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Jarrell's Review of Marianne Moore’s Anti-War Poetry

Against Marianne Moore’s "In Distrust of Merits"

[In an omnibus review for the Partisan Review, Jarrell singled out Marianne Moore’s "In Distrust of Merits" for its inadequacies as a poem about war. A defense of Moore and a discussion of Jarrell’s review may be found in Susan Schweik, A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War (Madison: U Wisconsin P, 1991), 31-58.]

Miss Moore thinks of the war in blindingly moral terms. We are fighting "that where there was death there may be life." This is true, in a sense; but the opposite is true in a more direct sense. She writes at the climax of her poem, "If these great patient / dyings – all these agonies / and woundbearings and bloodshed / can teach us how to live, these dyings were not wasted"; and she is certain that they were not wasted, and ends the poem with "Beauty is eternal / and dust is for a time." (The armies and the people died, and it meant that Beauty is eternal.) Since Pharoah’s bits were pushed into the jaws of the kings, these dyings – patient or impatient, but dyings – have happened, by the hundreds of millions; they were all wasted. They taught us to kill others and to die ourselves, but never how to live. Who is "taught to live" by cruelty, suffering, stupidity, and that occupational disease of soldiers, death? The moral equivalent of war! Peace, our peace, is the moral equivalent of war. If Miss Moore had read a history of the European "colonization" of our planet (instead of natural histories full of the quaint animals of those colonies) she would be astonished at nothing in the last world war, or in this one, or in the next. She should distrust us and herself, but not at the eleventh hour, not because of the war (something incommensurable, beside which all of us are good): she should have distrusted the peace of which our is only the extrapolation. It is the peace of which we were guilty. Miss Moore’s seeing what she sees, and only now, betrays an extraordinary but common lack of facts, or imagination, or something. But how honest and lovable – how genuinely careless about herself and caring about the rest of the world – Miss Moore seems in this poem, compared to most of our poets, who are blinder to the war than they ever were to the peace, who call the war "this great slapstick," and who write (while everyone applauds) that they are not going to be foolish enough to be "war poets." How could they be? The real war poets are always war poets, peace or any time.

from "Poetry in War and Peace," an omnibus review for Partisan Review, Winter 1945, rep. in Randall Jarrell, Kipling, Auden & Co. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980), 129.

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