Why so desolate?
in phantasmagoria about fishes,
what disgusts you? Could
not all personal upheaval in
the name of freedom, be tabooed?
Is it Nineveh
and are you Jonah
in the sweltering east wind of your wishes?
I myself, have stood
there by the acquarium, looking
at the Statue of Liberty.
By Marianne Moore
I’d never read the Book of Jonah until now. Frankly, I never thought I’d be doing scripture study because of Marianne Moore. However, in researching this poem, I read something brilliant by Stephen Burt:
To read Moore at length is at once to pick up odd facts and to gather moral advice. It’s like reading Scientific American (which she quoted) and Samuel Johnson at the same time.
So here we are, reading theological criticism to critique individual thoughts.
The crux of the Book of Jonah is that Jonah is called to preach in Nineveh (in hostile territory) to save the city from the fates of Sodom and Gomorrah. Fearing for his life, Jonah attempts to flee and, naturally, is swallowed by a fish. On repenting, God forces the fish to throw up Jonah, and so Jonah does his preaching. Nineveh repents, God forgives, and Jonah is annoyed at God’s forgiveness. God then lightly punishes Jonah to teach him about the necessity of mercy (for those wanting further details, I can confirm the Bible is freely available online).
So that’s the fact of Moore’s poem; wherein lies the moral advice? I have seen both in my church and in others the face-value judgement of figures, present and historical. The Bible never mentions the hostile territory in which Nineveh is found, so many people assume Jonah is running for the sake of avoiding work. In fact, he’s running for his life. By not considering, by simply making base assumptions, we coincidentally become the judgemental archetype played by Jonah after he has preached and saved Nineveh.
There are a few choice words used by Moore in the first stanza of this poem, the first being “desolate”. The word “desolate” brings to mind a barren landscape, empty and harsh. This single word describes Moore’s criticism entirely: while people may judge Jonah for his choice, they tend to be overly harsh while void of reason.
Another beautiful choice of word is “phantasmagoria”. While many people take the words of the Bible as gospel truth (I couldn’t resist), we can be quite certain that this is a more allegorical tale than a literal historical account. While certain aspects of the story may be accurate, being swallowed and vomited by a fish is a little more than unlikely. Still, there are people who react with such vigour to a fictitious account, it calls into question why someone would react so. Granted, in the modern day, people react in similar ways to fictions such as the final Game of Thrones season, but modern criticism seems more focused on story construction than actual character.
The final word I’d like to mention is the word “tabooed”. Like the crux of this poem turning the message of the allegory back on us, this likewise takes a common biblical term and places it back on the Bible. I’m not going to argue one way or the other on whether Moore’s opinion is right here, but it is a well considered sentiment.
The second stanza is a little more difficult for me to digest and discuss. Granted, the first three lines of the stanza are fairly straight forward: the first two lines literally say what the point of the poem is, while the third line illustrates this point (the sweltering east wind refers to the arid desert winds blowing significant discomfort over Jonah in Chapter 4, all because of his pride and judgement). However, I remain uncertain on the point of the Statue of Liberty. Thus, I will end my discussion here with a question: what do you think the Statue of Liberty represents in this poem? I would love to see any ideas you might have.