Robin G. Schulze: On "An Octopus"

"An Octopus" is in part the result of two trips Moore made to the Northwest, the first in July 1922 and the second the following summer of 1923, to visit her brother Warner, a chaplain in the navy stationed at a base near Seattle. During the first of her two stays, Moore traveled with her family up to Paradise Park, a large alpine meadow on Mount Rainier that overlooks the grand eight-pronged Nisqually glacier--"an octopus of ice." Moore began compiling notes and collecting materials for "An Octopus" between her two trips to Washington, but she did not begin to craft the poem in earnest until the late summer of 1923. Moore's work on "An Octopus" thus cocoincides with both her review of Harmonium, begun and completed in November of 1923, and her study of Shelley, ongoing during both 1922 and 1923. Moore's thoughts on both Stevens and Shelley find their way into her poem. An address to a high, white, glaciercd Mount Rainier "damned for its sacrosanct remoteness", "An Octopus" constitutes Moore's response to Shelley's romantic quest for ultimate knowledge in "Mont Blanc." Like Shelley, Moore approaches her mountain in search of the intelligence or "hidden power" that may or may not order the everlasting universe of things. Probing the mountain with her mind, Moore tries her best to understand its nature and discern its agency, only to find, like both Shelley and Stevens, that attempts at stable or unifying vision are, for the poet of particulars, inherently slippery.

 

"An Octopus" begins with a difficult view of the glacier that, as Patricia Willis puts it, combines "land and sea, rock and cephalopod." As Moore's opening lines suggest, Mount Rainier, like Mont Blanc, does not easily give up its secrets:

 

[….]

 

Viewed from a distance and obscured by blowing snow, the glacier at first appears static and featureless--a "geographical blank," as Moore terms it in her notes, that supplies no ready evidence of a controlling intelligence or a connection to human concerns. Yet, Moore states that the glacier's flatness and reserve are "deceptive"; the mass of ice may seem empty, but as her opening lines suggest, some hidden and mysterious force lurks within. Adopting the pose of a cartographer, Moore attempts to describe and delineate the glacier--to determine the nature of its power--in a way that consciously reveals the difficulty of her task. From the scientist's point of view, the tentacles of the octopus glacier seem "clearly defined," as transparent and potentially revealing as window glass. The whole of the massive formation may be charted and plotted and counted--"twenty-eight icefields from fifty to five hundred feet thick." Moore quickly implies, however, that such easy definitions are a delusion. Comprised of "glass that will bend," the glacier may, Moore suggests, constitute a kind of fun-house mirror that merely gives back distorted pictures of the human observer's thoughts and categories. The "clearly defined" feet of the glacier become, in Moore's paradoxical juxtaposition, (pseudo)podia--false forms that bear no genuine relation to the clear surface definitions they suggest. On the heels of her numerical calculations of the glacier, Moore states that, despite such attempted reductions, the mountain remains a place of "unimagined delicacy," a site of exquisite rarities and intricacies beyond the reach of the human mind. Turning her attention to the glacier's motion, Moore displays the strength of the ice even as she questions her ability to name or define its power. Unstoppable in its flow, Moore's glacier moves like an octopus, a spider, or a python; it hovers and crushes indiscriminately and instinctually, a brute inhuman force utterly alien to human intelligence and potentially hostile to human life itself. "Its 'ghostly pallor changing / to the green metallic tinge of an anemone starred pool,’" the glacier refutes its deadness but proves its strength in a way that gives little comfort. Moore's "geographical blank" becomes a place of stars, a small reflection of an even vaster universe that we can never truly know.

 

The ontological and epistemological questions Moore confronts in the opening of "An Octopus" thus resemble what Harold Bloom terms the subjects of "Mont Blanc": "the relation between individual mind and the universe, and also the problem of what rules the universe, and to what moral end. Like Shelley, Moore pictures her mountain as a beautiful but potentially unknowable thing whose dangerous power may teach only an "awful doubt" of any benevolent design in nature. Moore's imputation of the mountain's inaccessibility, however, only makes her all the more eager to plumb its depths. Abandoning the role of the cartographer, Moore dons instead the hat of the naturalist and embarks on a quest for knowledge--an intellectual tour of the living particulars of the glacier that considers just how close the mind can come to sharing the mountain's secrets. As Patricia Will's notes, Moore guides the reader through two separate visual journeys in "An Octopus," each from the forest floor to the top of the surrounding peaks . On her first trip up the mountain, Moore examines the glacier's fauna as her expedition moves from the property of the porcupine and the rat at the base, to the habitats of the beaver and the bear, to the goat who stands at the summit on "cliffs the colour of clouds." Returning to the forest floor, Moore climbs the mountain a second time to conduct a study of its flora that begins with the low-lying ferns and birch trees and ends with the Calypso orchid--"'the goat flower . . . fond of snow’"--that clings to the glacier's highest ledges. Rather than answer ontological questions, however, Moore's efforts to catalog the mountain consciously resist the quest for complete or ultimate knowledge.

 

Throughout both legs of her expedition, Moore encounters the glacier's rampant living diversity--a profusion that denies the all-too-human desire to find an order or a pattern to the universe of things. A place with "merits of equal importance / for bears, elk, deer, wolves, goats, and ducks," the ever-higher climes of the mountain constitute a complex environment full of agents and motions that humans cannot fully understand or, despite their best efforts, predict. The "'thoughtful beavers'" may fashion drains that "'seem the work of careful men with shovels,’" but Moore denies the appearance of discernable design in her following image of bears that make their way "unexpectedly" into the poem. Moore conducts the same sort of careful refusal in her description of the bears' den:

 

Composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars,

topaz, tourmaline crystals, and amethyst quartz,

their den is somewhere else, concealed in the confusion

of "blue stone forests thrown together with marble and jasper and agate

as if whole quarries had been dynamited."

 

"Concealed" and crystalline, the bears' den reflects the rich, beautiful interior of the mountain’s deeper secrets that the mind can never truly know. Imagining the den as a gorgeous place artistically "composed" of gems and "pillars," Moore admits that such an ordered vision overstates her knowledge and belies her experience. Such an ideal image of design, however pleasant, cannot stand in the face of the visible violent "confusion" of rocks and trees "thrown together" by the mountain's haphazard and destructive forces. The den must remain forever "somewhere else," off the map and beyond the reach of human intelligence.

 

Moore thus undercuts her desire for stability and deconstructs the image of order that she presents, an act she repeats again for the sake of intellectual honesty on the mountain's highest peak. As the naturalist moves further up the mountain in her quest for knowledge, she enters icy and forbidding realms that, while less and less hospitable to human life, seem to offer access to a transcendent vision of the mountain's hidden truths:

 

[….]

 

On the highest ledges of the glacier, the naturalists field of vision changes from one of physical particulars to the "perspective of the peaks," a scope that seems to promise the panoramic completeness of a better view. The farther up Moore's eye travels, however, the more rarified her vision of the universe of things becomes. In the poetic "perspective of the peaks" physical laws of gravity and entropy have no power. The waterfall does not fall, the goat becomes an idealized and ageless statue welded on an "antique pedestal," the borders between heaven and earth, cliffs and clouds, dissolve as the mountain becomes an image of eternal being. The glacier's "confusion" resolves into a beautifully composed order that Moore finds "scintillating" and "dazzling." Yet, as her verse connotes, she also finds such a sublime perspective inherently dangerous. Idealizing vision, in denying confusion and change, denies life itself. The goat on the summit stands frozen in "stag-at-bay" position, the very image of a creature trapped by hostile forces. Moore suggests that the poet who attempts to keep the world's confusion endlessly "at bay" is, like the proprietor of Bluebeard's tower, a hunter who kills his subjects by turning them into beautiful objects. Like Bluebeard, the poet on the peak "dyes" his subject to match his beliefs, a word that aurally suggests the deadly nature of his imposition.

 

Moore's journey to the top of the mountain thus results in an intriguing paradox. The "perspective of the peaks" that promises a better view of the mountain--that is, a knowledge of its hidden power-in fact destroys the poet's ability to see the mountain at all. By Moore’s account, the poet who fashions the glacier into a symbol of eternal presence and claims to see more and more of its "true" meaning in fact sees less and less of the mountain's substance. Dyeing the goat, the clouds, and the cliffs a gleaming and empty white, the poet on the summit erases the very objects she meant to contemplate. Moore dismisses the poet's supposed vision of the mountain's higher truths as a vacant artistic fantasy. Choosing the confusion of the unknowable over the ordered stasis of false and blinding belief, Moore ultimately rejects the "perspective of the peaks" in another violent image of mutability and ends her vision of the goat with a volcanic explosion that destroys the imagination's petrifying abuses. The squirming facts of the mountain's disordered physical presence exceed the squamous mind, and Moore ends her ascent by falling back down to the mountain's base:

 

Maintaining many minds, distinguished by a beauty

Of which "the visitor dare never fully speak at home

for fear of being stoned as an imposter,"

Big Snow Mountain is the home of a diversity of creatures ...

 

"Distinguished," or made separate by an undefinable, unknowable, and unspeakable power, the mountain's mysteries remain hidden from the minds that perceive its surface. Moore fiercely deconstructs her own insufficient moment of fixed, singular, transcendent fiction and returns to a chaos of "many minds," a skeptical disorder of ideas that negates the notion that human knowledge can ever be complete.

 

Opting to dwell in an honest confusion of "nothing that is not there," the empty world that Stevens's snow poet finds after all imaginative imposition has been stripped away, Moore returns to an account of the particulars of the physical mountain and seems to reach a resting point in the welter of experience. Yet, no sooner does Moore complete one thwarted trip up the mountain in quest of an ultimate idea of order than she begins another. Turning her attention upward to the circling flight of "the eleven eagles of the west," the naturalist comments: "They make a nice appearance don't they, / happy seeing nothing?" The eagles' "nothing" rings of the "nothing" in the last line of Stevens's "The Snow Man"--"the nothing that is." Untroubled by the ontological questions that wrack the speaker, the eagles live at peace in a natural presence--an "isness"--that the human mind interprets as utter absence--a "nothing." The implication that the natural world, deprived of governing intelligence, is empty of human meaning drives the naturalist back up the mountain in search of answers.

 

Shifting her attention from the glacier's animals to its plants, Moore makes a second bid for the summit and constructs another catalog of the living mountain that attempts to tap its riches. Once again, Moore's journey reveals a struggle between the mountain's shifting diversity and the mind’s desire for discernable design. At the start of her second journey, the naturalist perceives the fungi on the glacier as a "cavalcade of calico" whose color competes with the "original American 'menagerie of styles'" present in the flowers:

 

Larkspur, blue pincushions, blue peas, and lupin;

white flowers with white, and red with red;

the blue ones "growing close together

so that patches of them look like blue water in the distance":

this arrangement of colours

as in Persian designs of hard stones with enamel,

forms a pleasing equation--

a diamond outside; and inside, a white dot;

on the outside, a ruby; inside, a red dot;

black spots balanced with black

in the woodlands where fires have run over the ground ...

 

The naturalist breaks off her scientific catalog of the different types of wildflowers and, intrigued or diostracted by the thought of the glacier as a homespun quilt, begins to consider the "arrangement" of the colors rather that the particulars of the plants. The living flora suddenly become "patches" of red, white, and blue--a vision of domestic order that implies the controlling touch of a careful and caring hand. Seduced by her own image of beauty and comfort, the naturalist eventually transmutes the glacier's confusion into a hard-and-fast mosaic design, an idea of order that, like her vision of the goat--static on the mountain’s summit, changes living things into static works of art. Once more, however, Moore insists that the glacier cannot be contained by such a picture, no matter how "pleasing" the "equation" between mountain and mosaic and its implication of a guiding intelligence in nature. The black spots in the design are, in fact, the random products of rampaging forest fires that have run loose over the ground. Moore's reference to the destructive and chaotic power of nature undermines the all-too-easy notion of the glacier as carefully and benevolently composed.

 

Upon reaching the sublime "perspective of the peaks" a second time, Moore admits that the mind's search for the mountain’s ultimate truths has been misguided. Atop the cold glacial ledges, Moore finds the Calypso orchid or "goat flower," the floral counterpart to the goat that inhabits the same peak. Named for the seductive sea nymph Calypso, who offers Ulysses refuge and immortality on her magnificent isle, the snowy orchid suggests that the "perspective of the peaks" offers merely a pleasing and potentially dangerous retreat rather than the honest end to a quest. Those who claim access to transcendental absolutes indulge in easy illusions that Moore deems solipsistic reveries. Glancing back to the opening of the poem, Moore makes a connection between the goat flower, the goat in "stag-at-bay" position, and the part of the glacier called "The Goat's Mirror-- / that lady-fingerlike depression in the shape of the left human foot, / which prejudices you in favour of itself." Like the Goat's Mirror, each subsequent summit view of the goat image invites the naturalist to read some trace of human intelligence in the landscape. To interpret the mountain as a footprint of cosmic order, however, merely leaves us gazing, like Narcissus, at our own mirrored reflection.

 

Thoughts of Ulysses and Calypso inspire Moore to thoughts of the ancient Greeks, the founders of Western philosophy and the first in a long line of metaphysical questioners. Despite their obvious wisdom, Moore reads the Greeks as mirror gazers, hopelessly duped by the neat intellectual products of their own making. Assured of the power of the mind and disliking confusion, the Greeks chose to live on the transcendental mountaintop and adopted the static and prideful perspective of the peaks. "The Greeks liked smoothness," Moore explains,

 

                                distrusting what was back

of what could not be clearly seen,

resolving with benevolent conclusiveness,

"complexities which will remain complexities

as long as the world lasts…"

 

A people of conclusions rather than curiosity, the Greeks closed themselves off from nature's chaos and mentally resolved the mysteries of existence that Moore insists are, for the truthful poet, unknowable quantities. Moore's critique of the Greeks leads her, through a reference to Milton, back to Shelley's "A Defence of Poetry." "All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient," writes Shelley in "A Defence," and he follows his claim with an exemplary quote from Satan in Paradise Lost: "'The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’" Recalling Shelley's comment on perception, Moore casts the Greeks as "happy souls in Hell." Content to spin neat and static abstractions to explain the mountain’s power, the Greeks remained blissfully ignorant of nature’s unruly and unresolvable particulars. In Moore's view, the Greeks made a heaven of the hell more skeptical intelligences, alive to the pangs of doubt and committed to doing hard things, cannot escape.

 

Disgusted with the impudent knowingness of the Greeks, Moore turns upon them and the present-day public who also desire easy answers, with the violence she wields against her own creations throughout the poem. "Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!" Moore exclaims in frustration, "Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus / with its capacity for fact." As Moore has proved to her own growing dissatisfaction throughout the poem, "neatness" and "accuracy" are antithetical terms. Moore's phrase "neatness of finish" implies that those who intellectually resolve the world's confusion merely apply a surface coating to experience that ignores the complexities beneath. While it is the nature of the glacier to be relentlessly accurate--that is to forever resist such errors of human vision--it is equally the nature of the mind to impose reductive designs on what it perceives. As if attempting to wipe all trace of "neatness" from her sight, Moore ends "An Octopus" with a final, terrifying vision of the mountain’s chaotic and unfathomable power:

 

"Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,

its arms seeming to approach from all directions,"

it receives one under winds that "tear the snow to bits

and hurl it like a sandblast,

shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees."

Is tree the word for these strange things

"flat on the ground like vines"?

some "bent in a half circle with branches on one side

suggesting dustbrushes, not trees. . . "

 

The mind here does not receive or take mental possession of the mountain but rather is "received" by the mountain on its own chaotic terms. Moore pictures the glacier's violent winds and snow as a "sandblast," an air-driven stream of sand specifically designed to remove an unwanted coating from an object and clean its surface. The poet who strips away all "neatness of finish" from the mountain, however, enters an alien landscape of disordered impressions that "approach from all directions" and threaten to bury the poet alive. Lost in the mountain’s strange and mindless whiteness, the poet lacks the power to express what she sees. The mountain’s true nature, Moore concludes, lies beyond language itself. Words become just one more "neatness of finish," an intelligible abstract surface of the mind's making that can never reach the truth beneath. Convinced of the ultimate folly of her attempt to plumb the mountain's secrets in a poem, Moore ends "An Octopus" with a final violent image that again denies the mind's desire to see the glacier as a product of design:

 

the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed,

its claw cut by the avalanche

"with a sound like the crack of a rifle,

in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall."

 

Moore's image of the glacier's ordered geometric symmetry ends in a chaotic avalanche. Ringing the curtain down on the poem itself, Moore violently unmakes her own fiction and leaves the mountain as she found it--a geographical blank that the mind must fill once again.

 

Moore thus joins both Stevens and Shelley in composing a great poem of romantic winter vision. Like Stevens's speaker in "The Snow Man," Moore's poet attempts to remove the imagination's neat finish from the world and confront nature in all its relentless accuracy. The quest to see "nothing that is not there," however, leads the poet to a cold, white space beyond human reason where all efforts to create meaning, including language, break down. Moore thus asks the same question of Mount Rainier at the end of "An Octopus" that Shelley poses to his peak at the end of "Mont Blanc": "And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind's imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?" Moore's implied answer echoes Stevens's reply to Shelley's query in "The Snow Man": the mountain without the imagination is "nothing" since only the mind can assign value and transform the mountain into something more than an indifferent and destructive waste of confusion. "The deep truth," Shelley states, "is imageless," and Moore agrees.

 

The question that remains for Moore at the end of "An Octopus," then, is how do we live in such a world? Moore concludes that to see a benevolent pattern in nature, however attractive, is to indulge an unsupportable and impudent fantasy. Any claim of access to transcendent truth, an idea of order most Plantagenet and most fixed, remains a lie. By the same token, however, to approach the world without the imagination leaves the poet alone in a hostile and destructive "universe of things." Throughout the poem, Moore travels back and forth between these poles in search of what will suffice. Dissatisfied by the world without imagination, she climbs to the height of beautiful transcendent vision, only to blast such notions apart as all-too-easy fancies. Each violent moment of unmaking, however, leads to the growth of yet another idea of order. The poem as a whole presents a relentlessly skeptical imaginative cycle that demands humility and negates the prospect of ever knowing anything of the mountain's deeper mysteries. "Completing a circle," Moore writes of her travels on the glacier, "you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed." The imagination can only wax and wane, it cannot discover absolute truth.

 

Moore thus betrays the same sort of skeptical contrary motion (creative/ decreative) in "An Octopus" that she claims for Stevens in "Well Moused, Lion." Indeed, looking back to Moore's essay through the lens of "An Octopus," it seems that Moore's changing image of Stevens as a troubled skeptic reflects her own growing sense of creative impasse. Wedded to the notion of the imagination's balm and desiring lofty spiritual visions to "tranquilize the torments of confusion," Moore, like Stevens, recognizes the egotistical sterility of such comforting ideals. Moore's assessment of "Sunday Morning" as a poem that "gives ultimately the effect of the mind disturbed by the intangible; of a mind oppressed by the properties of the world which it is expert in manipulating" relates to the difficult motions of "An Octopus" as well. Like Stevens, Moore is "disturbed" by the potential stasis of the world with imagination and "oppressed" by the sheer disorder of the world without imagination. Each time Moore ascends to the heights in "An Octopus," her own transcendent escape becomes, as she says of Stevens's wilder moments, "uneasy rather than bold," a reflection of her own doubts about the imagination's potentially stifling powers. Moving from forest floor to visionary mountaintop and back again, Moore betrays that she too lacks the "masterly equipoise" that she finds missing in Stevens's verse. Unable and unwilling to rest content in images that "tranquilize the torments of confusion," Moore, like Stevens, writes a poetry of the snake's body that wriggles through an endless series of violations, its coils moving in contrary ways.

 

From The Web of Friendship: Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. Copyright © 1995 by The University of Michigan Press.

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Title Robin G. Schulze: On "An Octopus" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robin G. Schulze Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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