Perspective: ‘A Talisman’ BY MARIANNE MOORE

Under a splintered mast,
Torn from ship and cast
Near her hull,

A stumbling shepherd found
Embedded in the ground,
A seagull

Of lapis lazuli,
A scarab of the sea,
With wings spread—

Curling its coral feet,
Parting its beak to greet
Men long dead.

By Marianne Moore

I’ve been trying to get a handle on this poem for a short while now. It’s not that the poem itself is difficult to understand, literally speaking; what has me out of sorts is the amount of imagery packed into this short poem (at least, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to because I’ve been staring at this for two long weeks).

The first thing I noticed is the juxtaposition of the second and third stanzas. There is nothing exactly majestic about a stumbling shepherd, the ground, or a seagull (on this last point, I would differ, but I fear that delight in seagulls is more a personal quirk than societal norm). On the other hand, we have lapis lazuli (a prized deep-blue gem), a scarab (an icon sacred to the Egyptians), and spread wings (a clear notion of freedom). This beautifully demonstrates the idea of a diamond in the rough, almost literally, and helps one see that the iconography of religion need not be so foreign.

The second thing I was caught up on is something I still haven’t really gotten my head around. The final two lines are… let’s say eerie. I haven’t been able to find anything in regards to imagery about seagulls and death. There’s the obvious albatross metaphor that could be wedged in here, but I feel it doesn’t fit right. If anyone has any idea on what these lines could mean further than the literate (Moore lived in Pennsylvania if that helps), I’d be well keen to read your thoughts in the comments.

Finally, is the first stanza. It’s probably the most obvious piece of this poem and the part that I’ve looked over more than anything else. The mast of a ship is crucial to that ship’s progress. Without that mast, the ship stays idle. And the ship is not just mobile in its own right, but moves at the behest of external and invisible forces. These forces are real enough, but useless if we don’t seek them out for our purpose. I’m a cynical man, but I am a fan of romantic and beautiful notions. This talisman may be nothing more than a sculpted rock (probably the truth), but it is surely nothing if we find no purpose for it.

The truth of things and the beauty of things need not be separate, and it is up to us, the stumbling shepherds, to marry these ideals. There are many wonderful things in the world just waiting for the plain to see.

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