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Taoist Concepts and Chinese Imagery in the Poetry of Marianne Moore
Lina Unali
Le aperture del testo, Studi per Maria Carmela Coco Davani, a cura di Mirella Billi, Lidia Curti, Elio Di Piazza, Daniela Corona, in La memoria, Annali della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell'Università di Palermo, Palermo, 1995.

These pages aim at a reconsideration of the poetry of Marianne Moore (1887-1972), perhaps the finest American woman poet of the generation of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams - their friend and often their poetic advisor - from the point of view of the Taoist concepts and the Chinese imagery which can be traced in her poetical work. We will also try to explain how the discovery of the Asian - and in particular of the ancient Chinese culture - may have led contemporary American poets to the formulation of new objects of mental identification which were previously unknown and unpredictable within the context of their own culture.
One of her collections of poems O to be a Dragon , takes the title from its first composition in which the author poetically describes the mythical animal of the Chinese tradition as a symbol of power and expresses her wish to identify with it. The meaning of the poem is to be found in the relationship between two different artistic and intellectual experiences, both acquired by the poet, that of the Chinese iconographic tradition and of Taoism as expounded by Chinese masters such as Lao Tze and Chuang Tze. The poet seems to explore both areas with equal efficiency. Though very short, O to be a Dragon expresses keen insights into cultural worlds which are foreign and not always complementary to the Christian tradition in which Marianne Moore, the affectionate sister of a Presbyterian minister, was brought up.
Let us begin from an analysis of Marianne Moore's "Chinese" quotations in The Collected Poems . Like T.S. Eliot, be it said tangentially, Marianne Moore had the habit of quoting extensively from her sources both using inverted commas within the poem itself and inserting footnotes at the end of each composition. These footnotes appear now at the end of the volume. As in T.S. Eliot's poetry, the number of quotations would have been much greater, had the author quoted all the sources of poetical inspiration. The poem might be described as a collage of quotations adapted to contexts which may very often differ from the original ones. It is part of the imagistic and objectivist tendency, inaugurated by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle and others never to speak poetically in personal terms, but always to move, so to say, among objects and quotations of literary and non-literary passages, in order to be able to conceal the direct expression of emotion, of feeling, of personality, of understanding. T.S. Eliot had successfully termed 'objective correlative' what was going to become one of the most important characteristics of XX century American poetry: a constantly felt need for indirection, for concealment, an escape from personality, from the open moral judgement, from ideology, from the self.
In the footnotes to the poem entitled The Plumet Basilisk (1933) Marianne Moore quotes an article written by Frank Davis, entitled The Chinese Dragon , published in the Illustrated London News of August 23, 1930. The quotation, the intertextual reference, has in the poetry of Marianne Moore non-conformist implications. She does not clearly distinguish, for example, between academic and non-academic authors. She entertains a personal opinion on the subject of relevance. A passage may be quoted only because it is well phrased, not for its actual content. The quotation has very little to do with the significance of either the author or of the book from which it is taken. In the short text transcribed in the footnotes to The Plumet Basilisk the dragon is thus presented: "He is the god of Rain and the Ruler of Rivers, Lakes and Seas. For six months of the year he hibernates in the depths of the sea, living in beautiful palaces... We learn from a book of the T'ang dynasty that 'it may cause itself to be visible or invisible at will, and that it can become long or short, and coarse or fine, at its good pleasure'". The above is, as we see, a quotation within a quotation on the subject of one of Marianne Moore's most favourite images and emblems - the dragon, a symbol of power which has captured her moral, religious and aesthetic imagination. A close reading of the entire corpus of her poetical compositions may lead to the conclusion that there are mainly two kinds of power which the poet has always in mind, one of which is negative, the other is positive, one of which is avoided, hated, the other respected, predilected, revered. The dragon is always seen as powerful, ambivalent multivalent and positive. The quotation continues: "A dragon is either born a dragon (and true dragons have nine sons) or becomes one by transformation. 'There is the legend of the carp that try to climb a certain cataract in the Western hills. Those that succeed become dragons'". These passages appended to The Plumet Basilisk may lead us, even before considering the poem itself, to penetrate the poetic world of Marianne Moore, made of a strange and fascinating mixture of ethical and aesthetic insights and appreciations, of private and public revolutions, of definitions and silence, of desire and abstention. Here the effort of the carp moving upstream is valued as highly as the highest of human achievements. Like her famous contemporaries, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, along the path opened by Ernest Fenollosa, Marianne Moore searched in the so-called Orient, and in China, in particular, for new sources of artistic inspiration and regeneration. Sometimes this only led to a rephrasing of traditional values in more agreeable terms. At times something completely new was discovered, something to which the Western intellect was unaccustomed, something which had not been apprehended before, which was found extraordinary. Conscious as Marianne Moore was of the fact that only the new could stimulate the poetic imagination and even regenerate morality - the new to which both Williams and Pound aspired, which they considered as one of the most outstanding achievements of all art - she often transplanted her moral and religious aspirations in Oriental settings, among Oriental objects. No American poet of this century ever suffered from that sort of multiple revulsion from the East, the product of an Imperial adventure such as the British had, full of real incidents and political pitfalls. The image of the dragon could appeal to Moore's imagination for the following reasons: it alluded to a power that was not materialistic but proceeded from Heaven. The very conception of it was a sign of reverence for high things. It was celestial power; it could take perfect artistic shapes, it was not univocal because it acted at least in two opposite directions, towards aggrandisement and towards disappearance; it was not stagnant; it could move in all directions, Northwards, Southwards, Eastwards and Westwards; it was neither humble nor proud, but it enjoyed the freedom of being both. It lacked the monotony of power as it is generally understood in the West, neurotically repeating the same kind of actions, always attempting to acquire the same kind of things, the same kind of wealth. In her enthusiasm for the dragon, Marianne Moore reveals almost a longing for the possession of shamanistic powers capable of giving a prestige which she was perhaps ready to reconcile with Christian feelings and practice.
We understand little of Marianne Moore's interest for the dragon's power, if we do not take into consideration the fact that, like William Carlos Williams, she had embraced what can be called an anti-Waste Land, anti-Eliot doctrine, urging towards the discovery of new moral and artistic means of survival, in a territory - the West - which had been authoritatively described by T.S. Eliot as sterile and dead. To the nervousness of modern Europe and of contemporary America, XX century American poets, modern moralists with modern prescriptions and therapies, sometimes answered with the poetic reformulation of oriental tenets and emblematic images suggesting new and fascinating developments in human civilisation and in the human condition. They were never interested in art for art's sake. Truth, beauty and goodness was their trinity. The full depth of their hopes has not yet been fully grasped. So great was the ambition of these poets and so vast the range of their preoccupations! They were not poets of the private garden! They were citizens of the world with 'ecumenical' tendencies: their vision was never restricted to personal feeling or to what might be described as psychic spaceless navigation , as it often occurs in more recent poetry in America and elsewhere. In Marianne Moore the dragon became the emblem of a multiplicity of elements that she probably felt Western culture had not been able convincingly to produce though most of her favourite animals shared some of the traits of the Chinese dragon. To understand this better, we may quote from the poem itself, instead of the footnotes, even though they are to be seen as 'second text', an 'alternative, more prosaic text', important as the lines themselves are. Within the poetic composition every intellectual or ideological proposition acquires the tension and beauty of music; science and philosophy become a fable, the Oriental folklore and Taoist scripture are turned into artistic experience. The tone in her own reading of the poems was never assertive, self-imposing or authoritarian. She had fully assimilated the lesson she wished to teach others, the lesson which can be called of the weak forces, familiar to modern physicists - or the lesson of Tao:

In blazing driftwood
the green keeps showing at the same place;
as, intermittently, the fire-opal shows blue and green.
In Costa Rica the true Chinese lizard face
is found, of the amphibious falling dragon, the living fire-work.

He leaps and meets his
likeness in the stream and, king to king,
helped by his three part plume along the back, runs on two legs,
tail dragging; faints upon the air; then with a spring
dives to the stream-bed, hiding as the chieftain with gold body hid.

If in order to understand an unusually difficult poem we start in search of common denominators, of signals of meaning, we realise that the animal, or animals, described in these lines share a certain number of capacities: they partake of different kinds of life, they are amphibious, they are like fire-work; they are like Narcissus meeting his image in the stream and the image reflected is not a common one, but that of a King. When nothing was created, several legends concerning the dragon say he saw his image reflected in emptiness and loved himself in it. Thus he also procreated.
In Marianne Moore's poetic imagination the dragon's power lies in the immense number of its often contrasting all-positive capacities. In the contemporary world, the exercise of power leads only to acquisition and then to wars, resulting, in their turn, in destruction desolation, despair and finally in the Waste Land. Of course, nothing of what is here said comes only from the analysis of the microtext of this particular poem. In the poem entitled The Icosasphere Marianne Moore speaks of lack of integration in order to condemn non harmonious, acquisitive, action. A thorough perusal of the macrotext, one of the poetic productions most difficult to decipher within modern American poetry, leads to the same conclusion. The poet wishes to communicate a maximum of positiveness, this is the way of modernism with her. What is negative is hidden or passes almost unnoticed. Marianne Moore introduces the reader to a world where there is no frustration, where all sorts of good things occur, where the tragic contours of life as we generally perceive them are dissipated, removed from sight. The actors in this fabulous theatrical performance are animals, often mythical animals possessing uncommon abilities, performing marvellous feats; or sometimes they are fruits such as the strawberry of the poem Nevertheless that's had a struggle/yet was, where the fragments met . It survived under fearful circumstances. One of the above quoted passages taken from the footnotes to Marianne Moore's poems appears also within the texture of the poem The Plumet Basilisk :

He runs, he flies, he swims, to get to
his basilica - 'the Ruler of Rivers, Lakes and Seas,
invisible or visible', with clouds to do
as bid-and can be 'long or short, and also coarse or fine at pleasure'.

We are in the ground where legends thrive, where potentialities are fulfilled. The main character is the dragon, a curious mixture of lizard, basilisk, alligator, moving in a world of accomplishments of various kinds; he runs, he swims, he is able to rule the world of seen and unseen reality, he has metamorphic capacities, he may transform at will his length into shortness and his coarseness into smoothness. It may be difficult to understand the meaning of all this if we do not see these scientifically described emblematic animals as models of human behaviour. Men's potentialities in the Western tradition always tend towards action, direct intervention, exhibition of strength, assertiveness, violence. The dragon, 'spirit of man' and 'spirit of nature', as in the very good book by Francis Huxley entitled The Dragon (Collier, 1979) is interpreted by Marianne Moore as a powerful symbol of all beneficent tendencies, of all vitality, beauty, respect for human life, elevation, power on earth and in the heavens.
The dragon Marianne Moore has in mind has little in common with the mythical animal to be found in many artistic manifestations in the West where he is manicheistically assimilated to the serpent and to the scorpion. In King Lear , Edmund says: "My father compounded with my mother under the dragon's tail". The result of this cursed coupling in Edmund's mind is lechery and abomination. This is only one example which can be given to describe by opposition the direction of Marianne Moore's poetical thinking. It should, however, be observed that when King Lear in Act I, Sc. I, says to Kent: "Come not between the dragon and his wrath", we are nearer to the Chinese character of the dragon as a symbol of royal power for the dragon of Britain was probably emblazoned in King Lear's helmet and constituted his emblem. But not even in Shakespeare, let aside in the dark symbols of European medieval cathedrals, have we a king blessed by Heaven and comparable to the Great Dragons, to the Chinese Emperors of Ezra Pound's Cantos forever lost in the Golden Age of ancient Chinese civilisation, far from the depravity of modern economies: divine emperors like YAO: "In the twenty-fifth century a.c. / Yao like the sun and rain, / saw what star is solstice / saw what star marks mid summer /". As with most of the Cantos , reading Marianne Moore we can formulate the following equations: Superior power, Emperor's power = superior vision = superior benevolence. The principles of a Christian and Puritan education have been set aside. A golden age is performed with characters drawn from the ancient civilisation of another Continent!
Following the presence of the dragon in the footnotes of the Collected Poems , we arrive at another very famous poem inspired by Chinese culture, entitled 'Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain'. The quotation is this time from Alphonse de Candolle, Origin of Cultivated Plants (Appleton, 1886). The passage runs as follows: "The Chinese believe oval peaches which are very red on one side, to be a symbol of long life... According to the word of Chin-nough king, the peach Yu prevents death. If it is not eaten in time, it at least preserves the body from decay until the end of the world". Another note to the same poem also refers to Chinese culture. The quotation comes from the "New York Sun", of July 2, 1952 and its author is Edgar Snow. It is the story of a gentleman from Soochow volunteering to name what he called the 'six certainties'. As in the case of the nectarines, the standard of these certainties is quite high. The gentleman thus expresses himself: "You may be sure that the clearest jade comes from Yarkand, the prettiest flowers from Szechuen, the most fragile porcelain from Kingtehchen, the finest tea from Fuchien, the sheerest silk from Hangchow, and the most beautiful women from Soochow". China is far from being an occasional presence in Marianne Moore's poetry! If we ask what relationship can be established between these newly depicted objects of observation and the dragon, we can reply that they have the following elements in common: they are objects of ecstatic observation; they are able to substitute for every proliferation of words ("no ideas but in thing" as will often exclaim William Carlos Williams in Paterson ); they suggest the idea of perfection (hidden and evident, visible and invisible); in the West they exercise the strong appeal of novelty. In moments of crisis people need either new symbols to guide and inspire them or new descriptions of the same symbols, old ones having turned stale; they are the pride of their places (a land which is desolate produces marvellous fruits).
The third quotation and also the last one refers to the kylin , or Chinese unicorn. Frank Davis writing in the "Illustrated London News" of March 7, 1931, is once more quoted as saying: "It has the body of a stag, with a single horn, the tail of a cow, horse's hoofs, a yellow belly, and hair of five colours". As in the case of the dragon (in matter of fact the Chinese unicorn is another configuration of the dragon), we are here in the presence of a mythical animal with fascinating characteristics. A question can now be posed: how can the reader meaningfully put together the nectarines, the "six properties", and the unicorn? The answer is that they all are objects of perfection and wonder, they contrast all psychic depression, they inspire new formal creation. In their humility they invite the possession of exceptional powers. They are all present in Chinese iconography and can be admired in paintings, porcelain, artefacts. They evocate an ancient world where insights into the true nature of reality had not yet been blurred by the modern agents of pollution. They remind the reader of Pound's ecstatic list of Chinese Emperors with their golden age providential nobility and splendour, magnificence and benevolence towards the people; heavenly animals recall heavenly Kings and Emperors in their sagacity and wisdom. For the sake of brevity, we shall quote only the final part of the poem dealing with the Chinese unicorn: it contains a quotation which is not to be found in the footnotes. A really original method of poetic composition!

A Chinese "understands
the spirit of wilderness"
and the nectarine-loving kylin
of pony appearance - the long -
tailed or the tailless
small cinnamon-brown, common
camel-haired unicorn
with antelope feet and no horn,
here enameled on porcelain.
It was a Chinese
who imagined this masterpiece.

In commenting on this poem something else must be added to what has already been said. It is an appreciation of Chinese culture, of Chinese porcelain, of the objects painted on it, of their significance. At the root of Marianne Moore's inspiration there is always a need to communicate a dynamic discovery of new values objectified in natural elements and in artefacts, the products of artistic or literary creation. Her attitude is fully positive, surprised, enchanted. She inspires courage and optimism. We may remember Marianne Moore as a public figure preaching a gospel of faith in places as unexpected as Central Park! The objects give form to a fantastic world with valuable correspondences in real life, they produce ethic paradigms of a new kind. The exaltation of Chinese culture is evident in Marianne Moore as it was in Ezra Pound. They are both builders of utopias, architects of societies. They never acknowledge a defeat. They want to escape modern ennui , boredom, indecision. They are both 'laudatores temporis acti?, appreciators of time past, intellectuals aiming at a refounding of values of old branches. Notwithstanding Oswald Spengler's propositions contained in "The Decline of the West", human civilisation is not condemned to die.
In the poem entitled "Tom Fool at Jamaica" the I Ching is quoted with a quite mysterious intention as saying: "Chance is a regrettable impurity". The allusion is probably to a kind of sublime certainty which chance cannot alter. But we shall finish this brief analysis of Marianne Moore's poetry with the first poem we referred to, entitled "O to be a Dragon", belonging to one of her last collections of poems carrying the same title. In the footnote at the end of The Complete Poems , we read:

Dragon: see secondary symbols. Volume II of The Tao of Painting, translated and edited by Mai-mai Sze. Bollingen Series, 49 (New York, Pantheon, 1956, Modern Library Edition, p. 57).

As a source of information on Taoism, Chinese painting and the meaning of dragons, Mai-mai Sze's large volume entitled The Tao of Painting is perhaps the most inspiring the poet could find. What attracted Marianne Moore to those pages was perhaps the constant relationship between the serious and profound view of ancient Chinese philosophy and an aesthetic approach to it, the contraction of all mysticism and metaphysics to a recognisable image, a lesson on tao and its pictogram representing the union of foot and head, the foot below and ht head above. The reader of Mai-mai Sze's book could learn that frustration could be dissipated by a good portion of the sense of fitness which besides being an ancient American prescription was also seen by Mai-mai Sze so prominent in every aspect of Chinese life, estimated by Confucius as one of the five cardinal Virtues. The quotations of a few paragraphs may suffice to show how Mai-mai Sze's book could instruct and influence Marianne Moore:

"In spite of its ferocious aspects, the dragon has generally been regarded as a beneficent power, though severe in presence, with the majesty of law and high morality benefiting the symbol of Heaven. This popular interpretation of the dragon is of very early origin: the opening verses of the I Ching on the ch'ien (first, originating, Heaven) hexagram describe the dragon slumbering in the deep, stirring, leaping forth, winging across the heavens, a vivid picture of the ruling and pervasive power of Heaven, and by analogy of moral and spiritual strength". (P. 82)

"(...) the dragon possesses one main characteristic, described in the I Ching and evident in nature itself, its constant movement, essential to it as a symbol of change. Indeed, the dragon was described as being capable of extraordinary transformation - at will reduced to the size of a silk worm, or swollen till it fills the space of Heaven and Earth" and has the gift of becoming invisible". (pp. 82-83).

"The dragon is thus a symbol of the idea of the Tao, giving it substance and vividly illustrating its main aspects. Painters who specialised in painting dragons and who wrote on the subject were strongly influenced by Taoist ideas and repeatedly used Taoist terms to describe the dragon". (p. 83).

The relevance of Marianne Moore's poem "O to be a Dragon", or we might even say, of this ultimate and most important dragon in her poetic production, lies in the fact that her objectivist technique of composition does not here obstruct a clear perception of motives, also of a personal kind. What we tentatively called a "model" of conduct and of action, is projected on the poem as such, connected with the aims of an aspiring self. We are no more lost in the intricate relationship which objects entertain with one another in poems inspired by the principles of the imagistic or objectivist school. Here we have the definition of an overt ambition of an unusual kind, the expression of a wish radiating from within the self. The first part of the poem refers to passages in the Hebrew scriptures, and can only be explained through them. The second stanza concerns the Chinese dragon and displays a 'Taoist sensibility':

If I, like Solomon, ...
could have my wish -

my wish ... O to be a dragon,
a symbol of the power of Heaven - of silkworm
size or immense; at times invisible.
Felicitous phenomenon.

The dragon of the Chinese and Taoist tradition is once again represented as visible and invisible, his world is that of the Heavens and of the Emperor, but it can contract to a minimal size. Moore's scientific method of poetic construction does not hinder an insight into more profound layers of meaning. Instead of only describing the dragon, she clearly says she would like to become one. In its brevity the composition shows a great scholarly precision in grasping the nucleus of a wholly different culture and civilisation: it speaks of Heaven, 'tien', not of God or the creator, as in Christianity, it speaks about phenomena, not about permanent entities. It resembles the logos of Heraclitus. It deals with power and metamorphosis and the metamorphosis of power.
The brevity of the poem suggests the ineffability of concepts, the importance attributed to emptiness. As the Tao Te King suggests, the principle is like water whose unobtrusive mobility allows it to win, to penetrate, to dispose of things. Discovering the full range of the symbols of the dragon, Marianne Moore discovers the full range of the Tao's presence. She makes the whole of Chinese culture explain its meaning with softness. She grasps both its secrecy and its epiphany. She is also ready to forget her cultural insights and discoveries, to turn to something else, never to fix herself on concepts which do not carry life within. Miss Moore's attitude to life and art always seemed to favour the following indications: "Adopt no absolute position. Let externals take care of themselves. In motion be life water. At rest like a mirror. Be subtle as though non existent. Be still as though pure". In contrast to this model of unobtrusive vitality, we find at the very end of one of the last editions of Marianne Moore's Complete Collected Poems an ironical remembrance of Sultan Tipu of Mysore, considered in the nineteenth century extremely dangerous by the British in India with its powerful machinery of war and as Marianne Moore says "Great losses for the enemy".