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On "The Paper Nautilus"


Jeanne Heuving

If "Bird-Witted" depends for its meaning on a conventional narrative sequence and the contrast between the quick instinctive bird and the slow, intellectual cat, "The Paper Nautilus" is unified through its central symbol, a chambered nautilus shell, and an opposition between inner and outer. The poem, in fact, was written as a gift to Elizabeth Bishop in return for her gift to Moore of an actual nautilus shell. Moore herself seems to have had mothering as well as mentoring inclinations toward the younger Bishop--a kind of mothering that, like the nurturance provided by the chambered nautilus and Moore's own mother, helps by hindering the young. Indeed, as noted previously, Moore seemed to have taken on the behavior of her own mother and urged Bishop--contrary to Bishop’s own poetic interests--to express "significant values."

"The Paper Nautilus," about the act of creation as maternal protectiveness and watchfulness, moves from images of an externality, to an internality, and back again:

[. . . .]

The poem initially repudiates external enclosures--"teatime fame" and "commuters’ comforts"--in the interest of its own definition of an internal and internalized enclosure, love, outwardly symbolized by the nautilus shell. The internality which the poem proposes, while highly intimate, is not stifling: the paper nautilus may "bury" the eggs but it does not "crush" them. The strength of the eggs to free themselves is emphasized by comparing them to Hercules who, although "bitten by a crab loyal to the hydra," succeeded in killing the hydra. The paper nautilus as both crab and hydra, keeps her young eggs from hatching too easily, lest in reaching their full size too quickly they are hindered to succeed, rather than hindered to succeed. (The ambiguity of "hindered to succeed" may be an insiders joke for Bishop, an acknowledgment by Moore of the potentially negative effects of an intense maternal watchfulness.) The poem concludes with its own freed eggs--an external image of arms wound around a Parthenon horse, freely electing love--that links an internal love to its outer appearance, it’s "chiton-folds."

Despite its appealing and careful definitions, "The paper nautilus," in comparison with Moore’s earlier poems, depends on and reinscribes the conventional oppositions of internal and external, valuing the former over the latter.

From Omissions are not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1992. Copyright 1992 by Wayne State UP.


Grace Schulman

In "The Paper Nautilus" (1940) the contemporary scene is given at the outset:

    For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?
    Writers entrapped by
    teatime fame and by
commuters' comforts?

Again, the poet opens with sentence fragments, indicating reverie, dependent for their meaning on the lines that follow:

                        Not for these
the paper nautilus
constructs her thin glass shell.

Despite the shift from worldly figures to sea animal, the poet maintains a tension between them by presenting their differences and similarities. They are antithetical because of the leap in tone, and parallel because the construction of the shell is like shaped hopes and fame's entrapments, all three being enclosures. The succession of images captures the mind's movement from idea to object in a pattern of associative leaps.

In the second stanza the poet strengthens this tension between the world and the object:

[. . . .]

The mutual freedom of eggs and shell calls back the shoddy enclosures of the authorities in the opening lines, and it intensifies the relationship between the nautilus and her eggs by recalling the interactions of authorities and mercenaries. Further, the image of sight is repeated ("watched eggs") and heightened by the pun on "see" ("succeed"), intimating the blindness of the worldly figures. The beautiful concluding lines describe the shell

    round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
    is the only fortress
    strong enough to trust to.

Here it appears that love is not a trap, but a process of reciprocal protection and freedom. The primary effect of the poem, however, is the way it moves forward by referring back to previous words ("hopes" and "eats" for example), just as the mind moves on by referring back to previous thoughts. The words "fortress" and "trust" recall "the watchful / maker" of the shell that "guards it day and night." The poem is concerned with a particular mind struggling to come to terms with one of the basic issues of contemporary life: the conflict between self-interest and the interest of others. Because its medium assimilates thought, its references to specific events is oblique: the reader might, however, be reminded of certain problems of 1940, such as the Maginot Line, the system of fortifications along the eastern frontier in France, which gave false security to its builders because it was supposedly indestructible. The decision of the United States to participate in World War II can, in fact, be considered in terms of the central action of the poem: the effects of mutual freedom and the meaning of love as "the only fortress / strong enough to trust to." The central idea is, of course, more general--that of unselfish love--but it is presented in such a way as to show the mind working through to its meaning.

In confessing that she lacked a "taproot," then, Marianne Moore did not mean that she changed convictions mercurially but that she pivoted from one view to another in an honest attempt to come to terms with the complexity of human relationships. The best illustration I know is in the pattern of the poet's conversations. For example, in the spring of 1967 she expressed certain views on war in Vietnam that I thought contradictory, and she spoke for some time before clarifying the logic of her seemingly illogical argumentative progression. She said:

I try to comfort myself with the thought that they are learning better why they are fighting. But when they say, "This may go on till summer," we are doomed, I feel. I don't dare face it, actually.

Suddenly, the poet veered from our conversation about war and discussed incidents that were apparently unrelated--her ambivalence about a visitor; her divided feelings about an unethical businessman. Then she closed in on her attitude toward war, quoting the last stanza of "The Paper Nautilus":

    round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
    is the only fortress
    strong enough to trust to.

Now that is as specific as I can put it. If you felt that way about any people, you couldn't fight them. You couldn't want to kill anyone. If you permit yourself to be unjust, and sanction it (the golden rule, the same thing) you would not do to others what you would have others do to you.

From Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.


Joanne Feit Diehl

With its unpredictability and sheer force, the octopus is a maternal creature whose embrace can kill. In "The Paper Nautilus," enfolding arms represent a desire for absolute love that engages related issues of maternal steadfastness and the tenacity of maternal affection. Like "An Octopus," "The Paper Nautilus" approaches, through elusive and at times evasive images, an alternative aesthetics that is gender-identified and political. If in "An Octopus" the appropriative, capitalistic mountaineers threaten the mountain's flora and fauna and ultimately the origins of artistic life itself, the paper nautilus rejects a commercial, suburban set of values, choosing in their stead an anti-authoritarian, maternal world of symbiotic nurturance and intimacy. Here the central trope is the creation of new life within and from a creature, the carefully balanced mutuality of the eggs and their maternal source. . . .

Turning away both from the generalized commercial values of society and more specifically from those writers who are trapped by false lust for fame and ease, the paper nautilus, with delicate tenacity, constructs something that will endure long enough to sustain life and become an object of loveliness. This entrapment contrasts with the freedom of the mother who releases rather than smothers her young. Aware that what she has to give is "perishable," the paper nautilus constantly guards her thin glass shell. . . .

Such vigilance is a testament to the fragility of her creation and a tribute to her loyalty. And yet the image of the maternal is not without its dangers, dangers strongly reminiscent both in visual and in psychological terms of the glacier as octopus. Like the octopus, the nautilus has eight arms, and again like the octopus, the danger, although here a danger evaded, is that she will crush what she strives to protect, the precise risk that the glacier as octopus presents to what flourishes through and in her potentially devastating presence.

The suddenness with which maternal devotion shifts from a totally benign to a much more ambivalent description is signaled by the image of entrapment. Again, Moore draws upon Greek myth, provocatively comparing the maternal paper nautilus's relation to her eggs to Hercules, who, according to legend, was the strongest man in the world and a figure of supreme self-confidence.

Moore's simile alludes to Hercules' second labor, the killing of the nine-headed Hydra (a difficult task, both because one of the heads was immortal and because as soon as one head was chopped off, two grew in its place). In the original story, Hercules is helped by his nephew Iolaus, who brings him a burning brand to sear the neck as he cuts the head so that it cannot sprout again. "When all have been chopped off he disposed of the one that was immortal by burying it securely under a great rock." In Moore's recasting, the crab's bite contributes to Hercules' success because of the evident disparity between Hercules' physical strength and his activity in the world and the apparent fragility and stasis of the paper nautilus. Yet it is this paradoxical relationship that best expresses Moore's understanding of the alternative powers of maternal effort of the natural as the primary trope for artistic creation. Hers is no idealized maternity, but a complex understanding that combines the inherently adversarial potential in the relationship between daughter and mother with an abiding awareness of the dangers embodied in the mother. If, in "An Octopus," the arms that reach out create the abrasions of both potential destruction and the possibilities of renewed life, in "The Paper Nautilus" a similarly ambivalent mutuality between the mother and her eggs occurs:

    as Hercules, bitten

    by a crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
    the intensively
    watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed,--

In the poem's final lines, the vision of what remains after the eggs are freed, interdependence and the need for security, is reinscribed upon the shell itself:

    leaving its wasp-nest flaws
    of white on white, and close-

    laid Ionic chiton-folds
like the lines in the mane of
    a Parthenon horse,
    round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
    is the only fortress
    strong enough to trust to.

These wasp-nest flaws preserve the scene of birth as they mark the scars of separation, While the "Ionic" folds and the Parthenon horse not only return us to Hercules and ancient Greece, the poem's close describes a powerful dependency that clouds the earlier vision of mutual, simultaneous freedom. "Chiton" reiterates the pattern of intimate dependency, referring both to "a gown or tunic, usually worn next to the skin" and to a "sea cradle, a mollusk of the class Amphineura, having a mantle covered with calcareous plates, found adhering to rocks." With her allusion to the chiton as garment and as "sea cradle," Moore undercuts the freedom of release through images that depict clinging, holding on for life. As a "cradle," a place for the newborn that is covered by plates, a cradle that itself clings, the chiton bears witness to the power of dependence.

Similarly, the arms, unidentified yet clearly human, cling even in statuary form to the Parthenon horse's mane for protection. And yet that idealized mutual liberation is undercut by the poem's close, which, in its allusions to "chiton-folds" and the arms that wind themselves around the Parthenon horse, reassert the need for protection. The knowledge Moore provisionally ascribes to the anonymous arms "as if they knew love / is the only fortress / strong enough to trust to" reintroduces the dangers of separation the poem had earlier cast aside. Like "An Octopus," that other poem of dangerous engulfment, "The Paper Nautilus" is both a refuge and a risk, offering, as it does, security from the outside world and the crushing pressure of dependency. If Bonnie Costello is correct when she asserts that in this poem "as always Moore directly associates these issues of protection and struggle with problems of language and interpretation," then the myth of poetic origins, as envisioned by Moore, is a maternal myth, wherein the mother proves as potentially dangerous as the world her daughter's words would inhabit.

From Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Copyright 1990 by Joanne Feit Diehl.


Sabine Sielke

Moore, on the other hand, separates the spheres of marriage and motherhood. While in "Marriage" Eve's maternal role is of slight relevance, Moore in return celebrates maternity in poems that move away from "familiar scenes" (Irigaray 206). Among these texts, her "Paper Nautilus" is a central statement (121-22), a text that offers the maternal as a kind of reproduction different from mimicry, as a version of both creation and procreation with reference not to woman's body but to diverse forms of spatial representation. "The Paper Nautilus" is a poem that closely joins motherhood and poetic power, but a poem also that has repeatedly been considered a non-representative exception in Moore's work and whose treatment of birth, body and maternal love—in fact the very use of this word—has made many a reader extremely uncomfortable. The critique of the poem's "depend[ence] on intuition more than observation" (Stapleton 121), its "hauntingly emotional" quality (Taffy Martin 99), and its "sentimental treatment of maternity" (Slatin 256), however, testifies less to the text's deficiency than to its disruptive force.

The poem begins with a distinction of economies.

For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?
    Writers entrapped by
    teatime fame and by
commuters'comforts? (121)

"Not for these," we read on, but for a "perishable souvenir of hope" the animal's/poet's efforts are invested here. The maternal affection depicted in the following lines is far from the suffocating introjection and imprisoning overprotection which Irigaray's and Rich's texts reject as just another instance of a "universal" desire for the same. Moore's kind of care instead condenses power, restraint, and detachment into a genuine liking, into a love that is "not a trap," as Schulman points out, "but a process of reciprocal protection and freedom" (67).

Buried eightfold in her eight
    arms, for she is in
    a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram'shorn-cradled freight
    is hid but is not crushed;
    as Hercules, bitten

    by the crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
    the intensively
    watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed,—
    leaving its wasp-nest flaws
    of white on white, and close-

    laid Ionic chiton-folds
like the lines in the mane of
    a Parthenon horse,
    round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
    is the only fortress
    strong enough to trust to.

The word love—like the loaded metaphor that accompanies it—Is indeed peculiar but "important," and especially "Useful" here not for its meaning but for its previous loss, thus lack of meaning (Poems 266-67). Recontextualized, this affection contrasts both Adam's and Eve's narcissistic attraction to an "other self" and the self-centeredness of "entrapped" writers. At the same time and by means of images, such love also modifies the economy of voice that goes along with narcissism—the complicity of silence and echo. "Marriage," as we remember, portrays Eve as "lov[ing] herself so much, / she cannot see herself enough—/ a statuette of ivory on ivory," caught and immobilized in the process of mirroring, desire and loss of the self. In "The Paper Nautilus," the marks left by the nautilus' eggs, those "wasp-nest flaws / of white on white," instead become signs of difference within sameness, signs of a simultaneity of separation and connection that inscribe a slight but significant difference into the economy of gain for loss.

Although "The Paper Nautilus" lacks citation and thus a marked acceptance of unoriginality, the poem's dismissal of narcissism does not displace Narcissus' mate Echo completely. "We cannot ever be wholly original," Moore claims in "Archaically New" (1935), a comment on three of Elizabeth Bishop's poems. "Nevertheless," she adds, "an indebted thing does not interest us unless there is originality underneath it" (Prose 328). And while her poem's reference to Greek mythology and architecture, its comparison of maternal nurturance (and "devil[f]ishness") to Hercules' labors reflect the difficulties of imagining an "original" link between motherhood and the power of discourse, the text also (re-)creates this link from within conventional representation and reference.

Such linkage, which strives to signify an "other" economy of desire, discourse, and voice, enfolds near the end of the poem. In the last two stanzas, reference becomes unstable and syntactic linearity is disrupted by spatial images; image and simile, the "close- / laid Ionic chiton- folds / like the lines in the mane / of a Parthenon horse," give prominence to visual and tactile over temporal allusion; and the term "chiton," denoting both an ancient Greek garment and an order of marine mollusks like and unlike the nautilus, repeats the "redundancy" of the preceding "white on white" by semantically embodying a "difference within." Since the nautilus is "in / a sense a devil- / fish"—devilfish being both a term for a group of rays and for the octopus or any other large eight-armed cephalopod like and unlike the nautilus—we have already been prepared for this redundant, yet remarkable doubleness, this indifferent difference of meaning. Like the remetaphorization of maternity, the destabilization of referentiality advances the poem's attempt to represent difference within indifference or, if you like, indifference within difference. In this way, "The Paper Nautilus" indeed leaves its "flaws of white on white"; it carves "original" birthmarks onto the ordinary economy of discourse and voice, an economy that tends to know white because it knows black and that accounts for separation as difference, not as indifference to connection.

from "Snapshots of Marriage, Snares of Mimicry, Snarls of Motherhood: Marianne Moore and Adrienne Rich." SAGETRIEB 6.3


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paper nautilus, pelagic, surface-dwelling cephalopod mollusk of the genus Argonauta. Like the closely related octopus, the paper nautilus has a rounded body, eight tentacles, and no fins. It is so named for the beautiful papery shell, up to 8 in. (20 cm) long, that surrounds the female while she broods her eggs. This structure, actually a calcareous egg case, is secreted by the tips of the female's two greatly expanded dorsal tentacles prior to egg laying. After she deposits her eggs in the floating egg case, the female takes shelter in it herself; she is usually found with her head and tentacles protruding from the opening, but she retreats deeper inside if disturbed. The muc  smaller male, which lacks the modified dorsal tentacles, often shares the shell of a female. It was once believed that the paper nautilus, or argonaut, uses the expanded tentacles, extended from the shell, as a sail. The true nautilus (genus Nautilus) belongs to a different cephalopod order. The paper nautilus is classified in the phylum Mollusca, class Cephalopoda, order Octopoda. source

Yi-ling Lin

Joanne Feit Diehl thinks that this poem presents two antithetic aspects of maternal affection: it can be “both a refuge and a risk” (88). Since the paper nautilus is a cephalopod like the octopus whose embrace kills, Diehl suggests that the paper nautilus “will crush what she strives to protect” (86). However, I believe that this poem eulogizes maternal love; the arms of the paper nautilus are not a strangling force, but a protective power.

Through the depiction of a female-gendered paper nautilus and her hatching habits, the poet glorifies the selflessness of maternal affection. Her delicate shelled beauty is not meant as decoration for authorities “whose hopes / are shaped by mercenaries” (lines 1-2) or for writers who are “entrapped by / teatime fame and by / commuters’ comforts” (3-5), but rather for the protection of her young. She is a watchful guard that never diverts her attention from her eggs; she “scarcely / eats until the eggs are hatched” (14-15).

The comparison of the paper nautilus to an octopus shows that she will exercise her defensive power to protect her eggs when being attacked. The poet’s deliberate use of the term “devilfish,” another name for the octopus, may lead to a terrifying image of the paper nautilus, but the sudden change of the paper nautilus’ temperament merely indicates a mother’s effort to protect her young. Her defensive power is directed at attackers rather than at her own young, so she will only protect her eggs instead of crushing them: “ . . . her glass ram’shorn-cradled freight / is hid but is not crushed” (19-20). The oxymoronic combination of the fragile glass with the strong and defending ram’shorn best illustrates how greatly the paper nautilus would change in order to defend her eggs.

Although the poet’s utilization of the story of Hercules to describe how strenuously the eggs free themselves from their creator may contribute to the impression that the paper nautilus’ overwatchfulness hinders the eggs from liberating themselves, what cannot be ignored is that when the eggs are freed, they free the shell as well: the paper nautilus is relieved from her significant task of hatching. Nevertheless, her relief is temporary. As indicated in the last stanza, the poet’s comparison of the young of the paper nautilus to the lines in the mane of a Parthenon horse “round which the arms had wound themselves” (32-33) suggests that the paper nautilus’ care for her young is unfailing even after the eggs are hatched.

Works Cited

Diehl, Joanne Feit. Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Moore, Marianne. “The Paper Nautilus.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 273-74.

Copyright © 2006 Yi-ling Lin


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