Memorial Day, 2021

The Poet Marianne Moore on Life and Eternity

My dear friend, Patricia Willis, was Director of the Marianne Moore  Library at Yale University, and sent me this poem by Moore to add to the collection of great poets on this ultimate of subjects.

“Moore didn’t much address life/death/eternity except when she wrote about war. The following is a poem written during World War II. She was far from a pacifist; her brother, John Warner Moore, was a Presbyterian Navy chaplain stationed at Pearl Harbor just before the destruction there and then assigned as Pacific Fleet Chaplain, serving aboard Admiral Nimitz ship. So, this is not what you were looking for but I thought I’d send it anyway.”

In Distrust of Merits

Strengthened to live, strengthened to die for

medals and positioned victories?

They’re fighting, fighting the blind

man who thinks he sees,—

who cannot see that the enslaver is

enslaved; the hater, harmed. O shining O

firm star, O tumultuous

ocean lashed till small things go

as they will, the mountainous

wave makes us who look, know

depth. Lost at sea before they fought! O

star of David, star of Bethlehem,

O black imperial lion

of the Lord-emblem

of a risen world—be joined at last, be

joined. There is hate’s crown beneath which all is

death; there’s love’s without which none

is king; the blessed deeds bless

the halo. As contagion

of sickness makes sickness,

contagion of trust can make trust. They’re

fighting in deserts and caves, one by

one, in battalions and squadrons;

they’re fighting that I

may yet recover from the disease, My

Self; some have it lightly; some will die. ‘Man’s

wolf to man’ and we devour

ourselves. The enemy could not

have made a greater breach in our

defenses. One pilot-

ing a blind man can escape him, but

Job disenheartened by false comfort knew

that nothing can be so defeating

as a blind man who

can see. O alive who are dead, who are

proud not to see, O small dust of the earth

that walks so arrogantly,

trust begets power and faith is

an affectionate thing. We

vow, we make this promise

to the fighting—it’s a promise—’We’ll

never hate black, white, red, yellow, Jew,

Gentile, Untouchable.’ We are

not competent to

make our vows. With set jaw they are fighting,

fighting, fighting,—some we love whom we know,

some we love but know not—that

hearts may feel and not be numb.

It cures me; or I am what

I can’t believe in? Some

in snow, some on crags, some in quicksands,

little by little, much by much, they

are fighting fighting that where

there was death there may

be life. ‘When a man is prey to anger,

he is moved by outside things; when he holds

his ground in patience patience

patience, that is action or

beauty,’ the soldier’s defense

and hardest armor for

the fight. The world’s an orphans’ home. Shall

we never have peace without sorrow?

without pleas of the dying for

help that won’t come? O

quiet form upon the dust, I cannot

look and yet I must. If these great patient

dyings-all these agonies

and wound bearings and bloodshed—

can teach us how to live, these

dyings were not wasted.

Hate-hardened heart, O heart of iron

iron is iron till it is rust.

There never was a war that was

not inward; I must

fight till I have conquered in myself what

causes war, but I would not believe it.

I inwardly did nothing.

O Iscariot-like crime!

Beauty is everlasting

and dust is for a time.


(Patricia C. Willis 360-797-1251)

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