Perspective: ‘To A Chameleon’ BY MARIANNE MOORE

By Marianne Moore

This one had me reeling for a while, if I’m to be completely honest. I don’t much care for indentations in poetry, a rhyming scheme should be structured, and I’m split on whether a poem should be required to be literally understood or whether it can be simply intrinsically understood. But then again, this is an ode.

Obviously, a shape is nothing more than one makes of it. But when one considers the nature of this poem, a celebration of its subject, then it’s not difficult to imagine the curved spine of a chameleon shaping the poem in a more literal manner. It’s quite romantic, in its own way.

Symmetry isn’t exactly a natural phenomenon (for the most part, anyway). This poem has a fair amount of rhyming structure as it is (like a chameleon’s body would be fairly symmetrically structured), but breaks its structure towards the middle of the poem (like an imperfect body). Moreover, there’s something about the idea of forcing a reader’s eyes in two directions while trying to understand the rhyming scheme that’s just, well, poetic.

As for the understanding of the content, I’m still split. See, it’s quite obvious that this is an ode to a chameleon; what’s not so obvious is the reference in the second part of the poem.

“Fire laid upon / An emerald as long as / The Dark King’s massy / One, / Could not snap the spectrum up for food as you have done.”

This isn’t exactly a piece of common knowledge. In fact, Rajiv C. Krishnan and Nandini Ramesh Sankar explain that this is something academics can only guess at, at best. The educated guess says the Dark King is King Solomon, a man with wives and mistresses of dark complexion. The massy emerald would then be King Solomon’s Emerald Table, an artefact that had been witness to a destructive history. This could fit the poem quite nicely and truly boast the chameleon’s ardent beauty; however, it’s still guesswork at best. To me, this is a possible failing in the poem; it’s not a well enough known reference to be assumed, and research doesn’t result in a perfect answer.

However, if this is the answer, the the poem is all the more enriched for it. Not only is the chameleon compared to royalty and gems, but the chameleon is placed above these two. It reminds me of the water-snakes in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the beauteous description despite obvious potential comparisons; a true ode to this nature.

I fear I will always have difficulties with this style of poetry, and this poem as well. I understand its strengths in a fully well-rounded representation of its subject, but I also feel that such ideas can be illustrated purely in the words of a poem. But that’s just me. I’d love to hear any other thoughts and opinions. Feel free to tell me why I’m an idiot in the comments.


  1. Interesting reading. My comment is only additive, not corrective. I read the poem in “The Makers and the Making” anthology. They couple the poem with a section titled “A sheath of Imagist Poems.” And rightly so. The poem is suggestive, rather than literal. It also stresses concision (no adjective that doesn’t reveal something—Ezra Pound) and suggestiveness.

    The presence of the chameleon surprises us in the one word sentence: “Chameleon.” As if the reader apprehends a camouflage animal in the jungle—the line jumps out.The suddenness of emotion that makes the poem is echoed by the action of the chameleon snapping its tongue to devour its prey. As you indicate, the poem avoid directs interpretation which reinforces the idea of camouflage characteristic of chameleons. This is stressed in the first word “Hid.” You’re right about the Dark King. The allusion is unclear. It’s an interesting authorial choice that reinforces the poems suggestiveness.

    What fun would the poem be if we digested entirely?


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