‘ Lenotchka, stroke him, don’t be afraid.’

The little girl stretched her hand out of the window, but Orlando suddenly reared and started. The rider with perfect self-possession gave it a cut with the whip across the neck, and keeping a tight grip with his legs forced it, in spite of its opposition, to stand still again at the window.

Prenez garde, prenez garde,’ Marya Dmitrievna kept repeating.

‘ Lenotchka, pat him,’ said the young man, ‘ I won’t let him be perverse.’

The little girl again stretched out her hand and timidly patted the quivering nostrils of the horse, who kept fidgeting and champing the bit.

‘ Bravo!’ cried Marya Dmitrievna,’ but now get off and come in to us.’

The rider adroitly turned his horse, gave him a touch of the spur, and galloping down the street soon reached the courtyard. A minute later he ran into the drawing-room by the door from the hall, flourishing his whip; at the same moment there appeared in the other doorway a tall, slender dark-haired girl of nineteen, Marya Dmitrievna’s eldest daughter, Lisa.

Ivan Turgenev, A House of Gentlefolk, tr. Constance Garnett, New York: Macmillan, 1906, pp. 13-15.

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