Margaret Holley: On "Bird-Witted"

It is against this backdrop of ambiguous beauty that Moore constructs her far more frequent positive portraits of feminine figures. One of the strongest of these is, not surprisingly, the mothers, almost all of them in animal form, who appear in Moore's poems of the thirties and forties after her early interest in the male artists as subjects had abated. Moore lived with her mother all her life until Mrs. Moore's death in 1947, and this was a mother of uncommon intellectual gifts and all-too-common possessiveness. Part of the hero's character includes this animal quality in "the feelings of a mother—a / woman or a cat" (MM 9). There is the "mouse with a / grape in its hand and its child / in its mouth" in "Camellia Sabina" (MM 17), and in "He Digesteth Harde Yron" the ostrich who

                . . . watches his chicks with 

     a maternal concentration—and he's 

been mothering the eggs

 

at night six weeks—his legs 

    their only weapon of defense. (MM 99)

This spirit of maternal protection is one place where Moore's female figures come into the full strength of their fierce devotion. One of her very few wholly narrative poems, "Bird-Witted," depicts the feeding and defending of three fledgling mockingbirds by their mother. Her enemy in the final lines, the "intellectual cautious- / ly creeping cat," can easily upstage the interesting central drama of the poem, which is the transformation of personality brought on not only by the approaching danger of the cat but also by motherhood itself:

                    . . . What delightful note 

        with rapid unexpected flute 

sounds leaping from the throat 

        of the astute 

grown bird, comes back to one from 

the remote 

                    unenergetic sun-

                    lit air before 

the brood was here? How harsh 

the bird's voice has become. (MM 106)

The mock heroic "bayonet beak" and "cruel wings" of the bird defending her brood, a seriocomic scene that Mrs. Moore could surely appreciate, are modulated to a quieter kind of strength in "The Paper Nautilus," a study of reciprocated maternal love. Within the "thin glass shell" constructed by the nautilus, the "glass ram's-horn-cradled freight / is hid but is not crushed" (MM 121). This distinction between protection and injury was clearly an important one to a poet living creatively within her mother's house. The chosen aspect of this arrangement on Miss Moore's part, to continue to read autobiographically for the moment, is the affirmation with which the poem ends, the offspring's reciprocal holding on to the shell,

            round which the arms had 

wound themselves as if they knew love 

            is the only fortress 

            strong enough to trust to. (MM 122)

Moore's embodiment of maternal behavior in animal figures not only affirms the instinctual nature of such behavior in general but also reflects (and to some extent explains) the ever-present animal kingdom of pet-names by which the Moore family members expressed their attachments to one another. In the overall picture of woman, however, maternal strength is but one outstanding example of the strong temperament, the mettle that informs Moore's portraits both of women in general and of the woman as an artist.

From "Portraits of Ladies in Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop." Sagetrieb Vol. 6, No. 3.

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Criticism Overview
Title Margaret Holley: On "Bird-Witted" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Margaret Holley Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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