Grace Schulman: On "The Paper Nautilus"

In "The Paper Nautilus" (1940) the contemporary scene is given at the outset:

    For authorities whose hopes

are shaped by mercenaries?

    Writers entrapped by 

    teatime fame and by 

commuters' comforts?

Again, the poet opens with sentence fragments, indicating reverie, dependent for their meaning on the lines that follow:

                        Not for these

the paper nautilus

constructs her thin glass shell.

Despite the shift from worldly figures to sea animal, the poet maintains a tension between them by presenting their differences and similarities. They are antithetical because of the leap in tone, and parallel because the construction of the shell is like shaped hopes and fame's entrapments, all three being enclosures. The succession of images captures the mind's movement from idea to object in a pattern of associative leaps.

In the second stanza the poet strengthens this tension between the world and the object:

[. . . .]

The mutual freedom of eggs and shell calls back the shoddy enclosures of the authorities in the opening lines, and it intensifies the relationship between the nautilus and her eggs by recalling the interactions of authorities and mercenaries. Further, the image of sight is repeated ("watched eggs") and heightened by the pun on "see" ("succeed"), intimating the blindness of the worldly figures. The beautiful concluding lines describe the shell

    round which the arms had 

wound themselves as if they knew love 

    is the only fortress 

    strong enough to trust to.

Here it appears that love is not a trap, but a process of reciprocal protection and freedom. The primary effect of the poem, however, is the way it moves forward by referring back to previous words ("hopes" and "eats" for example), just as the mind moves on by referring back to previous thoughts. The words "fortress" and "trust" recall "the watchful / maker" of the shell that "guards it day and night." The poem is concerned with a particular mind struggling to come to terms with one of the basic issues of contemporary life: the conflict between self-interest and the interest of others. Because its medium assimilates thought, its references to specific events is oblique: the reader might, however, be reminded of certain problems of 1940, such as the Maginot Line, the system of fortifications along the eastern frontier in France, which gave false security to its builders because it was supposedly indestructible. The decision of the United States to participate in World War II can, in fact, be considered in terms of the central action of the poem: the effects of mutual freedom and the meaning of love as "the only fortress / strong enough to trust to." The central idea is, of course, more general--that of unselfish love--but it is presented in such a way as to show the mind working through to its meaning.

In confessing that she lacked a "taproot," then, Marianne Moore did not mean that she changed convictions mercurially but that she pivoted from one view to another in an honest attempt to come to terms with the complexity of human relationships. The best illustration I know is in the pattern of the poet's conversations. For example, in the spring of 1967 she expressed certain views on war in Vietnam that I thought contradictory, and she spoke for some time before clarifying the logic of her seemingly illogical argumentative progression. She said:

I try to comfort myself with the thought that they are learning better why they are fighting. But when they say, "This may go on till summer," we are doomed, I feel. I don't dare face it, actually.

Suddenly, the poet veered from our conversation about war and discussed incidents that were apparently unrelated--her ambivalence about a visitor; her divided feelings about an unethical businessman. Then she closed in on her attitude toward war, quoting the last stanza of "The Paper Nautilus":

    round which the arms had 

wound themselves as if they knew love 

    is the only fortress 

    strong enough to trust to.

Now that is as specific as I can put it. If you felt that way about any people, you couldn't fight them. You couldn't want to kill anyone. If you permit yourself to be unjust, and sanction it (the golden rule, the same thing) you would not do to others what you would have others do to you.

From Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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Criticism Overview
Title Grace Schulman: On "The Paper Nautilus" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Grace Schulman Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement
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