Pamela White Hadas: On "The Pangolin"

A poem that deserves special attention as an expression of style and being is "The Pangolin." The pangolin is "the night miniature artist engineer," "Leonardo Da Vinci's replica." The invocation of Leonardo is important in terms of Marianne Moore's work in general. Toward the end of her career she devoted two poems to Leonardo—one a description of his picture of St. Jerome and the lion, which asserts the necessity of communion between beast and saint, between protective animal and writer-artist; and the other, about Leonardo himself, called "An Expedient—Leonardo Da Vinci's—and a Query," the query being Leonardo's own alleged last words, "Tell me if anything at all has been done?" If Leonardo, as this poem tells us, "peerless, venerated by all . . . succumbed to dejection," what about Marianne Moore's "night miniature artist engineer," his "replica"? What does the pangolin, and what does the pangolin-poet, do to keep from "capsizing in disenheartenment?"

First of all, he trusts his artichoke-like armor and his explorative nature. The pangolin is Da Vinci's replica because in Marianne Moore's poem he is capable of, or representative of, both natural and supernatural wonder. He is a wonder. He is a master of dream "who endures exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night,"

returning before sunrise; stepping in the moonlight, 

    on the moonlight peculiarly, that the outside 

        edges of his hands may bear the weight and save the claws

 

    for digging.

He is both in the moonlight and on it; he has control. The outside of his "hands" bear the weight of his progress, while the inside, the claws that are aggressive, are saved for work in depth. He has a scientist's and an artist's intuitions for the instrumentality of his own body. The artist explores within the moonlight; the scientist-engineer keeps on top of it. The pangolin may be on unfamiliar ground, but knows what he needs to find there; he has ways of dealing with both the unfamiliarity and the need.

He hisses at danger, he does not fight. His is a sound of moral disapproval; his technique is humble retreat. He is found "serpentined" about a tree, with the healthy and bodily-expressive consciousness of evil that rightly belongs to a night artist.

The pangolin's armor is partly the armor of his art, his grace. It is, like the "thin glass shell" of the paper nautilus, fragile though hard, like a "wrought-iron vine." He is covered, delicately enough, with "flattened sword- / edged leafpoints"; compact, he is like a "furled fringed frill" on the hat-brim of an iron bust. But his grace is more than that of the wrought-iron artwork that he resembles. "To explain grace requires / a curious hand," the poet says. "Grace" is more than a gift for precision and an appropriateness of movement. To explain grace, or as background to such an explanation, Marianne Moore asks a curious question.

[Hadas here quotes lines 62-73]

It is difficult to see exactly what Marianne Moore is trying to say here, and what its relationship to the pangolin is. The statement-question itself is highly armored in stone and complexity, yet we may try to state the meaning more clearly for ourselves, thus: If the world, or grace, is not eternal, why would artist-monks work to invent temporal meanings and applications of grace? The answer is that the world and its consequent "grace" is eternal, and the way to eternal grace is to be found through its temporal expressions—kindness, manners, use of art. If eternal grace could not be found through temporal grace, the monks would not have bothered to think of specific applications of it that could be adopted by ordinary men. The pangolin's kind of grace, natural animal grace as opposed to the supernatural grace that monks understand, needs to be translated into ordinary human terms in order to serve a temporal and practical purpose. The beast and saint, both needing translation from habitats of mystery into clearings of action, have a rare wisdom about the world deserving of that translation.

In the image of the artist-monks in their cold stone-decorated retreat (the "gathered to rest" suggesting death and eternity), one feels the tension between inside and outside, between death and life, between the intuition of eternity and the need for a practicality that can only be temporal and external. The same dichotomy is expressed by the pangolin's wrought-iron and stone-swallowing body, which is probably what suggested the image of the church with its retreating souls and strange gargoyles. We also find in this image the combined presence of the artist's inspiration, that eternal thing that made him choose ingeniously to express himself in stone in the first place, and the scientific construction, the architectural technique that made the artistic expression feasible. We are back to the idea of Leonardo and his own curious hand, explaining "grace" equally through artistic inspiration and practical engineering.

The pangolin has a soul, "a meaning always missed by the externalist" ("He 'Digesteth Harde Yron'"), and a body that in its graceful practicality expresses soul. He can roll himself "into a ball that has / power to defy all effort to unroll it; strongly intailed, neat head for core, on neck not breaking off, with curled-in feet." In other words, he makes a perfect circle of himself, a defensive or a sleeping habit that is a symbol of eternity. But in motion and time he has obvious and useful appendages, unlike eternity. "The giant- pangolin- / tail, graceful tool, as prop or hand or broom or ax, tipped like / an elephant's trunk with special skin / is not lost on this ant-and-stone-swallowing uninjurable artichoke." This is a masculine counterpart to his expression of himself as a rolled-up ball, his feminine and retreating form. In his feminine form, the pangolin's "head" is inside, "on neck not breaking off"—castration impossible. When he is feeling safe enough to venture out and is on an aggressive ant-hunt, he is vigilant; at these times "the giant-pangolin- / tail . . . is not lost on [him]." We find in the image of monks and cathedral a combination of feminine and masculine, of inspiration and technique, "low stone seats" guarded by "ingenious roof supports." We find "a monk and monk and monk" (homunculi?) passively sitting or lying dead within a womb whose external expression is erect, actively thrusting at the sky and at eternity. These passive monks have slaved to provide external expressions of grace without themselves needing recourse to external action. They are in retreat as the pangolin curled-up is in retreat.

There may be no way of knowing how consciously Marianne Moore used this imagery of the circle and tail, monks and edifice, stone and living creature. But to my mind, a passion for armor is a passion to be both femininely withdrawn and protected and masculinely explorative and aggressive, to be equipped for all exigencies of mind and body. One wants to be directed outward, to conquer truth and time, to penetrate the mysteries of the world, but in this there is always the danger of being cut off suddenly, killed, castrated, silenced. On the other hand, one wants to be curled within oneself, safe and passive; but in this position there is no hope of penetrating, or of being penetrated either—there is only a self-sealed mystery. True grace may be seen as a balance between the two, a proper rhythm of alternation between external and internal, armor and soul, masculine and feminine, temporal and eternal. This the pangolin has, this the world at large has with its

sun and moon and day and night and man and beast 

    each with a splendor 

        which man in all his vileness cannot 

        set aside; each with an excellence!

This sudden outburst from the soul of "The Pangolin," the poem, the artist, comes as a surprise. It has the splendor of naturalness, of natural duality and rhythm that leaves room for epiphany and that cannot be spoiled by an unspontaneous humanity. The poem is about the particular habits and individual excellence of the pangolin, but it is also about the condition of man, as the pangolin has "certain postures of a man."

[Hadas here quotes lines 77-81, 87-93]

How are we to fit these things together? If, as we may suspect, grace—the idea of it, or the curious explanation of it—is at the center of the poem, at the eternal center between the alternations of sun and moon, day and night, man and beast, then grace is also the concept which informs these sudden and random observations. Given temporality ("beneath sun and moon") man slaves (as the monks slaved) to choose the best way to act, and acting, as we have seen, is the only way of externalizing the eternal-internal concept of grace. So man writes, an activity peculiar to him; it is his own excellence and most graceful endowment, as ant- and stone-swallowing is to the pangolin, and thus he expresses his choice. His writing is obscurely funny, but moral; he cannot be damned for his intentions (of not liking to be like or to like some objectionable likeness of his). His unconscious wit, certainly a form of grace, allows him to discover coincident humor in an erroneously written error.

The "he" in the last stanza of the poem may seem ambiguous, but I believe it refers to man alone, albeit, a pangolin-modeled one. The pangolin in his night foragings and dependence on moonlight may be seen as the night-soul that corresponds to man's day-soul. The pangolin may be regarded as the poet's dream—a curious one, curious enough for any bestiary—combining beast, moon, and night, with religious and sexual imagery. This energy is carried over into the "alternating blaze" of day, with its own wit, fear, and strength in adversity.

[Hadas here quotes lines 99-111]

This is a rare combination of humor and religious awe. We have on one hand the lowly textbook definition of "mammal"—one kind of link between pangolin and man which, purely scientific, cannot be overlooked. We have this mammal's personal attitude toward life, into which he goes "cowering forth " with considerable apprehension, "the prey of fear." Each has an armor and each has an excellence, but each has a fear of curtailment also. Each must be able to "intail" himself strongly, curl into a ball or become pure soul, enlightened alternately by the eternal spheres of moon and sun. It is not "funny" but deeply humorous, this relation of low technique with such high aspiration, lowly mammal with man.

"The Pangolin" may not be a perfectly realized poem. It does not succeed in avoiding a self-indulgent obscurity (fallacy of imitative form?), yet it is magnificent in its ambition to "explain" grace. The poem tells a story of how soul comes into the world, how it comes "cowering forth" to be born, and also how it is borne once it has arrived. The pangolin is at home in a "nest / of rocks closed with earth from inside, which he can thus darken"; he is born from this womb like place into the moonlight where he expresses the strangest of earthly beings. He must be uncurled and brought out from his nest to express his particular style of life and his life-given grace. The monk-artists also have made a dark nest for themselves from which their ideas for the outward expressions of grace in men's lives are born. Man's soul is born from such dark, cold, and eternal places. He is a decision-maker by daylight, a technician, an artist with a sense of humor awaiting the sun, the expression of his soul. In "Sun" Marianne Moore says to the sun, "You are not male or female, but a plan / deep-set within the heart of man"; and she asks the sun to "be wound in a device of Moorish gorgeousness." "The Pangolin" is remarkable for its attention to miniature engineering techniques, to the machine-like body, in short, to a highly specialized individuality of both poem and animal. At the same time the poem proposes to be about the soul and eternity. One grows out of the other; they grow together, as beast and man in "Leonardo Da Vinci's" where "astronomy / or pale paint makes the golden pair in Leonardo Da Vinci's sketch seem / sun-dyed. Blaze on, picture, saint, beast." Beast and man, male and female, light and dark, science and soul—all converge and conspire against permanent dejection. This is the answer to Leonardo's query "has anything at all been done?" The pangolin is wound in devices, not of gorgeousness exactly, but in devices that are Moorish with wit and brilliance of analogy. He expresses his duality as "night miniature artist engineer"; he is a communication of self. This is what has been done, and all that can be done.

From Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Copyright © 1977 by Syracuse University Press.

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Title Pamela White Hadas: On "The Pangolin" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Pamela White Hadas Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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