By Marianne Moore
Have you ever heard of a man named John Skelton? I hadn’t before this poem. It turns out he’s a poet from the mid-1400’s and was a tutor to King Henry VIII. He’s also the writer of the quote from the start of this poem. It originates in his poem, ‘Uppon a deedmans hed’, a Chaucerian poem which acts as a sort of ode to church and mortality. This poem is Moore’s response.
Beyond this quote, I had been struggling with this poem for the better part of three weeks; parts of it are fairly obvious, parts are written differently than I’m used to reading, and parts of it are concealed in plain sight as fantastical imagery. However, my involvement in the LDS church has given me a small and necessary understanding of the religious overtones of this work.
The first obvious religious reference is the initial “you” in the first stanza, the one “symbolic of a plan/concealed within the hearts of man.” This references Jesus Christ (mentioned by name in Skelton’s above poem) and his sacrificial plan of salvation (Moore also refers to him as an “incandescence”, a beautiful description of his role in Christian belief). However, I can’t help but think that Moore may have chosen the word “man” very specifically. This follows the line, “For us two spirits this shall not suffice”. Moore would come to be known as an ardent feminist of her time, and given the patriarchy of contemporary religion (even today), it stands to reason that Moore has faith that may supersede the doctrine of her day. In that same vein, I feel she uses the terms “spirit” and “incandescence” completely intentionally, refusing to place a gender on the Christ she feels so aligned with.
The more difficult part of this poem comes in the character of the Sun. At the end of the second stanza, this metaphorical Sun pierces the caravan of the astrologer who carries, again metaphorically, Christ. I don’t know if Moore had a specific person in mind when she spoke of the astrologer, but this could simply mean any prophet carrying the message of the Gospel of Christ (although, as I write this sentence, I’m reminded of Moses and his leading the Israelites across the Red Sea… I will consider this further). Herein lies the second obvious religious reference.
The third religious reference also lies in the shadow of the Sun. Moore speaks of “Holiday/And day of wrath” being as one in regards to their relationship to the Sun. While “day of wrath” could signify the day of Armageddon, I cannot fathom a singular “Holiday” in opposition. As such, it makes sense to me that this is a reference to Heaven and Hell, a time of rest and a time of torment simultaneous, yet separated, “one/Great hourglass dwindling to a stem.”
So these are the images in reference to the Sun, but what is the Sun? Time seems the obvious answer, but this poem says Christ exists outside of time: “Sun-whom you outran”. Furthermore, if Christ exists outside of time, it surely stands to reason that Heaven and Hell also exist independently of time. So if Heaven and Hell lie within the Sun while Christ lives beyond it, we may have to take the concept of time a little more abstractly. Maybe this is more to do with the human experience. Christ was resurrected, while the traditional Christian churches say we men will simply live on in the result of our sin or sainthood. And herein lies the most interesting idea in the poem: Moore’s ascension beyond the realms of humanity.
This is a common thing in the LDS church, this resurrection of individuals’ bodies and souls beyond humanity, but it’s a rather unique philosophy in the realms of Christianity. For Moore to consider an idea such as this, an idea that says she can be equal to Christ and God must have been entirely radical. Granted, Moore lived in the liberal north east United States, but poking at doctrine with a stick is always dangerous. Still, it intrigues me to consider what she means by being outside of the human condition. I think she must have written this with a level of pride (a beautiful paradox), feel she must have seen herself above society or at least above the culture of her time. Or maybe she saw herself above religion and dogma? I honestly couldn’t say, but I would love to hear any thoughts anyone reading this might have.