Jeredith Merrin

Jeredith Merrin: On "A Grave"

Re-Seeing the Sea: Marianne Moore’s "A Grave"  as a Woman Writer’s Re-Vision.

"Man looking into the sea" begins Marianne Moore's first published version of "A Grave" ("Graveyard," The Dial, July, 1921). This version and another, earlier version which was resurrected and printed by Ezra Pound in Milan in 1932, are both revisions of Moore's unpublished "A Graveyard in the Middle of the Sea," produced between September 1916 and September 1918; and the Dial poem itself was slightly revised before appearing in final form in her 1924 book,Observations. All versions are obsessed with looking and the return of a look, with seeing and seeing again. The pun on sea itself, activated in the opening phrase--"Man looking into the sea"--is one compressed example of the way we are ourselves made to re-view words and concepts as we read this poem. "A Grave," then, with its preoccupation with viewing and re-viewing and its challenging opening address to "Man" has seemed to me a compelling example of a modern woman writer's re-vision. Moore here is not only a meticulous observer of the natural seascape, but also a critical observer of and wily respondent to the male-dominated poetic tradition.

Along with other admirers of Moore's work such as Bonnie Costello and Alicia Ostriker, I believe that her poetry, traditionally "feminine" in many of its strategies, is far more cannily subversive of inherited values than either early, and predominantly male, criticism or most of the more recent feminist criticism has acknowledged. Male critics have tended to write of Moore in a manner which displays affection, even genuine admiration, tinged with condescension. One thinks, for example, of T. S. Eliot's 1923 pronouncement: "And there is one final, ‘magnificent' compliment: Miss Moore's poetry is as 'feminine' as Christina Rossetti's, one never forgets that it is written by a woman; but with both one never thinks of this as anything but a positive virtue [my emphasis]" (51). (One enjoys imagining Eliot's response to a similarly telling "but" in a high-handed sentence comparing his poetry to Donne's--both there judged as markedly, but surprisingly tolerably, "masculine.") Then there are (as just a small selection) Gorham Munson's Marianne Moore, a "minor poet" of "idiosyncratic behavior" (92); John Unterecker's "Mistress of quirks and oddities" (v); and Roy Harvey Pearce's "lady-like" poet, possessed of a "fussy modesty" (366). We can perhaps guess what these critics are responding to in Moore's work, but their tone is paternalistically dismissive. Their Marianne Moore seems a bizarre, oxymoronic figure, somehow significantly trivial--a sort of Munchkin Queen of poetry. They seem to be discussing a body of work which they do not, at bottom, take seriously.

Eagerly one turns to feminist critics for an alternate, and more regardful, view, only to encounter the timid, "limited" and "spinsterly" Marianne Moore of Suzanne Juhasz's criticism (33-56), the "maidenly" and "discreet" Moore of Adrienne Rich's (39). There is understandable urgency behind these dissatisfactions: those who are looking for a model of unabashed autobiographical revelation, for a call to political action, or for unambiguous passion and anger will not find them in this poet's work. But Marianne Moore has (as one might expect of such a resolutely individual and productive writer) another, bolder side. Beneath surface polish and politesse, she is also radical and revisionary. In "A Grave," we see both the reactionary and the revolutionary at work--and returning to the history of this early Modernist poet attentive to the poet's persistently double nature, we can retrieve some of what Alicia Ostriker has called Moore's "challenge to traditional authority and the beauty of [her] alternative vision" (3).

Imagine a well-educated American woman sitting down early in this century to write a poem about the sea. Naturally, she is not unaware of a European tradition of poetry on this subject stretching back to Homer; naturally, she wishes to make her own contribution, to write a poem distinguished from all that has come before. She sits down and puts pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and composes the following six-line stanza:

The cypresses of experience dead, yet indestructible by circumstance; 

                                        shivering and stony in the water; not green 

        But white, surrounding all that is loathsome: inanimate 

Scavengers guarding permanent garbage: watched over by sharks

                                                                    which cruise between

Them--petrine like death yet so petrine as patient;

                                                                    everything everywhere

Yet nothing, because nowhere; infinity defined at last, still 

                                                                        infinity because there 

        Where nothing is.

Now imagine a student facing this turbid extended sentence fragment on her M.A. comprehensive exam: what is going on in this passage, and to whom would you attribute it? The unlucky student would, I think, be hard put to say. She might associate the hypotaxis, terms of negation, and strange stanzaic shape with Moore. The lines, she might notice, assertively too long for a standard page, are tucked as often happens with Moore's poems. Given only this stanza--one of four in the earliest extant draft--she could only guess that it is, in fact, oddly shaped because characteristically syllabic (the unlikely count per line being 32, 14, 19, 19, 23, and 4). The verse displays Moore's enduringly nervous relation to rhyme (two true rhymes, an unrhymed second line, and a sibilant last line which, unknown to the student, is delicately echoed by a final, hissing half-rhyme in each subsequent stanza). But (and here a wrench is thrown into our hypothetical student's Moore-works) the poet preserves the traditional capitalization at line beginnings. And (as far more serious disqualifications) what an uncharacteristic collocation of abstractions, what un-Mooreish stasis and morbidity. Here we leave the bemused student at her desk and return to Marianne Moore at hers.

Confronted with her self-assigned task, Moore has written lines peculiarly enervated and enervating. They suggest not only immobility in the marine setting, but also a poet nearly immobilized by inherited notions. The writer's mind, one might almost say, is a Sargasso Sea. We would be wrong to exclaim "there is nothing! In the whole and all,/Nothing that's quite your own"--but rather than consciously deploying reference and quotation as in so many of her poems, Moore here seems quite uncharacteristically freighted with received ideas.

Laurence Stapleton observes that this first version of "A Gravel," entitled "A Graveyard in the Middle of the Sea," is "clearly indebted to Poe's ‘City in the Sea’" (20). That poem, famous (or infamous) for the line, "the viol, the violet, and the vine," overindulges in morbidity the way some people over indulge in chocolate:

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne

In a strange city lying alone

Far down within the dim West

Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best 

Have gone to their eternal rest.

There shrines and palaces and towers 

(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!) 

Resemble nothing that is ours.

. . . . .

There open fanes and gaping graves

Yawn level with the luminous waves!

Now this verse clearly resembles nothing that is Moore's. Yet we do hear in her stanza uncharacteristically heavy alliteration ( "guarding permanent garbage," "not so petrine as patient"); we register some variety of atmospheric moroseness. These are, as she sits down to write, part of the tug backwards, part of her cargo. So are Matthew Arnold and his most famous sea poem. Writing out of the first World War in which her Presbyterian minister brother served as a chaplain in the navy, Moore might well recall Arnold's "ignorant armies" and his mournful response; see to a withdrawing "Sea of Faith." Here she labors under the self-conscious burden of an Arnoldian "serious subject" and cultural critique, taking pains to portray a sea full of "loathsome" refuse and amoral scavengers. In another poem obsessed with decay--moral and physical--and with the sea, a contemporary of Moore's envisions his persona as a scavenger, "a pair of ragged claws/scuttling across the floors of silent seas." There is no way of knowing whether Moore had read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (first published in 1917) before drafting her stanza--but, written at the same moment in literary history, her lines convey a similar sense of physical revulsion and even exhibit verbal "visions and revisions" in the form of an Eliotic stutter ("petrine"/"petrine," "infinity"/"infinity," "nothing"/"nothing").

My point here is not that Marianne Moore was slavishly imitating these particular poets nor, of course, that literary influences are necessarily debilitating, but that in this first stanza an agglomeration of post-Romantic male voices is entrammeling rather than enabling. Moore jettisoned the freight and began again with what had been originally her second stanza:

Man looking into the sea, taking the view from those

        who have as much

right to it as you have to it yourself, it is human na-

ture to stand in the middle of a thing....

She then sent the new version called "The Graveyard" (which I am assuming is essentially the same as the poem resurrected and printed in Milan in 1932) to Ezra Pound, the man who stood in the middle of the Modernist movement in poetry.

Pound's answer of December 16, 1918, and Moore's prompt reply are chiefly interesting for their implications about these writers' relations to literary authority. Pound, of course, simply assumes it. Moore displays some of that female anxiety about it which Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss--but she also displays remarkable independence and self-assurance. Obviously impressed and fascinated by her work, Pound compliments Moore ("your stuff holds my eye") and expresses thankfulness (or an unconscious competitive wish) for her eschewal of poetic volubility:

Thank God, I think you can be trusted not to pour out a flood (in the manner of dear Amy and poor old Masters) (143).

Moore responds reassuringly, with a statement which--to borrow her own characteristic double negative--we might now see as not altogether un-false:

I grow less and less desirous of being published, produce less and have a strong feeling for letting alone what little I produce. (Tomlinson 12)

Pound authoritatively suggests the omission of conventional capitalization, and Moore, seeing his point ("To capitalize the first word of every line, is rather slavish") substitutes small letters. But when, finding her syllabic measure attractive, Pound appropriately inquires "whether my beginnings had anything to do with yr. metric," Moore refuses the role of favorite female student: "The resemblance of my progress to your beginnings is an accident so far as I can see." And when he proposes inverting the order of the last words in her poem from "neither with volition nor consciousness" to "neither with consciousness nor volition, " she politely replies, "I am willing to make the change, though I prefer the original order"--but privately sticks to her guns, maintaining original order in both the Dial revision and later in Observations. Moore's use of the nouns "volition" and "consciousness" and her decision about their arrangement suggest, as I hope to show, a great deal about her re-vision of the sea as an image and of Romanticism as a literary influence.

In Women Writers and Poetic Identity, Margaret Homans has delineated the particular problematics of the Romantic literary inheritance for women readers and writers:

In Romantic poetry the self and the imagination are primary. During and after the Romantic period it was difficult for women who aspired to become poets to share in this tradition, not for constitutional reasons but for reasons that women readers found within the literature itself. Where the masculine self dominates and internalizes otherness, that other is frequently defined as feminine, whether she is nature, the representation of a human woman, or some phantom of desire. To be for so long the other and the object made it difficult for nineteenth-century women [and, as Homans also suggests, for twentieth-century women as well] to have their own subjectivity. (12)

According to Homans' formulation, woman is the silent "other" of male-dominated Romantic poetry. Subject to male authority, she becomes dissociated from her own subjectivity. As Rodolfo says of Mimi (who loves him for it), and as William "oft" suggests in another genre and language about his adored and adoring sister Dorothy, "Son un poeta, ma essa poesia." Mimi lies still and pale, quietly dying of consumption while Rodolfo sings the famous final bars of La Bohéme. Dorothy Wordsworth's beautiful and self-effacing private journals will always and understandably be dusted off and checked out of the library by the occasional reader, while her brother's poems circulate in multiple editions. Well-versed in the verses of singing men who seem to love her best when she is silent (or unpublished), or dead, how does the aspiring female writer come to terms with her inheritance? How does she distinguish herself from beautiful but mute Nature and so avoid the fate of Lucy, memorialized in William Wordsworth's simultaneously consoling and terrifying elegy?

No motion has she now, no force;

    She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,

    With rocks, and stones, and trees.

In the final version of "A Grave," Marianne Moore adapts the terms--the dominant figures or tropes--of her Romantic inheritance in order to come to terms with it, quite literally "coming to terms" by arriving at her own powerful poetic language. Keeping in mind the admittedly simplified but nevertheless useful description of Romanticism that I have plucked from Homans' text, we can see Moore's completed poem as both a continuation of that tradition and a devastating commentary upon it. Wordsworth, as we have seen, emphasizes the dead Lucy's lack of volition ("No motion has she now, no force") and of consciousness ("She neither hears nor sees"). This double lack is, as Homans suggests, the horrible but ideal female state in Romantic poetry. Within this particular poetic world, a powerful female acting under her own volition, such as Keats' Belle Dame or Coleridge's serpentine Geraldine, appears as a treacherous phantom: she "effeminizes" men by seducing them into unconsciousness and tractability. Moore adopts the Romantic poet's obsession with consciousness and unconsciousness, willfulness and will-lessness, only to redistribute these traits unconventionally among Man, Woman, Nature, and Poet--and the specific strategy of her poem is radical ambiguity.

Consider, for example, the intricacy of Moore's design on the initial monosyllable:

Man looking into the sea,

taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you 

                                                                have to it yourself, 

it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing.

The word "Man" here refers in part to a particular man on a particular day, as Moore's own commentary on this poem makes clear:

As for "A Grave," it has a significance apart from the literal origin, which was a man who placed himself between my mother and me, and the surf we were watching from the middle ledge of rocks on Monhegan Island after the storm. ("Don't be annoyed," my mother said. "It is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing." (Costello 1981, 62)

"Man" also contributes to our sense of "a significance apart from the literal origin" by standing for mankind or humankind--a meaning that Mrs. Moore's quoted remark about "human nature" bolsters. But "Man" of course also denotes gender, the opposite of Woman--and this third sense is reinforced by the sexual suggestion of "stand in the middle of a thing," by our knowledge of the occurrence prompting the poem (a man blocking the view of two women), and by our awareness of the poem's complex history of revision. In the two extant early drafts, the noun "people" appears mid-poem:

        ... people now at their best, whose clothes are a

Testimony to the fact, row across them [across the bodies of dead


        the blades of the oars moving to-

Gether like the feet of water spiders as if there were no such 


        as death:


But in the Dial revision and the final version, the operative term has changed:

men lower nets, unconscious of the fact that they are desecrating a


and row quickly away--the blades of the oars

moving together like the feet of water spiders as if there were

                no such thing as death. [my emphasis]


The action of the completed poem, then, takes us from "Man," who annoyingly asserts his volition, to "men" who act obliviously or unconsciously, and finally to the bodies of the drowned, whom we are encouraged by Moore's deployment of nouns to see as drowned men, possessed of neither "volition nor consciousness." Moore thus reverses a convention of Romantic poetry by relegating Man (who becomes merely one of the "dropped things" in her ocean) to the characteristically feminine role of objectified and disempowered "other." If her artfully ambiguous poem may be read as a Modernist memento mori addressed to humankind, it may also be read as a woman writer's canny rejoinder to the male-dominated tradition--her revision of the male poet's gendered agenda. Moore's stately and mysterious sea has a strong retributive undertow.

Moore effects her revisionary reversal by exploiting another Romantic trope, the Belle Dame Sans Merci. In Keats' ballad of that name the knight, having been seduced by a mysterious lady, wakes from a ghastly dream drained of vitality "On the cold hill side." The strange lady with "wild wild eyes" whom the knight has met "in the meads" is--like the powerfully perverse Geraldine "with serpent's eyes" who springs from an old oak tree in Coleridge's "Christabel," or like The Nightmare LIFE-IN-DEATH in his "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"--a phantom woman associated with destructive rather than nurturing Nature. As figures of unchecked female volition, Keats' Belle Dame and her Coleridgean counterparts are wily, ghostly, weirdly beautiful, and treacherous. In "A Grave," Moore encourages us to see the sea as another such fatal femme. Possessed of a similarly sinister ocular intensity, the sea is "quick to return a rapacious look"; endowed with a similarly ensnaring allure, she is "beautiful under networks of foam."

But while the Romantic poet's Belle Dame Sans Merci is always nefarius and inimical, Moore's re-figuring of this figure remains equivocal. Her ocean/grave represents death, humanity's common enemy, and yet her sea as re-former of inherited poetic patterns acts too as Nature's and Woman's ally. The heavy sibilance throughout Moore's poem (in all versions) reminds us of Satan, of the serpentine and treacherous ladies of Romantic poetry, of the actual foaming ocean that advances and retreats over the shingle of land, and of mortality which menaces and circumscribes our lives. But with her insistent sound-play--e.g., "you cannot stand in the middle of this"; "repression. . . is not the most obvious characteristic of the sea"; "their bones have not lasted"--Moore also hisses back at Man, and at the arrogant male poet in particular, who arrogates to himself dominion, who is always trying "to stand in the middle of a thing." By choosing to conclude her poem with the word "consciousness," Moore reserves that climactic position for the quality of attentiveness to self and to "other" which is her highest aesthetic and moral value, while giving her sea (as retributive force) the last word, the last hiss." How like Ezra Pound, that brilliant celebrant of male will, not to have acknowledged the significance of her word order (although the early stanzaic version that he received underlines its structural importance); how like him to have proposed that she conclude instead with "volition."

If Moore exploits the traditional association of Woman and Nature, she also calls that time-honored trope--together with other literary complacencies--into question. Her sea, whose "wrinkles progress among themselves in a phalanx--/beautiful under networks of foam," partakes of masculine militarism as well as feminine seduction. With these quick contradictory comparisons, Moore unsettles our assumptions about the nature of Nature, while she deviously turns the Romantic poet's favorite tool against him. Asserting his Imagination through metaphor, the Romantic poet (ranging over mountains, lakes, antique lands) in a sense colonizes the world--appropriating "otherness" and subduing it to his own purposes. By metaphorically equipping her ocean (as armed Roman legion, as negligeed temptress) and pitting it against Man, Moore turns the tables on the presumptuous male poet--subjecting him to his own "subject," and so subtly mocking his delusion of dominion, of imaginative sway.

In her own use of metaphor, Moore eschews poetic imperialism. At times, as we have just seen, she employs metaphor to expose the pathetic fallaciousness of the Romantic poet's pretension. At other times, she offers an alternative form of analogizing:

The firs stand in procession, each with an emerald turkey foot

                                                                        at the top ...


the birds swim through the air at top speed, emitting catcalls as



In these lines, Moore juxtaposes rather conventional anthropomorphic associations (firs in procession, birds emitting catcalls) with associations of a different order. With her startling, stacked-up comparisons of natural creatures or objects to other natural creatures or objects (firs/emeralds/turkey feet; birds/fish/cats), Moore lets the fresh air of irrepressible "otherness" into her poem--evoking what Bonnie Costello has termed "the splendid independence of nature from our conceptual purposes" (1981, 64). Almost hallucinatory in their specificity, her fir trees (like some new brand of Christmas tree with emerald turkey-foot stars) stand in strange self-sufficiency--emblems of Nature crowned only by Nature.

Moore shares with the Romantic poet a passion for natural description, but her own descriptive procedures upset inherited notions about the relation of the Poet to Nature--making us question which is the collector (she calls the sea "a collector") and which is the collected, which is central and which peripheral. Part of her procedure is to dispose of conventional (post-centered) notions about dispositio, about arrangement. The eccentric image of fir trees, for example, comes directly after the first appearance of the word "grave," and darts peculiarly away from the gravity of the meditative situation. After the second appearance of "grave" halfway through the poem, we come across oared boats, figured as water spiders, that "row quickly away"; and then, immediately following the single mention of "death, we meet with Moore's elaborately metaphoric "wrinkles" or waves. Collectively, these quick turns from frightening mass to fanciful minutiae--and from depth back to surface--may be seen as evidence of Moore's psychological skittishness, of that impulse to "row quickly away" from a disturbing and submerged subject which we sense in other poems such as "Marriage" or "The Fish." But these imagistic dartings or digressions also signal Moore's extreme self-consciousness about poetic egocentricity. They show how the world resists any neat poetic plan, such as the plan to portray the sea metaphorically as merely "a well-excavated grave"; and they show Moore once again (to borrow Costello's phrase) "resisting the mind's impulse to circumscribe experience" (1980, 28).

Although Moore cannot entirely resist that impulse (since every poem in some way draws its circle around a bit of experience), it is crucial to her project that she acknowledge the world's independence from the human compulsion to order--from poems, for instance, or from prayers:

Let who will pray for fair weather to bring him home 

Aristagoras who is buried here. The sea is the sea.


These lines, which Moore copied in her notebook from the Greek Anthology long before she began work on "A Grave," remind us of that ocean which exists apart from, but not merely peripheral to, human concerns. The poet cannot stand in the middle of it, or circumscribe it (write his--or her--way around it): "The sea is the sea."

This much re-vised early poem of Moore's feels different from later ambitious poems (e.g., "Marriage," "An Octopus," "The Jerboa," "The Pangolin") partly because it feels more traditional: in its medium length, in the stateliness of its rhythm and the comparative ease of its syntactic unfolding; in the relative steadiness of its meditative gaze. It lacks the satiric bite of early short pieces, such as "To a Steam Roller" and "Pedantic Literalist," the capaciousness and more radical experimentalism of a verbal collage like "Marriage." But it does convey, in spite of its elaborate ambiguities, an immediate sense of emotional force and rhetorical cohesion, of-a-pieceness--which may be why Moore's younger friend, Elizabeth Bishop (who found her own ways to extend as well as subvert the Romantic tradition) chose this poem to read as part of her 1977 talk for The Academy of American Poets on Influences.

"A Grave" offered Bishop, as it offers us, an example of how a woman well-versed in the literary tradition, rather than capitulating to the convention of female silence, can wield that tradition and write her own eloquent verses. Adapting the Romantic poet's own tactics and tropes, Marianne Moore found a way to chasten his imaginative egocentricity, replacing his "I-ness" with her less appropriative, minutely observant eye. And she did this even as she extended early Modernist Imagism with moral and meditative substance. The history of her work on this pivotal poem shows her to be both a reactionary writer (re-activating inherited literary configurations) and a revolutionary one (turning and twisting the male-dominated tradition, just as her ocean causes "dropped things" to "turn and twist"). A grave is a place where dead things are put to rest, but Moore's "A Grave" is a locus of vital and challenging re-vision.

From Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Ed. Patricia Willis. Copyright © 1990 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission. Please consult the original book for footnotes and sources for this essay.

Jeredith Merrin: On "The Pangolin"

In her poems about amphibious creatures (these include the salamander, the chameleon, the dragon, and the basilisk), Moore once again elaborates on a physical trait that has for her the same symbolic value it has for Browne, who writes in hisReligio:

We are onely that amphibious piece between a corporall and spirituall essence, that middle frame that linkes those two together, and makes good the method of God and nature.... thus is man that great and true Amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live not onely like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds: for though there bee but one [world] to the sense, there are two to reason; the one visible; the other invisible.

For Moore, who reminds us in a 1965 Harper's Bazaar piece that "amphi" means "both," amphibiousness becomes a metaphor for man's--and in "The Pangolin," of course, she follows Browne in using that noun generically--uniquely double position in creation. Because he is a creature like others, man inhabits the visible world with its "divers elements"; because he is the rational creature, he also inhabits that other, invisible world. just as she evokes the human capacity for spiritual endurance by describing erect objects or animals, Moore at times evokes humankind's dual nature by describing amphibious animals.

From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.

Jeredith Merrin: On "Crusoe in England"

Lacking the belief that there is a divine dispensation with which her own disposition might finally harmonize, she exposes irresolvable psychological conflicts, dubieties, gaps or ironies. In her longest and most ambitious poem, "Crusoe in England," for example, she evokes the uneasy relationship between self and other, delineating this familiar conflict in complicated terms. In one way, the objective world is Crusoe's island on which he is a sort of Adam, ascribing meanings and names. In another way, the volcanic island itself (meager and sustaining, boring and interesting, resented and cherished) becomes the inner, subjective world of the "single human soul," and England, to which Crusoe returns, becomes the other world, out there. Among other things, this poem is about social and antisocial impulses--those forces of affiliation and autonomy that clashed in "In the Waiting Room." On his island, "a sort of cloud-dump" where there is just "one kind of everything," Crusoe does not feel a Wordsworthian "bliss of solitude." On the one hand, he dreams "of food/and love," and when Friday finally arrives (still "one kind," one gender), he wishes for sexual union and procreation:

Friday was nice. Friday was nice, and we were friends. If only he had been a woman! I wanted to propagate my kind, and so did he, I think, poor boy.

On the other hand, Crusoe has dreams that suggest violent, antisocial impulses and anxiety about generation, endless reproduction:

            ... But then I'd dream of things like slitting a baby's throat, mistaking it for a baby goat. I'd have nightmares of other islands stretching away from mine, infinities of islands, islands spawning islands, like frogs' eggs turning into polliwogs of islands ...

(The passage, of course, evokes the anxieties and fatigues of artistic as well as biological generation.) Here and elsewhere in her poetry, Bishop reinforces complexity of view by using the psychoanalytically aware trick of sound association to effect a sort of dreamlike double take: "baby's throat . . . baby goat."

From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.

Jeredith Merrin: On "The Fish"


Throughout her work, she subverts the conventional Romantic trope of world-as-woman by insisting upon the indeterminate nature of nature--now female, now male, now ungendered other. And, as we might expect, Bishop is most subversive at her most Wordsworthian moments. In "The Fish," for example--strikingly Wordsworthian in its evocation of almost religious awe and joy in the presence of embodied nature--Bishop refigures the usual Romantic figure, making us see nature as a "He," a sort of finny five-star general:

[. . . .]

But even as she develops her own alternative figure, Bishop holds it up to question. She introduces this fiercely independent, masculine version of the fish with a contrasting version--domestic, and (as a result of the poet's sly adaptation of the timeworn girls-as-flowers trope) suggestive of the feminine:

[. . . .]

Determinedly "unpoetic" in her prosy rhythms, her patient agglomeration of seemingly random details and associations, Bishop here avoids poetic presumption, subjective sway. She acknowledges the tenuous relation of figurative language to reality with the tentativeness of simile ("Like medals"; "shapes like full-blown roses"; "like a big peony"). Humorously, she undercuts her own anthropomorphism ("--if you could call it a lip—"). And with a pile-up of arresting particulars, she tips the scale toward quizzical observation rather than controlling allegory.

Nevertheless, Bishop's frequently anthologized "The Fish" gradually accrues more allegorical point than most of her poems (one reason why it is a teachers' favorite). It slowly builds, as I have already suggested, toward a more Wordsworthian--more emotionally rounded, end-rhymed, and almost visionary--conclusion:

[. . . .]

Bishop avoids Wordsworth's egocentric, centripetal action by externalizing, focusing outward, as the title of her poem tells us, on "The Fish." Whereas Wordsworth internalizes and subsumes a naturalized human being (the almost moss-covered leech-gatherer), Bishop attends to a separate, natural creature: first by "catching" the fish both literally and figuratively (by hooking it and simultaneously "capturing" it with self-conscious anthropomorphic comparisons), and then by letting the fish--together with any suggestion of co-optive figuration--go. Her perceptions lead not merely to imaginative conquest or introspection, but to a sense of mutual "victory" and a specific action. She saves the creature's life. The undeniably serious conclusion with its Noah's Ark-like rainbow still has about it her very quiet, and very un-Wordsworthian, touch of humor (in what is, after all, a kind of elaborate "fish story").


From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.

Jeredith Merrin: On "In the Waiting Room"

In the Waiting Room," for example, carries simplicity of language to its extreme in an extremely unnerving situation. Very carefully, in the most prosaic phrases, times and places are labelled: "In Worcester, Massachusetts"; "I said to myself. three days/and you'll be seven years old"; "it was still the fifth/of February, 1918." In one way, the language of this poem seems to suggest that one can make the terrifying and strange normal and orderly by putting ordinary words in ordinary places. In another way, it suggests (by its halting, anxious flatness and its flashes of menacing imagery) that just beneath the individual attempt at rational arrangement or domestication is intractable otherness, ready to erupt like the volcano pictured in the dentist's office copy of the National Geographic. The child in the waiting room appears orphaned (no mother or father enters the picture, only her "foolish aunt"), and this makes her attempt to domesticate the strange particularly poignant--even more so when we remember that Elizabeth Bishop herself was brought up not by her parents but by an assortment of relations. The grave and literate child in this poem, like the oddly whimsical and studiously plainspoken adult in "Crusoe in England," is obviously an autobiographical figure. And "The War" mentioned at the end of "In the Waiting Room" evokes Bishop's embattled poetic stance, just as Crusoe's fashioning of makeshift entertainments and tools suggests her poetic fashioning. [. . .] [T]he almost-seven-year-old Elizabeth in "In the Waiting Room" experiences not a Wordsworthian sense of cosmic embrace, but rather the alternating terrors of a centripetal force that squashes her together with other people (her aunt, whose scream "from inside" seems to be her own, the woman in the National Geographic Magazine with "awful hanging breasts") along with a centrifugal force that threatens to spin her off "into cold, blue-black space." As the emphasized name later in the poem makes clear, the precocious female minor in "In the Waiting Room"--with her sensitivity to language and interest in reading, her acute powers of observation and her anxiety about growing up a woman--is a prefiguration of the adult poet or "minor female Wordsworth." Elizabeth Bishop looks back in this poem (in what will be her final book) on her anxious and overwhelmed child self with still-fresh empathy, but with the assurance and control of the accomplished artist.

From An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Jeredith Merrin.