Jeanne Heuving: On "No Swan So Fine"

In Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," and Moore's "No Swan So Fine," the poetic speakers retain the same relation to others and otherness as in the poets' previous poems. However, in these poems the others are the visual and verbal embodiment of a culture which is passing and changing. Indeed, Prufrock and Mauberly address the problem of identity in a culture which no longer reflects them. But whereas in the "Portraits" the male speakers establish at least a provisional identity through their others, their femmes and ladies, in these later poems their own centrality in a culture with which they are out of step haunts them in the spectre of men they would rather not be. Although they blame the age's "tawdry cheapness" and "one night cheap hotels," they also intimate social and psychological changes to which they cannot adequately respond, They cannot "forge Achaia" or even "force the moment to its crisis." Conversely, in Moore's "No Swan So Fine," her speaker, who does not seek to be reflected by the larger culture, is able both to mourn the passing culture represented by the "still waters of Versailles" and to celebrate the new order in her vision of the swan at the end of the poem: "at ease and tall. The king is dead." Indeed, by concluding her poem with the celebratory "The king is dead," Moore establishes a historical cause for her non-specular seeing and for the "elsewhere" of her vision. . . .

In Moore's "No Swan So Fine," there is no central speaker who experiences diminishment or aggrandizement because she is or is not reflected by her culture or by its others. Of her china swan Moore has no cause to remark, as does Pound in "Mauberly," "The glow of porcelain / Brought no reforming sense / To his perception / Of the social inconsequence," since for Moore consciousness and the objects of her contemplation neither oppose nor reflect each other. Indeed, "No Swan So Fine" focuses on those social and power relations which determine consciousness and being. The "gondoliering" swan in the first stanza who wears a collar "to show whose bird it was" is replaced by the swan in the second stanza which "perches," "at ease and tall," now that the "king is dead." Certainly, one of the achievements of the poem is the way it moves so assuredly and convincingly from an elegiac vision of a passing Versailles, to a mournful and somewhat comic depiction of a captive swan, and then to a healthful and life-giving embodiment of a swan in a "kingless" country . . . .

How Moore invokes three very different visions in such a short poem is remarkable, While the speaker's stance of moving through and across visions without worrying about her identification or lack of identification with them allows for this change, it is achieved by delicate shifts in imagery and language which maintain similarities while interjecting differences. The initial, distilled vision of absence and dying brought forth in "'No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles'" is replicated in the vision of the swan, only the vision is of a less absolute absence and death. As part of the passing elegance of Versailles, the swan is to be mourned, but, as a bird who wears a "toothed gold / collar on to show whose bird it was," it also seems mournful. By replicating her syntax, "No Swan So Fine," "'No water so still . . .'" and "No swan ... so fine," Moore reproduces the mirroring effects of the still waters, intoning the swan with the same majesty with which she refers to Versailles. However, by shifting her vision from something to be mourned to something that is itself mournful, she introduces a slight note of comedy into this tragic scene. The sound relations of soft consonants and open vowels convey aurally the swan's limp and pathetic "look askance" and "gondoliering legs." Yet the effect is also one of opening into a sense of tragic emptiness and loss, conveyed by both Versailles and the captive swan.

However, while Moore presents a dying Versailles to be mourned, she also plants the seeds for the next stanza: part of what is to be mourned is the swan's captivity. In the second stanza, the harder consonants and the multi-syllabic words convey a renewed vigor as the swan, a Venus or a phoenix, seems to rise up from "the branching foam / of polished sculptured / flowers." Indeed, the first stanza would seem in retrospect to be a softening, romanticizing mirror for the actual present artifact in the second stanza. The "miscellany" of strange things--"tree of cockscomb / tinted buttons, dahlias, [and] seaurchins"--are the "everlastings," and not the culture, which gave rise to them. Moore's very invention of the word "everlastings" conveys the changed vision, from a Versailles which would be seen as a symbol of eternal qualities to an existence in which such lofty qualities are "noun-ized" into particular, literal manifestations.

By not attempting to establish her authority through cultural mirrors, Moore has moved assuredly through changing visions--visions which locate the cause for their own decentered consciousness, "The king is dead." In many ways, Moore attains the kind of seeing that Pound is attempting to effect in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" That she succeeds where he fails may well be because her speaker is not attempting to achieve a conclusive or even a provisional identity through the objects of her contemplation. The poem's subtle but absolute execution allows for an understanding of the delicate but revolutionary shift caused by the death of all internal and external kings: "that which is great because something else is small."

From Omissions are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Copyright © 1992 by Wayne State University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Jeanne Heuving: On "No Swan So Fine" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jeanne Heuving Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Omissions are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore
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