On "Spenser's Ireland"
Maurice J. O'Sullivan, Jr.
Irish-American response to its Irish heritage has long been an intense, and at
times bellicose, pride in Ireland's capacity not only to endure but to impose
significant aspects of its highly sophisticated culture on America's eclectic
society, mixed, paradoxically, with a quiet bewilderment at the unwillingness of
the Irish to accept the kinds of pragmatic compromises that have characterized
American history. Complicating most attempts at defining the ambivalence in this
attitude is the recognition that, in America, much of the Irish mystique arises
from a popular identification of the race with a trait that is variously praised
as perseverance and damned as intransigence. Perhaps the most subtle and
articulate statement of Irish-America's perception of itself and its ambivalence
occurs in Marianne Moore's "Spenser's Ireland," a meditation on
Ireland and the Irish and on their influence upon a person who shares with them
only the most tenuous of cultural and biological bonds. Borrowing material from
both the distant and recent pasts, Miss Moore directs our attention initially to
Spenser's experiences, especially, we soon learn, to his frustration with
Ireland's resistance to change, only to redirect us, in a footnote, to
"Ireland: The Rock Whence I Was Hewn," a magazine article by Donn
Byrne in which she found a wealth of incidental information and a wry viewpoint
which helped to generate the self-conscious irony in her conclusion.
commonly accepted as the character voicing Spenser's opinions in A vewe of
the present state of Irelande, displays great sympathy for, and empathy
with, the Irish while at the same time lamenting their unreformed and apparently
unreformable behavior. He complains to Eudox, the second speaker in the
dialogue, that no matter how often the Irish are shown the proper, responsible
way of life, "beinge straighte left unto themselves and theire owne
inordinate life and manners they eftsones forgote what before they weare taughte
and soe sone as they weare out of sighte by themselves shoke of theire bridles
and begane to Colte anewe more licentiouslye then before." Part of the
purpose in Miss Moore's poem is to show that the licentious colting is merely a
symptom whose cause lies in a deep-rooted, almost visceral impulse against
into six stanzas, "Spenser's Ireland" refines its author's basic
conception stanza by stanza, from the naturalness of the first through the
obduracy of the second, disunion of the third, supreme belief and care of the
fourth, and possibility of reform in the fifth, to her ironic resolution through
dissatisfaction in the sixth. Her choice of a syllabic rather than accentual
meter—with eleven lines of 4, 8, 8, 6, 9, 7, 11, 4, 5, 5, and, echoing the
Spenserian alexandrine, 12 syllables—allows her to achieve striking linear and
morphological effects while employing traditional syntactic patterns. By
incorporating the title into her first sentence, Miss Moore creates a continuous
thought pattern and integrates what is normally considered an appendage,
although an important and necessary one, into the very body of her poem:
at first appears to be an uncomplicated, lyrical tone set by the assonance and
alliteration of the opening lines soon proves to contain suggestions of tension
in the ambiguities of its diction. This process formally begins with a reversal
of the reader's expectations by using "never" where "ever"
is anticipated. But even before this, greenness implies not only the inevitable
allusion to Ireland's visual splendor, but also, especially in conjunction with
the implicit reference to Spenser's criticism, an immaturity or lack of
development. Suspicions that the poem is something other than a simple paean to
Irish beauty become even more justified when Ireland is personified as a
"culprit" whose fear is neither names nor sticks and stones, but
silence. The traditional Irish love of conversation, even via multi-person
monologues, is suggested, as well as the poet's implied admission that her
incriminations are doomed, since they will not be felt because her very
articulation of them is a victory for the accused.
naturalness of the Irish has two aspects. One is their undeveloped greenness, an
idea which is reinforced by the disused sleeves which follow the syntactic
digression in lines nine through eleven. The digression itself cites a primary
cause for the greenness, an excessive and inhibiting reliance on mythology. The
second element of the naturalness lies in the close association of the Irish
with nature, an association which the poet will later project as a possible
source of regeneration. Throughout the opening stanza Miss Moore has catalogued
the major charges both Spenser and the twentieth century have brought against
Ireland: latent Celtic paganism, the dislike of more work than necessary for
survival, the use of mythology to escape rather than to understand reality, and
the failure to exploit twentieth century technology. The remainder of the poem
is an attempt to evaluate these charges by examining the author's reactions to
second stanza opens with a question, a significant divergence from the simple
statements in the first sentence of the previous stanza:
Irish customs gleaned from Mr. Byrne's article, playing harps backward to
frighten potential supernatural enemies and evading giants—in this case the
iron giants of industry as well as of myth—by swallowing fern seed, lead Miss
Moore to wander if there might not be a similar magic substance to cure Irish
stubbornness. But at the same time she finds that the magic which does exist
lacks the essential quality of magic: enchantment. Moreover, she believes that
the Irish are misusing magic in some way, either, as her own use of it in her
wish in these lines implies, by not employing it on the proper objects or by
allowing it and their past to preoccupy them to the exclusion of a rational
ordering of the present. Morphologically, she illustrates the process she is
wishing for by removing the suffix of "unlearning" to the following
lines to show how knowledge must be separated for analysis and reevaluation
before the integrity of "reinstating" can be realized.
personify the past in hindering their descendants. Their influence, in fact,
carries into the following stanza's anecdote:
"a match not a marriage was made" is characteristically Irish for
marriage denotes a union while a match is merely a juxtaposition. The first line
of the third stanza is thus a comment on both the second line and the anecdote
as a whole. Tradition persists as
the author’s grandmother is frustrated by her grandmother, herself
recalls the last word of the first stanza, "disuse," but develops the
essential Irish nature as more actively negative, or perhaps even destructive,
than the earlier word had.
simple vowel substitution in the thrity-first line further defines the race:
Uncertain of whether the second phrase is coordinate or resultant, we are forced to accept the ambiguity. Fairies have the capacity for bringing either good or evil; furies, both more ominous and more obdurate, are limited to the latter. By enjambing the thirty-third line with the following stanza, Miss Moore stresses the continuing obduracy of her speaker. And, by her use of "sees," she expands our awareness of her interest in the creative possibilities of ambiguity: seemingly intransitive, since it comes at a normal pause, with the effect of appearing to make an extremely general statement, "sees" is actually transitive, offering the paradox that freedom arises from captivity. "Supreme belief," although left purposely vague to avoid theological complications, is obliquely defined by the descriptive passage which follows and by Miss Moore's own practice: the poem itself. The freedom with which she is concerned is not the freedom to act, but the freedom that arises from acting with care and skill, the state achieved by the careful, precise tier of flies. Only by emulating such care as his might Ireland regain its former enchantment.
hands which "divide / flax for damask" concur both with one another
and with the fingers which "tremblingly divide the wings." By working
together the hands and fingers offer an example of care and of union. This is
the positive participation with nature of which the "natural" Irish
are capable. Human care and nature create an object (damask) with human
properties (skin). But items which have not been carefully made, such as the
jewelry shown in Mr. Byrne's article, cannot compare with nature or, by
implication, with that which has been fashioned with care and metaphorically
compared with nature.
proposing the means by which Ireland might change, Miss Moore imagines the
results of a reversion to enchantment, but only briefly:
regaining its enchantment, would emerge no longer in the delicate guise of the
guillemot or linnet, but with the stature of a stag or a "great green-eyed
cat of / the mountain." Returning from this reflection to reality, she
points to the actual result of Irish metamorphosis, invisibility, and questions
the Irish boast of total empathy. By wishing that she could believe this claim,
she indicates that she does not. And this is how she remains, "troubled . .
. dissatisfied . . . Irish."
the course of her poem, Miss Moore has created a definition and accepted it for
herself. Her own state of dissatisfaction is the lack of union between desire,
what she wishes for, and reality, what she will accept; she is therefore
disunified. Throughout the poem she reveals her essentially Irish nature, for
the poem itself is an expression of her inability to submit in silence, her need
to speak out. She betrays her own attitude toward magic and mystery by desiring
to use the same means as her subjects—fern seeds and metamorphosis—but to
cure rather than hinder; even her last sentence begins with a wish.
from "Native Genius for Disunion: Marianne Moore's 'Spencer's Ireland.'" Concerning Poetry 7.2 (Fall 1974).
The Notes to "Spensers Ireland"
The books and articles to which MM refers in her notes to "Spenser's Ireland" provide contexts for parts of the poem and show her method of finding affinities among seemingly disparate materials. Of the poem's 67 lines (counting the title as line one, as MM did), forty have their genesis in the works noted. The six notes appended to the poem are derived from four sources, namely single publications by four Irish writers: novelists Maria Edgeworth and Donn Byrne, storyteller Padraic Colum, and boatman-bard Denis O'Sullivan.
MM made extensive use of "Ireland: The Rock Whence I Was Hewn" by Donn Byrne in The National Geographic Magazine, 51 (March 1927), 257-316. In his somewhat polemical and spirited description of Ireland, Byrne was writing for an American audience, among whom he lived in New York for many years. He tries to disabuse future tourists of certain ideas held by Ireland's "Saxon neighbours," for example, that the "Irish bull" (a locution like "If that colt could catch the other, he'd beat him!") has no subtlety, or that all Irish stories are about little people. He ranges over Irish history, language, customs, scenery and monuments, concluding on a note of dissatisfaction that the "New Ireland" has not attained his dreams.
The first aspect of the article on which MM draws is Byrne's comment on Irish language and names. MM's "Every name is a tune" (line 5) was inspired by a list of town names and their translations. Byrne says that while in some countries, there are "names like a bar of music," their meanings are no longer alive. In contrast, "Our names are still alive in Irish speech. Aderg means the Red Ford, . . . Booleyhasruhan, the Milking Place of the Little Stream, . . . Killabrick the Wood of the Badger and so on for about fifty names.
Elsewhere, Byrne describes Irish servants who
. . . have a pathetic loyalty. They are often of a carelessness which drives a sane man mad. But no tongue-thrashing will affect them. They will say: "Ah, sure, himself doesn't mean a word of it! Tis only a gray day in his heart." The only discipline you can use is to forbear speaking to them for some days. This is torture.
MM turns this comment into her lines 6-8:
Denunciations do not affect
the culprit; nor blows, but it
is torture to him to not be spoken to.
"Cheating the fairies"--Along the Connemara coast, boys were dressed in red flannel skirts up to the age of twelve. Fairies were thought to spirit off male children. The Irish believed that they would mistake the boys for girls, whom they would not touch.
A photograph of red-skirted boys suggested lines 31-32: "Outwitting / the fairies." In Connemara, boys are dressed in "red flannel petticoats in order to deceive the fairies who are supposed . . . to run away with male children if they have the opportunity, but will not touch little girls."
Three other photographs prompted lines 45-53:
Concurring hands divide
flax for damask
that when bleached by Irish weather
has the silvered chamois-leather
water-tightness of a
skin. Twisted torcs and gold new-moon-shaped
lunulae aren't jewelry
like the purple-coral fuchsia-tree's. Eire
so neat and the hen
of the heath and the
linnet spinet-sweet--bespeak relentlessness?
Irish ornaments, with torcs and lunulae
clustered at the
First, a weaver is shown at a hand loom, making table damask: "Some of the linen is so fine that it resembles silvered chamois leather. . . and will hold water . . . The thread is woven unbleached and the cloth is bleached afterward on the wide lawns of the mill." Page 279 shows "a collection of old Irish ornaments," among them an "assortment of torcs and old lunulae." Page 317 offers a colored photograph of a grandmother, knitting, in front of a fuchsia-tree whose bicolored flowers are best described as "purple-coral."
MM's last selection comes from Byrne's discussion of Irish peasants: "When they are young they are supple as a larch. When they are old they have the kindness and sanity of a gnarled apple tree. Always, our trouble is their trouble and your joy theirs." MM rephrased the comment and made it a question:
The Irish say your trouble is their
trouble and your
joy their joy?
It should be noted that MM's lines 6-8, concerning "torture to him to not be spoken to " were applied in their original context to servants. The first reference to Castle Rackrent, which MM embeds in her next lines, 9-12, also concern a servant:
the coat, like Venus'
mantle lined with stars,
buttoned close at the neck, -- the sleeves
new from disuse.
Drawing on her copy of Maria Edgeworth's Stories of Ireland: Castle Rackrent and The Absentee (London: George Routledge, 1892), MM chose the opening self-descrioption of Thady Quirk, the narrator-family retainer whom the Rackrents call "Poor Thaddy"
for I wear a long great coat1 winter and summer, which is very handy, as I never put my armes in the sleeves; they are as good as new, though come Holantide next Ive had it these seven years: it holds on by a single button round my neck, cloak fashion.
The footnote is Edgeworth's own. In it she cites Spenser's "View of the State of Ireland" as the authority for the cloak's "high antiquity," offering his many proofs from the history of the Jews, Chaldees, Egyptians et al: ". . . the Greeks also used it anciently, as appeared by Venus' mantle lined with stars." Then she invokes Spenser's knowledge of "the convenience of the said mantle as housing, bedding and clothing:
Because the commodity doth not countervail the discommodity; for the inconveniences which thereby do arise are much more many; for it is a fit house for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and an apt cloak for a thief.
From the second part of the footnote, MM takes Spenser's remark about the discommodity of the cloak's ability to cover up riffraff as well as the loyal servant and saves it for the end of the poem where it joins the "Earl Gerald" story: "Discommodity makes / them invisible."
From The Absentee, MM draws material for lines 38-43:
When large dainty
fingers tremblingly divide the wings
of the fly for mid-July
with a needle and wrap it with peacock tail,
or tie wool and
buzzard's wing. . . .
On pages 163-164 of MM's edition, Edgeworth sets a hilarious scene wherein sportsminded houseguests of Lady Dashfort collect two British officers and impose on Count O'Halloran to request permission to hunt on his lands. The British officers make fools of themselves in trying to show off their limited knowledge of fly tying to the count, an expert at the craft. First, they tell him how to tie a feather: ". . . and then, Sir Count, you divide your wings with a needle." Then, the count produces a basket of his flies:
There was the dun fly, for the month of March; and the stone-fly, much in vogue for April . . . . "and chief the sad-yellow fly, in which the fish delight in June; the sad-yellow-fly, made with the buzzard's wings, bound with black braked hemp; and the shell-fly for the middle of July, made of greenish wool, wrapped about with the herle of a peacock's tail, famous for creating excellent sport."
A gentleman to the quick, the Count gives the flies to the officers, noting that since he had made theme they are "of Irish manufacture." The British officers never catch on that they have been bested by the Irishman, a man whose pride "'is in care, not madness."
In her notes, MM refers to a work by Denis H. O'Sullivan as the source for the "guillemot" in line 53 and the "linnet spinet-sweet" in line 56. It is unlikely that O'Sullivan's Happy Memories of Glan-Garriff (Dublin, n.d.) would have survived had MM not kept a copy herself. It is a 16-page pamphlet of poems by "The Bard of Glengarriff," a boatman whose work was to row tourists around Bantry Bay, Cork. From these jaunty verses, MM admired two phrases: "the guillemot so neat" and "Tis there you'll hear the linet so equal with the spinnet." Not given to modesty about Bantry Bay or himself, O'Sullivan repeatedly applies "so neat" to flora and fauna and advertises his fame:
As Denis H. O'Sullivan is recommended here,
By this well known writer, G. B. Shaw who says
he ne'er had found
A Boatman guide my equal for knowledge, wit
For truthfulness and humour around the Irish
Like Donn Byrne, Padraic Colum was an Irish writer who spent much of his time in New York. Like O'Sullivan, he strains credulity, although through fantasy rather than hyperbole. MM heard Colum tell the "Earl Gerald" story at a lecture (he published it in The Big Tree of Bunlahy, New York, 1933). From this tale comes inspiration for lines 15-20 where the question is posed: "If in Ireland they
. . . gather at midday the seed
of the fern, eluding
their "giants all covered with iron," might
there be fern seed for unlearn-
ing obduracy and for reinstating
and lines 58-61:
they are to me
like enchanted Earl Gerald who
changed himself into a stag, to
a green-eyed cat of
the mountain. Discommodity makes
them invisible; they've dis-
In "The Wizard Earl," Colum tells that one who gathers fern-seed unseen on Midsummer's Eve gains the power of invisibility. Earl Gerald tried to do so, but was seen. Later, his wife begged him to show her his wizard's shapes. After obtaining her promise not to be frightened and thus make him disappear against his will, Gerald became first a stag, then a "cat of the mountain," and then himself in miniature form. All went well until the castle monkey swept up the tiny Earl, the Countess screamed in fright, and the Earl disappeared forever.
Discommodity, that makes the Earl Gerald invisible (lines 62-3), circles back to Spenser's comment on the discommodity of the coat which could make an outlaw invisible. Although MM wrote to a student (T.L.C. to John D. Sheehan, 22 March 1955) that "Spenser's Ireland" was "too opportunistic a title," it is the Elizabethan poet's Ireland, as transmitted by Maria Edgeworth, that MM describes. MM went on to say: "I had in mind the appearance of Ireland, and the Irish idiosyncrasies as seen in Maria Edgeworth's Ireland -- Thady Quirk, for example. . . -- his coat worn as a mantle, 'the sleeves new from disuse." Edgeworth, Spenser, Byrne and Colum, whose writings were the chief inspiration for the poem, share MM's intent, best expressed in the introduction to her copy of Castle Rackrent. There, the editor, Henry Morley, quotes Sir Walter Scott on his debt to Maria Edgeworth and his desire to do for his island what she had done for hers, namely to "introduce her natives in a more favourable light than they had been placed hitherto, and tend to produce sympathy for their virtues, and indulgence for their foibles."
From the Marianne Moore Newsletter Vol. IV, No. 2 (Fall 1980)
"Spenser's Ireland" makes no direct reference to the subject of "Sojourn in the Whale," but it portrays an even more subtle and evasive power. The poem concludes with its speaker's admission that "I am troubled, I'm dissatisfied, I'm Irish," but it has already offered a solution to the alleged dissatisfaction by portraying freedom and success as states of mind rather than as action. We learn, for instance, that dull perseverance which
and again says, "I'll never give in," never sees
that you're not free
until you've been made captive by
If the eccentricities of Ireland thus seem merely fussy--and Moore's language itself is deliberately fussy when making the point--she has her own suggestion for a method of escape:
so neat and the hen
of the heath and the
linnet spinet-sweet--bespeak restlessness? Then
they are to me
like enchanted Earl Gerald who
changed himself into a stag, to
a great green-eyed cat of
the mountain. Discommodity makes
them invisible; they've dis-
"Spenser's Ireland" thus shows that imagination offers escape both from discouragement and, on a whim, from discommodity.
From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by U of Texas Press.
"Spenser's Ireland' (1941) would seem to be Moore's most specific poem about race since here she refers to the poem's "I" as "Irish," and since the poet's own multiple public and private references to her Irish heritage imply the identity of that speaker with herself. Yet the speaker knows Ireland only through reading and myth. The poem begins with its title: "Spenser's Ireland //has not altered;-- / a place as kind as it is green, / the greenest place I've never seen. / Every name is a tune." Mythical elements predominate even in the primary didactic statement of this poem, which occurs at its center:
[Miller quotes lines 30-37]
Typically for Moore, this didactic statement couches itself as a conditional description, contains a double negative (never . . . not free), and ends with a question that undercuts the speaker's stance--all aspects modifying the absolutism of its claim. Presumably, stubbornly independent people (all Irish?) do not know that their freedom lies in supreme belief, hence their "obduracy," continuous fighting, and dissatisfaction. In a more directly conditional query, the speaker previously asks
But it isn't clear why the condition is necessary or who the recipient of the reinstating should be--today's Irish recovering their lost heritage? the rest of the world learning from mythically "[un]altered" Ireland? Moreover, she implies that even this heritage may be a mixed blessing. "Hindered characters / seldom have mothers / in Irish stories," Moore states, "but they all have grandmothers"; she then follows this generalization about loss by quoting a hopelessly bigoted ancestor:
Irish heroes may need both to escape or "unlearn" such closed-minded "native genius for disunion" at the same time that they reclaim a heritage of almost magically skilled craft and kindness.
As racial portrait, this is myth-making par excellence. Moore's knowledge of earlier extreme discrimination against the Irish in the United States may contribute to her strong allegiance to that part of her heritage, but it does not enter the poem. Similarly, Moore's concern for the political and religious factionalization of Ireland and its continuing semi-colonial status appears nowhere in this poem, as it does in the earlier "Sojourn in the Whale." Instead, she identifies her speaker with a country of garrulously cantankerous individuals who live a life of antithesis to the rational materialism and selfishness characterizing the United States.
Nonetheless, the final lines of "Spenser's Ireland" emphasize the distance between the speaker and Ireland, even as they assert identity: "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." By rhyming "I'm Irish" with "I wish," by denoting the Irish "they" (rather than "we"), and by stating that she can't believe what "the Irish" do, Moore allies her speaker with the earlier skeptical "you" ("credulity you say?") rather than with the Irish themselves. The poet's acknowledged borrowing from Don Byrne's "Ireland: The Rock Whence I Was Hewn" in the 1927 National Geographic Magazine for much of the description of her poem further dislodges any claim to authority through identity (see "Notes," CP, 280). This is an intertextually constructed portrait, not a racially or culturally "inherited" one.
As with "Enough: Jamestown," I do not find that this poem accounts for all its own implications and detail--perhaps in this case because the poet has restricted herself to the mythological and personal, yet places the poem in a temporal context and thereby hints both at the country's history of strife and at its neutrality during a "world" war against fascism. "Sojourn in the Whale" more successfully combines the mythological, political, personal, and didactic in its representation of Ireland.
From Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Return to Marianne Moore