Thursday, August 23, 2007

Jarrell on Moore

Greg, I'm curious what you think of this passage by Randall Jarrell on Marianne Moore, written in 1945 in response to her volume Nevertheless. He's commenting specifically on her poem "In Distrust of Merits" (which is here, if you're unfamiliar with it) which Auden and others called the best war poem of WWII. Of particular interest is the end of the third paragraph, which puts Moore in the context of other Modernist poets who were reacting against the memory of the poets of the Great War.


"Miss Moore's war poem, 'In Distrust of Merits,' has been called the best war poem so often that it should be treated in detail.

"The title is humility, not understanding — she distrusts her own merits, but trusts, accepts almost as if she were afraid to question, those of the heroic soldiers of her poem. She does not understand that they are heroes in the sense that the chimney sweeps, the factory children in the blue books, were heroes: routine loss in the routine business of the world. She sees them (the recurring triplet is the major theme of the poem) fighting fighting fighting; she does not remember that most of the people in a war never fight for even a minute — though they bear for years and die forever. They do not fight, but only starve, only suffer, only die: the sum of all this passive misery is that great activity, War.

"Miss Moore thinks of the war in blindingly moral terms. We are fighting 'that where there was death there may be life.' This is true, in a sense; but the opposite is true in a more direct sense. She writes at the climax of her poem, 'If these great patient / dyings — all these agonies / and woundbearings and bloodshed / can teach us how to live, these dyings were not wasted'; and ends the poem with 'Beauty is eternal / and dust is for a time.' (The armies and the peoples died, and it meant that Beauty is eternal.) Since Pharaoh's bits were pushed into the jaws of kings, these dyings — patient or impatient, but dyings — have happened, by the hundreds of millions; they were all wasted. They taught us to kill others and die ourselves, but never how to live. Who is 'taught to live' by cruelty, suffering, stupidity, and that occupational disease of soldiers, death? The moral equivalent of war! Peace, our peace, is the moral equivalent of war. If Miss Moore had read a history of the European 'colonization' of our planet (instead of natural histories full of the quaint animals of those colonies) she would be astonished at nothing in the last world war, or in this one, or in the next. She would distrust us and herself, but not at the eleventh hour, not because of the war (something incommensurable, beside which all of us are good): she would have distrusted the peace of which our war is only the extrapolation. It is the peace of which we were guilty. Miss Moore's seeing what she sees, and only now, betrays an extraordinary but common lack of facts, or imagination, or something. But how honest and lovable — how genuinely careless about herself and caring about the rest of the world — Miss Moore seems in this poem, compared to most of our poets, who are blinder to the war than they ever were to the peace, who call the war 'this great slapstick,' and who write (while everyone applauds) that they are not going to be foolish enough to be 'war poets.' How could they be? The real war poets are always war poets, peace or any time.

"For this poem Miss Moore has given up her usual method, because of the emotion and generality that have overwhelmed her. I wish that she had — as the world has — taken her little animals, her bric-a-brac with all their moral and aesthetic qualities, her individuals with their scrupulous virtues, and shown them smashed willy-nilly, tortured, prostituted, driven crazy — and not for a while but forever: this is, till the day they died. As it is she has handled not these real particulars but abstractions she is unfamiliar with and finds it hard not to be heroic about; and her poem is neither good nor bad, but a mistake we sympathize with thoroughly.

"I don't want to finish my review of Miss Moore without saying what a good poet she is, and how lucky we are to have her." (Kipling, Auden & Co., 129-130, emphasis mine)