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No Swan So Fine -- Marianne Moore

Guest poem submitted by Michelle Whitehead:
(Poem #1492) No Swan So Fine
 "No water so still as the
    dead fountains of Versailles." No swan,
 with swart blind look askance
 and gondoliering legs, so fine
    as the chintz china one with fawn-
 brown eyes and toothed gold
 collar on to show whose bird it was.

 Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
    candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
 tinted buttons, dahlias,
 sea urchins, and everlastings,
    it perches on the branching foam
 of polished sculptured
 flowers - at ease and tall. The king is dead.
-- Marianne Moore
The poem sent in by Mac Robb reminded me of my favourite swan-song poem.
I checked the archives, and it's not there. I wonder if I will be the
only one to suggest it!!!

"No Swan So Fine" opens with a quote from an article by Percy Phillip on
the restoration of Versailles. As is typical of Moore's work, she adapts
her found quotes to suit her theme - here, that of nature versus
artifice. The quote suggests that no water can be as still as a dry,
man-made fountain. It also suggests an image of a palace of sparkling
bright light, now still and silent. The poem then goes on to describe a
living swan, at once haughty and ridiculous - so fine when skimming
across the water, but losing its elegance when seen from underneath.
Despite this it has a vitality and life force not present in the china
swan to which it is compared.

I believe the word 'chintz' which describes the china swan was
originally a Hindi/Sanskrit  word meaning multi-coloured, or bright. By
late Victorian times it was associated with inexpensive 'tawdry'
furnishing fabrics. The 'toothed gold collar' reminds me of that worn by
the hind in Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt" which read 'Touch me not, for
Caesar's I am.' In contrast to the living swan's independence, the china
swan is an owned object with no existence of its own - and yet it is
presented as superior. Its frozen painted perfection eclipses the memory
of the natural bird. No wonder the real swan looks askance!

The beginning of the second stanza begins with a description of a
candelabrum owned by the late Lord Balfour, copied by Moore from a 1930s
Christie's sale announcement. She describes the overblown ornamentation
of the object, ending with the china swan perched 'at ease and tall', in
its polished environment. The china swan is beautiful, and has outlasted
generations of real swans, as well as the brilliance of the Versailles'
court where it was made - and yet it is as still as the fountains,
lacking the vitality of the living swan. Its fragile perfection is
contrasted with the living swan's robust self-sufficiency. In both
cases, the implicit focus is on the response of the human observer,
rather than the actual swans. The living swan is sublimely indifferent
to being watched, where the china swan 'lives' only in being admired.

The china swan, the work of art, has replaced the real swan - 'the king'
- and an era that is gone. It remains to provide a sense of timelessness
- perched on the everlastings, it has an existence beyond the
limitations of days and years. It retains the beauty of the living swan,
and is a reminder of the brilliance of the historical court. The living
swan, however, although it cannot approach the artistic perfection of
the china copy, has vital qualities which no artifice can duplicate. It
is part of moving time that passes and becomes history. It, too, conveys
a sense of timelessness - just as every generation of swans contains
unique, unrepeatable individuals, so each human era is unique - the past
gives way to the present and the present to the future. Versailles may
be gone, but it is still inspiring new art forms.

This poem was written for the 20th anniversary edition of Poetry
Magazine. It was rumoured at the time that the magazine would close that
year, suggesting that this may be a swan song for the magazine -
celebrating the brilliance of its era - but also suggesting that the old
must give way to the new.

Michelle Whitehead
(previously Chapman - I was married in March).

Some sites with bibliographies, biographies  & essays on Marianne Moore:
[broken link]

[Minstrels Links]

Poem #21, Sailing to Byzantium  -- William Butler Yeats
Poem #957, Whoso list to hunt -- Thomas Wyatt

61 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

William Robertson said...

She asks too much;
I kept reading over and over "The Chambered Nautilus" and then the
"Paper Nautilus". The one so -- seemingly-- a simple and beautiful
description of a sea shell, the other a secret letter to an almost
adopted daughter. I want to read MM like I read Millay. Even the
short--perhaps-- straight forward "Intramural Rat" keeps me thinking
that she sometimes called her mother "rat".

Stop asking me to think so much Marianne.


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