Sister Bernetta Quinn: On "The Pangolin"

Sister Bernetta Quinn, O.S.F. "The Artist as Armored Animal: Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell"

"The Pangolin," in Randall Jarrell's opinion, ranked above all Marianne Moore's other poems, even "Spenser's Ireland," that unforgettable hymn to the country of his own great-grandmother, and her equally lilting tribute to the mind as an enchanting thing. To ask why leads to the "educated guess" that he was attracted, increasingly, because of her spiritual analysis of his own species in terms of this armored animal (he was less emphatic about its excellence when writing aboutWhat are Years in 1942 than when reviewing the 1952 Collected Poems). As much a pacifist at heart as Robert Lowell, he admired Moore's portrait of the scaly anteater as a peaceable creature, choosing defense rather than aggression; rolling into a ball almost impossible to disentangle, excreting an ill-smelling fluid from the tail area in a crisis, dropping from tree to safer earth with a bounce, thanks to the intricately devised scales capable of preventing injury.

Most of Marianne Moore's time at Bryn Mawr, according to an interview with Donald Hall, was spent in the biology laboratory; she tells him that she "found the biology courses--minor, major, and histology—exhilarating." She would have been well-acquainted with Linnaeus, who first classified the pangolin (1758) as Pholidota ("scaled animals"), its specific name derived from the Malayan word Guling, meaning a bolster or cylindrical cushion ( sometimes the synonym roller is used, recalling the mammal's trick of escape). So important to her was this denizen of the African/Asian forests that the handsome 1936 collection of her verse arranged by H.D. and illustrated by Carlisle's George Plank not only took the animal as title but placed "The Pangolin" in the most prominent place, last. Renowned as she was for zoo-visiting, it is unlikely that she knew the pangolin any more directly than through books:

The difficulty of feeding these animals in captivity makes them one of the greatest of rarities in zoological gardens.... So it is that everyone in the Western Hemisphere, to see them alive, must, like Mohammed, go to the less mobile object, in this case not the mountain, but the mantis.

So writes Robert T. Hatt in the article on pangolins which Miss Moore lists in her Notes, its reading a sign of her continued zest for biology.

Randall Jarrell too was a science major in undergraduate days at Vanderbilt and would have found fascinating the mantis's method of food-gathering, in which the ribbon-like tongue (sometimes almost two feet long) flickers out as often as 160 times a minute to scoop up as many as 30,000 ant-victims a day. He would have been intrigued by Hatt's metaphorical account:

The long, thin tongue can dart in and out with snake-like rapidity and, twisting in among the galleries of an ant colony, it picks up and draws back into the ant-chute mouth all the animals it touches. Enormous salivary glands furnish an abundant supply of a thick, sticky substance to the surface of the tongue, which holds the insects captive.

Not at all a gregarious individual, Jarrell perhaps saw in the pangolin, solitary denizen of the night, a figure of the artist, his imagination intrigued by Miss Moore's picture of the modest anteater going his own way through the warm landscapes of his habitat, walking so carefully on the moonlight in the moonlight that he might have been some wild thing in one of the Sendak books for children. The moonlight suffusing "The Pangolin" might well have been for him the moonlight bathing the "little house in the woods" in Greensboro, the first (and the last) piece of property he ever owned, its simple environs shielding him from the competition he sometimes encountered in academic sites like Princeton. Heartily would he have seconded her "The cure for loneliness is solitude," an aphorism from the essay "If I Were Sixteen Today."

In their fastidious artistry both Marianne Moore and Randall Jarrell were armored animals. What the second says about the first in that appropriately named review "Her Shield" applies to him too:

Sometimes Miss Moore writes about armour [he uses the spelling of the English edition, The Pangolin and Other Poems] and wears it, the most delicately chased, live-seeming scale-armour anybody ever put together, armour hammered and of fern seed, woven from the silk of invisible cloaks. . . .

This "live-seeming" armor recalls that of Achilles, furnished him by Love, fashioned on Olympus. As critic, Jarrell feels it is constructed of quotation, ambiguity, irony, all of which characterize his own stylistic protection as does the difficulty for which he praises Miss Moore. It is no wonder they were drawn to the world of fables and fairy tales, where invulnerability is common, a predilection witnessed to in her case by an adaptation two years before Jarrell’s death of Charles Perrault's Puss in Boots, The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella: A Retelling of Three Classic Fairy Tales.

Most of those who have written books on Marianne Moore have commented on the attention her bestiaries give to protection. Donald Hall, after referring to her admiration for armored animals as "a professionals respect for another professional" says: "One suspects that next to being a dragon who can become invisible. Miss Moore would like best to be a pangolin" (94). Bernard F. Engle names his second chapter "The Armored Self: Selected Poems" and the third "Armor for Use: Middle Period Poems." Ten years before the review of Collected Poems referred to above, Jarrell had this to say:

It would be stupid not to see Miss Moore in all her protective creatures—"another armored animal," she once reflects or confesses. . . . "The Pangolin" may be her best poem; it is certainly one of the most moving, honest, and haunting poems that anyone has written in our century.

One more resemblance between the two poets is the ear, highly developed in both, as it is in the pangolin, who can hear a sound five miles away. Jarrell trained his ear for music to be sensitive beyond belief, to the point that in his last years, including the final trip to Europe with Mary, opera, ballet, symphonies had become for him a passion, a facet of his genius urgently calling for scholarly attention. As for Marianne Moore, her skill in balancing rhyme, assonance, other sound-structure elements creates what Jarrell lauds as "a texture that will withstand any amount of rereading; a restraint and delicacy that make many more powerful poems seem obvious." "The Pangolin" begins with three words involving the broad a (ah), "Another armored animal,"' followed by Moore's favorite punctuation mark, the dash; the triple repetition results in music as well as emphasis. The poem is well-paired with "The Paper Nautilus," which it always precedes in her arrangements (both creatures guardians of the treasure of self, the second also of offspring), though from the opening of "The Pangolin": one might expect it would follow "The Paper Nautilus."

From the outset of the poem on the scaly anteater, Wallace Stevens' "realm of resemblance" takes over; it prevails throughout. The strange mammal is likened to the cone of a spruce tree, then to an artichoke, similarities noted by one of her sources, Robert T. Hatt: "It has indeed a leafy appearance that has caused visitors to my office, when seeing a curled up skin fresh from the field, to inquire whether the object was an artichoke or a pine cone." That the artichoke is the edible flower-head of a thistle-like plant makes its properties a gentle reinforcement of the armor imagery.

As Moore elaborates the armor figure, she explains why for the pangolin armor is not something extra but rather a protection, among other uses to safeguard its ears, described by Hatt as a defense against angry ants through "the reduction of the ear conch to a small fold of thickened skin above the ear." One can visualize Marianne in the Hudson Park branch of the Brooklyn Public Library between reviews of silent movie fiction (her special charge), pouring over the pangolin article and fastening upon such an interesting detail as in his next sentence: "Not only may eyes be covered but even the ears and nostrils are capable of complete closure," then devising her own scrupulous design of pangolin armor:

            But for him

    the closing ear-ridge--

        or bare ear lacking even this small  [to rhyme with scale, 

        eminence and similarly safe              central]

 

contracting nose and eye apertures 

    impenetrably closeable, are not,--

Although ordinarily gizzard is a term reserved for the portion of a bird's stomach where its food is ground, the scaly anteater's stomach, according to Hatt, is "a gizzard-like organ in which operate strong muscular grinding forces aided by pebbles picked up by the pangolin," in Moore the "grit-equipped gizzard." The naturalist goes on to explore the action of these muscles: "Lacking teeth, the pangolin, as it were, stones its prey to death in the same manner that birds grind hard seeds in their gizzards, and the crocodiles triturate meats too hastily swallowed." He ridicules one researcher who proposed the theory that the pangolin lives entirely on mineral substances, "a suggestion that would be difficult to equal for absurdity," one of the "simpletons" spoken of in the poem.

Scientist Theodore H. Eaton depicts the pangolin as shy, looking for food only at night, the "night miniature artist engineer" of Marianne Moore-- a factor which may well have saved it from extermination, since its tasty flesh is highly prized by natives of the regions where it dwells. Moore's comment on its food (which she defines as ants, excluding cockroaches) corresponds with Hatt's remark that although the mammal is "not above picking up an occasional beetle or even a worm, such digressions are not an indication of an omnivorous diet." Actually the pangolin is the world's only creature living on ants, the others (misnamed anteaters) preferring the less ferocious termites.

Using who instead of which, Marianne Moore subtly builds up (among other ways) her subject into a kind of human hero "who endures/exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night." These nocturnal efforts appear poetic as exquisitely expressed by stepping "'peculiarly that the outside/ edges of his hands [not paws] may bear the weight and save/ the claws/ for digging." The gait is pictured thus by Hatt: "As most others of its group, the giant pangolin walks on its knuckles and the sides of its feet. Thus the claws are kept sharp for digging."

With her penchant for economical metaphor and precision, Miss Moore likens the mantis to a snake, through a participle: "Serpentined." Herbert Lang's photograph accompanying the Hatt essay bears out her impression: it shows the odd creature wrapped around the trunk reptile-like as it descends to the ground. Not all forms are terrestrial: the African black-bellied pangolin and the silky anteater live exclusively in trees, while the collared anteater spends at least part of his time arboreally. Randall Jarrell in the Kenyon Review piece of the early 1940s indirectly connects Moore's metaphorical gifts with Midas' golden touch:

She not only can, but has to, make poetry out of everything and anything: she is like Midas, or Mozart purposely choosing unpromising themes, or like the princess whom a wizard forces to manufacture sheets out of nettles--if the princess were herself the wizard.

The concise metaphor recording how the creature winds himself around a tree-trunk if endangered, in non-violent opposition to an aggressor, is indicative of how this poet can make sheets out of nettles.

Both Marianne and her father appreciated silence, e.g. "The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence," from the lyric named "Silence"; from his habits the pangolin too seems to appreciate it. Hatt writes: "The pangolins are silent animals and are not known to produce any noise through the mouth other than a hiss," a sentence which the poem transforms into "... he draws away from danger unpugnaciously,/with no sound but a harmless hiss," Moore adding as a complication of the image "keeping/ the fragile grace" of the wrought-iron vine done by Thomas of Leighton Buzzard; this Westminster Abbey artifact she had probably observed while in London with her mother. She continues by delineating a response to aggression suggestive of the hedge-hog's stratagem when attacked: in Ernest P. Walker's Mammals of the World this appears as "'they [the pangolins] are rather timid animals and if overtaken before they can reach the burrow, they curl into a tight ball, the armored limbs and tail protecting the soft under parts." Hatt also includes this trick:

Like those other creatures with flexible dorsal armor, the armadillo, the hedgehog, and the pill-bug, the mantis, when put on the defensive, curls up into a ball, keeping the plates on the outside and the soft under-surfaces unexposed. Because of its thick tail and the protruding scales, the pangolin's simulation of a ball is less perfect than that of an armadillo.

Cuddled up in this way, the anteaters are almost impregnable according to Marianne Moore, ". . . strongly intailed, neat/ head for core, on neck not breaking off, with curled-in feet."

The lyric continues with a sentence beginning "Nevertheless," title for her 1944 volume, and here introducing the idea that this "ball" behavior is unnecessary, since the overlapping scales are sting-proof; besides, the pangolin has the resource of retreating underground into a "nest / of rocks" (italics mine), a metaphor underscoring the bird allusion of gizzard and developing further the pacific quality of the animal. As Moore went along in her poetic career, her bestiary became more and more a collection of good animals, allegorical parallels of the types of persons she and Randall valued, a change about which Jarrell says: "Because so much of our own world is evil, she has transformed the animal kingdom, that amoral realm, into a realm of good . . . " yet somehow the pangolin lyric shows that "the world is not good and evil, but good-and-evil," like the parabolic field where cockle grows amidst the wheat. The nest-refuge Moore particularizes with "closed with earth from the inside," a phenomenon expressed by naturalist Walker as "The terrestrial forms generally close their burrough with dirt when they are inside."

Having brought her emblem-animal to this vantage point, Marianne Moore flings the poem forward like a banner, in verse which Jarrell acclaims as Old Testament in its exaltation:

Sun and moon and day and night and man and beast 

    each with a splendour 

        which man in all his vileness cannot 

        set aside; each with an excellence!

The sun has one glory, that of day, and the moon another, that of night, just as each man and each beast has a unique radiance, what Hopkins would call an inscape. Granddaughter and sister of ministers, she turned naturally to psalmody such as this, just as Jarrell, native of the Bible Belt, turned again and again to his boyhood copy of the Scriptures.

The fourth stanza begins with a caption out of Hatt's account, placed there below Herbert Lang's photograph of the African pangolin, "Fearful, Yet To Be Feared," a description which is expanded as "Pangolins are not aggressive, but the giant species can do great damage with their massive axe-edged tails." Though never eager for hostile encounters, the pangolin is no coward: with the wizardry that Jarrell commends, Marianne Moore studies this passage from Hatt:

It is to be marveled at that the pangolins have the courage to feed on a column of driver ants, but we have the authority of Herbert Lang that they will do this. Most other animals, and a few nimble birds are notable exceptions, flee from these hordes that are capable of overcoming animals of large size. The armor-clad scaly anteaters, in spite of their success among the ants, are not invulnerable to attack, and when the ants do succeed in swarming over an individual, the scales are set violently quivering. . .

and transforms it thus:

        ... the armored

    ant-eater met by the driver-ant does not turn back, but 

engulfs what he can, the flattened sword-

    edged leafpoints on the tail and artichoke set leg-and 

            body-plates

quivering violently when it retaliates 

    and swarms on him.

Here she added two new metaphors for the scales: sword-edge and leaf.

Marianne Moore by the time she composed "The Pangolin" had behind her the good part of a lifetime of noticing connections, connections as important to her as to Robert Penn Warren when he developed his interpretation of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," relying for theme on the sacramentality of the universe. As a summary of her use of these, Jarrell writes: "She shows that everything is related to everything else; no one has compared successfully more disparate objects." How she could conceive of the live "ball" about to drop to the ground as the furled ornament on the hat of a matador as represented by the sculptor Gargallo is remarkable, but then it was she who would one day inquire of Donald Hall in theParis Review interview: "'Didn't Aristotle say that it is the mark of a poet to see resemblances between apparently incongruous things?’"

The poem at this stage heightens the man/pangolin identification, the aspect of the work which gives it its most lasting significance, by elaborating on the functions of the tail "graceful tool, as prop or hand or broom or axe," prop suggesting a cane. Richard G. Van Gelder in Geology of Mammals calls attention to how from time to time the tail permits a biped, tail-supported gait; in the same vein, Hartman notes that likeness to man in one of the sevens species of Pholidota (Tamandua) is so marked that it is nicknamed "Dominus vobiscum" because it resembles a priest at the altar when it stands upright with its arms outstretched. Since some of these animals are six or eight feet long, the human counterpart is not far-fetched. The Twayne volume on Marianne Moore by Bernard F. Engle regards "The Pangolin" "her fullest statement on relationships among the animal, human, and spiritual kingdoms," declaring that her real subject is the nature of man, "that animal for whom no physical armoring is adequate."

The peaceful disposition of the pangolin receives further stress in this fifth stanza through its being termed "not aggressive," its progress the "frictionless creep of a thing/ made graceful by adversities." Much has been made of the grace motif in Moore's work. Elizabeth Phillips calls grace the focal theme of "The Pangolin." Praising the animal when regarded as artifact Phillips speaks of the need for more than the efficient working of parts (Williams' machine made of words, energized by art): "The natural ease of his movements, however, is only one kind of grace, rather a limited and cautious kind. To explain grace requires more than that." The "more" means an advance to supernatural grace as understood by this author's minister-grand-father and Navy chaplain- brother Warren, indeed by all the Moore family. Such is the connotation of grace drawn in by the lines in the lyric on that anonymous glory of the Middle Ages the carving monks did based on the Book of the Creatures (they and other artists), high up above cathedral worshippers, in a freedom from vanity explicated here by the confident clause "If all that which is at all were not forever"; indeed, to tourists today it does seem as if what is represented is forever, those creatures on the stone mullions which still branch out across the vaulted temples.

In stanza seven Moore, through a lavish series of metaphors (after praising the quietness of the pangolin by comparing it to that first of all machines the sailboat) calls man the kin of wasp and spider and pangolin, carrying on the same trades and yet set apart by a sense of humor. Laughter has been called the differentiating feature of homo sapiens. Her praise mounts, including even praise for contradictions ("unemotional, and all emotion!") and emphasizing once more modesty and courage. About the last virtue Donald Hall comments in Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal, "Courage, an inward hardening of the spirit to adversity, is man's best and only protection." Yet if the pangolin is courageous it is also cautious, a "humble animal," as Jarrell terms Miss Moore herself.

It is almost impossible for Moore readers to think of the conclusion of "The Pangolin" apart from Make It New by the author's friend Ezra Pound, a motto Pound says was lettered in gold on the bathtub of a Chinese emperor. The poem ends ". . . anew each day; and new and new and new," referring to the sun "that comes into and steadies my soul." In respect to man, sharing the spotlight with the pangolin in this lyric, what Elizabeth Phillips says sums up her focus-as-grace idea: "Ridiculous as he is, he has a soul, and it can be steadied." What Randall Jarrell asserts in closing "Her Shield" is just as true of his own "The Old and the New Masters"--he uses the words of Marianne Moore's best poetry to say of it that it "comes into and steadies the soul" so that the reader feels himself "a life prisoner, but reconciled."

Moore's regard for Jarrell comes through in her letters: "I cannot think of anyone who gives me more incentive than Randall Jarrell, as I read about him or think about him." Despite his youthful parody of her, "The Country Was," his deep appreciation of her verse and character was beyond question, the first revealed in his statement reviewing Nevertheless that she wrote better poetry than any other woman alive. Evaluating Predilections, he asserts that this prose collection, like her other works, is "purely and individually and imaginatively faithful to the truth as she sees it." Like Flannery O'Connor, as Elizabeth Phillips points out, life to her is a comic vision, one she passionately cares about: "The thing is to see the vision and not deny it; to care and admit that we do." She feels for the "pangolin," frustrated as he is by the fact that "We live in time so little time" and yet facing each new day with the hope of the Psalmist, "Sing a new song unto the Lord!" If man appears ridiculous through overdress or nakedness (Lear's "poor, forked animal"), even so no amount of vileness will cancel out his excellence: "a little lower than the angels," he is brother of the Son. If he must leave half the flowers unpicked, he wins a kind of survival through his web of bridges built from bluff to bluff and leaves behind not only the miracle of paper (an achievement greater than the wasp's) but scrawlings upon it that excite and inspire, that "can make one/ breathe faster and make one erecter."

Not accidentally does "Armour's Undermining Modesty" appear at the end of Collected Poems, its final phrase "the imperishable wish," at the heart of which seems a longing for someone/Someone to love the poet "best of all," the wish of the child in Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Those who live in today's world, where affirmation often seems absent, can meditate on Marianne Moore's pangolin as it humbly advances toward dawn.

From Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Ed. Patricia Willis. Copyright © 1990 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission. Please consult the original book for footnotes and sources for this essay.

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