You brilliant Jew,
You bright particular chameleon, you
Regild a shabby fence.
Your stripes and particolored mind, who could
Begrudge you prominence
And call you cold!
But when has prejudice been glad to hold
A lizard in its hand—
A subtle thing?
To sense fed on a fine imagining,
Sound sense is contraband.
By Marianne Moore
I just checked the last time I wrote something for these pieces, and it turns out I’ve been considering this poem for the best part of a month. Part of it was the history Moore dived into with this work, the greater part was the why behind the poem.
Let’s start with the history. The poem was originally given the title, ‘To Disraeli on Conservatism’. This was where a good chunk of study time came up. Benjamin Disraeli was a Prime Minister of Britain in the late 1800’s (he was also a… divisive author in his earlier years, ‘Vivian Grey being his most notable and longstanding work). As you may also be able to tell from the first line of this poem, Disraeli was of Jewish descent (although Disraeli’s father converted the family to Anglicanism when Benjamin was only 12, a necessary happenstance in his life considering Jews were banned from holding public office at the time). This ancestry would be the basis of many taunts while Disraeli was in office, although he was a brilliant enough diplomat to win the hearts of both the public and Queen Victoria, his precious Empress of India.
One of Disraeli’s crowning achievements was at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. My grasp on history is poor at the best of times, but the crux of this story is that the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 led to the necessity of a Congress to determine the shape of Europe. Disraeli’s role in this Congress was key to the makeup of Europe until The Great War some 40 years later. Disraeli truly helped “Regild a shabby fence”, as Moore so cognisantly said.
Moreover, Disraeli is considered a founding father of modern day conservative politics. His influence on politics – in Britain and abroad – cannot be overstated. He is a giant in the field of public service, whether you agree with his politics or not, and he set the stage for the way the world would be run for more than a century (I would be remiss to ignore the influence of William Gladstone, the liberal counterpoint to Disraeli’s conservatism; the feud between the two was a foundation for modern party politics).
Disraeli was a profound figure in British and European politics; so what does Britain, the European state of affairs, or international politics have to do with Marianne Moore? Why on earth did she feel inspired to write an ode to this “brilliant Jew”? I sent an email to Dr. Heather Cass White, the editor of Moore’s New Collected Poems to ask her thoughts. She responded with the following:
[Moore] often wrote about public figures she admired, often for moral qualities or rhetorical skill. Direct influence frequently has nothing to do with it; she was alive to the possibility of useful models everywhere: in politics, the arts, business, etc.
With this more personal look at the poem, one with a lesser focus on politics, the poem has something of a different feel.
The second poem of Moore’s I wrote about was an ode to a chameleon, an homage to the regality of the creature. I think it is no accident that in the second line of Moore’s ode to Disraeli, she calls him a “bright particular chameleon”. She sees not only a diplomat who can blend into wherever is needed, but also notices the difficulty of his life in being of Jewish heritage in something of an antisemitic world. He is a man of many colours, but his opponents never see him beyond his bloodline (there may be something of a pun here in the use of the word “cold” and the cold-blooded nature of a chameleon, but I may just be reading into something).
Furthermore, there’s a tremendous use of the word “subtle” in the final stanza. ‘Subtle’ is an extremely loaded word which I feel Moore used entirely intentionally. A simple look in the thesaurus shows the vast range of meanings this single word holds. The amalgamation of meanings relevant here, in my mind, is ‘an ingenious and cunning individual who is difficult to understand’. This lines up with Moore’s comparison to “A lizard”, something which she clearly maintains a fondness for while the wider world maintains a hesitance for all things reptilian. This is a fantastic and surprising way to flaunt the virtues of someone while simultaneously lambasting those who critique without foundation.
The final two lines of the final stanza provide an exclamation point for this lambasting while also providing some sound advice for anyone willing to read: don’t get caught up in belief to the point it interferes with reason. As a Christian, I find this kind of advice incredibly necessary; I have seen too many examples of people ignoring reality because a part of a book written by the hands of man theorise something else. Discrimination and prejudice of any kind based on the ideas of men long dead is antiquated at best, stupidity at worst.
Honestly, I thought I abhorred poetry such as this, puzzles about unknown individuals for occurrences often forgotten. But understanding this poem required work and effort (two things I’m usually ethereally opposed to), and my knowledge and understanding was increased as a result, as well as my appreciation for a man and a philosophy I never considered. So thank you, Marianne Moore, you brilliant woman.