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Distinguished scholar Ben Keatinge has contributed a considered response to Marianne Moore's poem 'George Moore'

George Moore


Marianne Moore

In speaking of ‘aspiration,’

From the recesses of a pen more dolorous than blackness


Were you presenting us with one more form of imperturbable

French drollery,

Or was it self directed banter?

Habitual ennui

Took from you, your invisible, hot helmet of anaemia—

While you were filling your “little glass” from the


Of a transparent-murky, would-be-truthful “hobohemia”—

And then facetiously

Went off with it? Your soul’s supplanter,

The spirit of good narrative, flatters you, convinced that

in reporting briefly

One choice incident, you have known beauty other than that

of stys, on

Which to fix your admiration.


‘George Moore’ by Marianne Moore: A Commentary

Ben Keatinge

First published in 1915, Marianne Moore’s poem on her Irish namesake is one of a series from this early period of the American poet’s development which explore individual writers and public figures from a characteristically moral point of view. All these poems are double-edged in their evaluative appraisal of their subjects’ lives. For example, Moore’s poem ‘To a Prize Bird’ on George Bernard Shaw views the Irish-born dramatist as self-assured and proud, his ‘brazen claws’ of wit ‘staunch against defeat’ while also somewhat ‘absurd’, as the image of the playwright as a ‘colossal bird’ implies. Likewise, her ‘chameleon’ interpretation of Benjamin Disraeli in ‘To a Strategist’ conveys the slipperiness of the politician, his ‘prominence’ reflecting a ‘particolored mind’ that seeks to ‘Regild’ the ‘shabby fence’ of Victorian party politics. Her view of William Blake is also ‘ambiguous’ suggesting that his intensely-animated imagination precludes an appreciation of his audience, the reader as onlooker, whose presence, for Blake, seems only a haze of ‘improbable / Reflections of the sun — shining pale-ly’ (‘Blake’).

The poem ‘George Moore’ operates on the same principles of balance whereby praise and admiration are intertwined with moral judgement. The contradictory term ‘transparent-murky’ encapsulates Marianne Moore’s value-laden appreciation of the Irish writer’s life and work, as does her double-edged assertion that ‘The spirit of good narrative, flatters you’. The poem suggests that, for all the lucidity of George Moore’s prose, there is a moral murkiness to be reckoned with, one that the American poet associates with ‘French drollery’ and the bohemian life of Paris. The phrase ‘Habitual ennui’ might make the reader think of the louche idleness of des Esseintes in Huysmans’ novel À rebours (1884) while the poem’s mention of ‘“hobohemia”’, (‘a district where hoboes live’, OED) — combining hobo (‘a wandering workman or tramp’, OED) and bohemia — makes clear the American’s wariness of alternative lifestyles. Nevertheless, the poem sustains a balanced uncertainty as to George Moore’s degree of moral lassitude. Indeed, both the moral and emotional tenor of the Irish writer’s novels seems to be imbricated into the poem by means of shade and light in such phrases as ‘more dolorous than blackness’, ‘hot helmet of anaemia’ and ‘transparent-murky’. Even if the decadent habits of France have become the Irishman’s ‘soul’s supplanter’, and thus worthy of disapprobation, nonetheless, the ‘spirit of good narrative’ raises the artwork above the murk to a ‘beauty other than of stys’.

We know that Marianne Moore visited Europe in 1911 with her mother. For the American poet, Paris was a city of Reformation theology as much as it was of avant-garde literature; she told an interviewer in 1963 that they had stayed ‘in a pension on the rue Valette, where Calvin wrote his Institutes’ [of the Christian Religion, 1536]. However, in the same interview, with Donald Hall, Moore pays tribute to several ‘Prose stylists’ she admires, listing Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, Sir Thomas Browne and Henry James among her influences. And Charles Tomlinson notes how Marianne Moore’s poetry ‘makes available to verse the materials and cadences of prose speech and prose writing’ to the extent that her poems often include snippets of prose quotation from newspapers, manuals and textbooks as well as from more established sources. Clearly, George Moore was one writer whose prose cadences appealed to the American poet in her formative years.

Ultimately, ‘George Moore’ joins the impressive poetic corpus of Marianne Moore where, most often, ‘the aesthetic with the ethical’ remain in tension in an ‘oppositional poetics’, as poet Michael Heller has argued. For Heller, the ‘double voice’ of uncertainty and ambiguity is a key feature of modernist poetry where poets like Marianne Moore are seen to be ‘searching for values’ in what amounts to a ‘revisioning’ of the ‘traditions’ of ‘the male-dominated poetic legacy’. It is tempting to see these early sketches, portraits of major male figures, by Marianne Moore as a kind of sounding-board, poems of early accomplishment published in little magazines from 1915 onwards, prior to her first full collection, Observations (1924). Moore’s oppositional poetics are reprised in later poems with Irish subject matter, notably and famously in ‘Spenser’s Ireland’, her poem of anguished affection for Ireland written during World War Two. Here, the language of the poem frames her wish for Ireland to join the Allied cause:

         The Irish say your trouble is their

trouble and your

                   joy their joy?  I wish

I could believe it;

I am troubled, I’m dissatisfied, I’m Irish.

The dilemma of the double voice is thus brought into alignment with Irishness, articulated by this important American poet, as a way of being and writing.


Recommended Reading

*Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of *Marianne Moore’,

Collected Prose, ed. Robert Giroux (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994), 121-56.

*Michael Heller, Uncertain Poetries: Selected Essays on Poets, Poetry and Poetics (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005)

*Linda Leavell, Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore (London: Faber & Faber, 2013)


AE Russell Appreciation Society

The George Moore Association is delighted to announce a connection with the AE Russell Appreciation Society, based in Russell’s hometown of Lurgan.  Because of the friendship between Moore and Russell it is particularly apt that the two associations should make contact and share news of upcoming events and conferences.  Some of the great work of the Society can be seen on their Facebook page: AE Russell Society - Lurgan


George Moore by William Orpen (1906).

Estimate:€300-€500. Sold for €560 (Hammer Price).  Whyte’s Auction Dublin 5th Oct 2020.  Medium: etching; (from an edition of 100) Size: 5x3in.


Orpen pic.jpg
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