The 7 Continents of Marianne Moore’s “England”

[full text of the poem here:]

Marianne Moore’s “England” is, of course, a poem about America. (Ah, you devilish moderns; on reading you we might want to heed John Ashberry’s implicit warning: if we’d wanted to be clear, we’d have written an instruction manual; instead, have some Guadalajara) (Ashbery, 14:1-7).

So to the question, why is a poem about America called “England?” First, of course (of course!), and just to complicate – to look at the back side of the page as well as the front – to the high modern priestess Moore the poem, any poem worth writing, must follow the modernist creed down the alleys of the poem’s own Guadalajara-of-the-mind, must be always about its own making, its own self-actualizing. The poem must be an enactment of its own poetic thesis, at once a reification and one unique memorialization of the eternal rediscovery of first principles that was and is the high modernist project for poetry. So “England” is not just a poem about Americabut also, always, a poem about American poetry by way of being about itself, this specific American poem. And to Ms. Moore we (admittedly) presume, untroubled in 1920 as we suspect she would still be in 1960 by the idea that the American poem could be written by some Mexican or French Canadian, the American poem was a poem in English. And to the poet in English isn’t all the world an “England?”

In fact the poem works quite hard to conflate the “England” of its title (if a title
it can be called) not just with America but with the entire world. As Moore’s “The Fish” typographically enacts the shape of a fish, “An Octopus” an octopus, here in “England” we have seven blocky, tectonic-edged stanzas typographically representing the seven continents. Of course (of course!), in a world which is England which is the world which is just a poem, these are continents we wouldn’t recognize in any geography. (For all her “precision,” in W.C. Williams’ fine word for her, Ms. Moore will leave the niceties of Geography with a capital “G” for Sister Elizabeth.) Indeed, as stanza five points out, these are if anything “continents of misapprehension” (17), making up a world where Europe (constituted only of England, Italy, Greece, and France) spills across nearly two continents (stanzas one and two), where Asia as a whole (constituted only as “the East”) (7) takes up just two lines (or half a continent) that merely encrust the shores of Europe and America, where America sprawls across four continents, and where there is neither any Southern Hemisphere, Arctic nor Antarctic.

 “Misapprehension” – in the form of “continents of misapprehension” – which appears in the first line of stanza five (17), recurs in the first line of stanza six: “To have misapprehended the matter, is to have confessed / that one has not looked far enough” (21-22). The poem appears to turn in some critical way on the fulcrum of these twin “misapprehensions.” But what is in fact being misapprehended is highly ambiguous. The rhetoric of the poem (inasmuch as a poem where “words remain separate, each unwilling to group with the others” (Williams, 231) can be said to have a rhetoric) strains towards an American triumphalism, a glorification of the American grain, which the concluding stanzas of the poem appear to celebrate and which – mistaking the “ramshackle” south for America as a whole (11), “poisonous toadstools” (18) for “mushrooms” (19), Boston “a”s for proper mid-Atlantic “a”s (15-16) – minds like the Anglophile Eliot’s or the Italo‑phile Pound’s, subsumed in and represented in absentia by the “England” and “Italy” of this poem’s world, can and will never properly or fully apprehend.

                                  The sublimated wisdom
                    … the cataclysmic torrent of emotion…
          …the flower and fruit of all that noted superiority –
      should one not have stumbled upon it in America, must one imagine
that it is not there? (22-27)

Yet perceptually the poem enacts its own opposite and possibly even more radical misapprehension. In its argument for Americaand an American poetry “England” enacts a radical foreshortening of the world that is not America. This radically foreshortened world includes only America, Western Europe, and the coasts of Asia (a vision fraught with potentially unhappy political and canonical implications beyond our focus here). And from the heights of this radical American self-regard the poem reduces all of England to mere “baby rivers and little towns” (1) and a lone “voice … echoing through the transept” (2). Italy is likewise reduced to the symmetry of its shores and a “contriving … epicurianism” (4); Greeceto its “goats,” “gourds” and “illusions” (5); France to
a single, highly artificed pillbox (5-8); and all of Asia to “snails,” “jade cockroaches” and “imperturbability” (8-9). It is a vision almost comical in its foreshortening, instantly reminiscent of the iconic New Yorker

Steinberg for The New Yorker, March 1976.

cover where all the world beyond the Hudson River is reduced to a vanishingly small sliver on the horizon. But this foreshortening also enacts quite literally a misapprehension thoroughly congruent with – almost painfully analogous to – the classic Bloomsian ideas of misreading and misprision, which in their way themselves misapprehend and reenact Eliot’s ruminations on the functioning of the true “individual talent” and its implications for the ongoing re-immersion, reordering, and reconstitution of the past.

Because what are these England, these Italy, these Greece, but the grounds upon which the modernist poetical project must grow: a set of inescapable cultural antecedents here willfully misapprehended, belittled and displaced; a quite thorough catalog of the usable past shrunk to the dimension of the useful aphorism, the greatest number of big cultural fish skillfully caught in the flimsiest possible net justifying Moore’s nearly xenophobic (and certainly self-aggrandizing) boast, “I envy nobody” (25-26). What Romantic poet or Victorian novelist escapes the purview of England’s “baby rivers and little towns” (1), which in our dizzying American misapprehension sweeps up London and the Thames as readily as Thornton or the Wye? How pithily the full scope of Anglo‑Catholicism and Established Anglicanism are compassed both in two mere words, “abbey” (for Catholicism) and “cathedral” (for Anglicanism) (1), that so slim but still lethal crossing between them suggested with such poetic economy, “one voice perhaps, echoing through the transept” (2), which one voice subsumes not just the obvious Milton, but even Shakespeare himself, that “sun” of the crucible of Elizabethan politics who caught and reflected the heat and light thrown off by the great (and continuing) conflict and unrequited love of London for Rome. The enormity of the conflict between antiquity and modernity that is Italy captured whole, perceptually if not cartographically, between two “equal shores” (3‑4), the entirety of Western mythology encapsulated in a Grecian “nest of modified illusions” (5).

In nine-and-a-half lines Moore renders a complete (if necessarily distorted) catalog of laden tradition, the supposedly requisite cultural antecedents that have the power to either nourish or kill, and which, if to nourish, must first be killed. In Adorno‘s construction, properly hating tradition, condemned to an eternally self-cannibalizing menti, Tom Pusillanimous Possum Stearns with his nose stuck perpetually up his own ass, the properly modernist poet destroys to create, dances her circle-jerk of eternal return, while the rest of us, at least at first, scratch our heads and wonder, ‘what the hell was that all about?’

Ms. Moore’s American poem is both born in and borne along by just such a symbolic slaughter, her willful misapprehension – misreading (if there is any discernible nuance in the space between “misapprehension” and “misreading”) – of this uniquely catalogued set of indelible poetic antecedents which seem meant to stand for the complete set of all indelible antecedents, and which the poem seeks to put ‘in their place’ (as it were) – in their own, new place, a place “not confined to one locality” (28) – before and in the course of justifying its own enactment. And in the place of that foreshortened and displaced past, at the very center of this new world (and at the physical center of the poem), born of a pair of mutually exclusive but equally willful misreadings, we discover the one thing that stands unequivocally outside the otherwise inescapable web of misapprehensions: “not .. Greek,” “not … Latin,” “but … plain American which cats and dogs can read!” (14-15).

Yet, can this place exist? Can there truly be a place outside of misapprehension? If the space of the poem is, as we have postulated, a space caught between two symmetrical and irreconcilable misapprehensions – one rhetorical, one perceptual – a double-blind double-bind – can we trust either the world, ourselves, or the poem, when it asserts that something can actually be read? By its own logic the poem seems to be arguing that either this opaque and difficult thing before us is now poetry even if through some Euro-centric perversity it cannot be recognized as such; or alternatively that the perversity is Moore’s, that the poem’s distancing from tradition and historical modes of signification is too great, and this thing is no poem but merely a meaningless assibilation let loose on its own “language-less country” (13). Is there here, too, then, no there there?

Taken on its own terms Moore’s “England” wants to argue for a plain-spoken Americanism as a basis for a new poetry. But can the poem be said to succeed on its own terms? Can it be said to be as self-evident and unpretentious as The Compleat Angler, which it cites? To which we offer a halfway answer from the poem itself: to “cats and dogs” maybe. Certainly Moore has brought all the “correct” ideas – correct from the standpoint of a modernist theory of poetics (meeting all the minimum requirements of a modernist (cat and) dog-whistle) – to bear in her work. And there is certainly an exquisite refinement in the piquancy and economy of her language, an earthiness of voice, a precise, consistently utilitarian, and unpretentious choice of words. Yet somehow, in her zeal, Moore’s language has flown straight past America, landing in that place, as she herself says, that is “never … confined to one locality” (28). There is an almost patrician lack of song – lines that land too often on the ear, in my humble opinion, like Mitt Romney singing “America the Beautiful” – that holds her work, in general, one step from greatness. For all the lack of pretense in diction there is a commensurate lack of dirt and merde that leaves her poems one step too far along the continuum from affect to abstraction, a calculating cleverness that may leave one cold.

In all the cleverness of “England” being actually a poem about America something obvious – perhaps too obvious to theorize on – has been lost. I can’t imagine muttering, as I motor down the street, “contriving an Epicureanism from which the grossness has been extracted” (4-5) in the same manner in which I often find myself witlessly muttering, “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee,” (Stevens, 66:1-2) or, “Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” (Whitman, 246:51:8-9). Moore’s vaunted but absurd efforts to name the Ford Edsel – “Intelligent Whale,” “Mongoose Civique,” “Utopian Turtletop” (Santos, 264) – missed the point in
a similar and telling way. Ironically, what they lack is a certain commercial “poetry.” They don’t scan. Like “England” they seem more clever words on America than trenchant utterances of America. And as the poem’s conclusion would have it, by having purposely unconfined themselves from any locality, these utterances belong instead to a nebulous space – a space between misapprehension and misapprehension, between abstraction and abstraction – that could no more be occupied by a real car name than by what we might more fully, bloodily, call poetry. If England is America is a poem, it is also nowhere: a place where place has no importance. And nowhere remains a difficult place for poetry.

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. “The Instruction Manual.” Some Trees. New York:  The Ecco Press, 1978.

Moore, Marianne. “England.” In Lawrence Rainey, editor, Modernism: An Anthology. Malden, Mass., Oxford, andCarlton, Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Santos, Irene Ramalho. “Poetry in the Machine Age. Marianne Moore: a voracity of contemplation.” In Sacvan Bercovich, general editor, The Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume Five: Poetry and Criticism, 1900-1950.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press, 2003.

Stevens, Wallace. “Sunday Morning.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

Williams, William Carlos. “Spring and All.” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 1: 1909-1939. New York: New Directions, 1986.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Whitman: Poetry and Prose. New York: The Library of America, 1982.

One response to “The 7 Continents of Marianne Moore’s “England”

  1. Aw, this was a really good post. Taking the time and actual effort to make a great article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a whole lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.

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