On "Sojourn in the Whale"
Probably Moore's most overtly feminist poem is "Sojourn in the Whale," a piece that was apparently composed around the time of the poet's first serious literary foray to New York City. This trip in December of 1915, on which she met future friends and editors like Alfred Kreymborg and visited Alfred Stieglitz's studio "291," was described in a letter to her brother as a "Sojourn in the Whale." The poem's opening theme of attempting the apparently impossible"Trying to open locked doors with a sword" (MM 90)suggestive of the young poet's attempt to gain entry to the literary world, is met with the conventional expectation: "'There is a feminine temperament in direct contrast to ours / / which makes her do these things. . . . compelled by experience, she will turn back; / / water seeks its own' level'" (90). The poet's response to this challenge in return is as coolly and solidly defiant as we have in literature:
and you have smiled. "Water in motion is far
from level." You have seen it, when obstacles happened to bar
the path, rise automatically. (90)
from "Portraits of Ladies in Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop." Sagetrieb Vol. 6, No. 3.
"Sojourn in the Whale," a poem that is anything but modest and deferential, offers more direct insight into the person behind the poems and into the fictive discourse at the core of those poems. The title of the poem is significant in itself since it is the same one Moore gave to her serial account (in letters to her brother) of a trip to New York City in 1915. Determined to succeed as a poet and to meet whoever might help her to achieve that goal, Moore prepared for the task as diligently and deftly as though she were "trying to open locked doors with a sword." The poem opens with those words, but goes on to show that such impossible tasks seem to accomplish themselves. Power and success follow from essential confidence. The poem is ostensibly addressed to Ireland, whose tasks have included "threading the points of needles" and "planting shade trees upside down." "Swallowed by opaqueness," Ireland has "lived and lived on every kind of shortage" and has "been compelled by hags to spin / gold thread from straw." But Ireland's most impressive qualities are tenacity and inward calm. Speaking directly to Ireland, Moore identifies the secret of that country's power. It is clear that Ireland stands for a person as well as a country: . . .
"Spenser's Ireland" thus shows that imagination offers escape both from discouragement and, on a whim, from discommodity.
From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: U of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by U of Texas Press.
She rebelled--she considered herself a pure Celt--with the Irish, writing "Sojourn in the Whale" after the Easter Rising, in which she prophesies the triumph of Irish nationalism and, in the same analogy, the casue of women.
from "Becoming Marianne Moore." New York Review of Book (April 24, 1997).
We know from the earlier letters of Moore's about her second visit to New York City that the image of a sojourn in the whale had great resonance for her. Among other things, it conveyed the ability to persist against adversity, to have a period of confusion become in fact a trial and thus a new opportunity; in short, it was an image of revelation through darkness. Such adversity can be instructive for an individual or for a country. Here she uses the image to describe the country of her foreparents, but also allegorically to suggest a self-portrait. The feminine temperament and the ability, even the urgency, to rise automatically against obstacles wereif not patently part of Moore's character at this timeat least values that she aspired to in finding her place in the world. This poem was written at least two years before the Bryn Mawr visit, occasioned in part by the Easter Rebellion in Dublin and the ensuing civil strife, but she tells Warner that it is one of the two poems she chose to read aloud during the reunion. Its imagery of water rising against an obstacle contrasts sharply with Yeats' famous image of the patriot's heart turned to stone, in his "Easter 1916."
from Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Charles Molesworth.
"Sojourn in the Whale" addresses the problem of "every kind of shortage" with which feminine presences, such as Ireland, must contend. "Sojourn in the Whale" is one of Moore's few published poems of feminine complaint. However, it is a complaint that enacts its own victory over those "men" who would patronize Ireland's struggles, failing to take any responsibility for her "shortages," but rather blaming them on her "feminine temperament" and "native incompetence." And while the poem is ostensibly about Ireland, it is also probably about Moore, who was Irish, and her artistic struggles:
You have been compelled by hags to spin
gold thread from straw and have heard men say: 'There is
temperament in direct contrast to
ours which makes her do these things. Circumscribed by a
heritage of blindness and native
incompetence, she will become wise and will be forced to
In addition to having "to spin gold from straw," several other enterprises that lreland's temperament purportedly makes her do are "Trying to open locked doors with a sword, / threading the points of needles, planting shade trees / upside down." Each of these magical, fairy-tale endeavors involves an activity in which the physical properties of the "things" present an "obstruction to the motive that they serve," but are also enhanced by their unusual use. That is, while the poem conveys the frustration inherent in these endeavors, it also relishes their magical improbability. While the length and threat of a sword make it hardly the tool to open a locked door, it is intriguing to imagine the turning of such a small mechanism as a lock with the even smaller, distant tip of a sword. Likewise, while it is impossible to thread the eyeless point of a needle, the familiar difficulty of threading needles is intensified by imagining a thread pointing at the narrow, unperforated end. And shade trees indeed become trees of the shade if they survive a planting which would place their dense foliage pointed down into an even denser earth.
John Slatin in The Savage's Romance discusses "Sojourn in the Whale" as an example of Moore's struggle to maintain "an imperviousness" that in the end is overwhelmed by "common experience" and acknowledgment of her indebtedness to the larger literary tradition. At this time in her life, argues Slatin, Moore is dependent on her isolation as a form of self-protective identity and so willfully guards it. Like Ireland, Moore is obtusely still "trying to open locked doors with a sword." However, in not taking into account the alienating languages in which Moore as a woman must write--her representational as well as other material "shortages"--Slatin fails to appreciate both the dimensions of Moore's struggles and the extent of her achievement in this poem. Moore's felt isolation is her shared "feminine experience," and thus her relation to the literary tradition is necessarily oblique. As is Ireland's art, Moore's art lies in diligently carrying through impossible feats--attending to without falsely resolving the contradictions that structure her literary endeavors, and her existence. Indeed, Moore's imaginative care in conceiving impossible feats caused by "shortages" reveals her desire to share the "common experience" of feminine and oppressed others.
The poem concludes with a wonderful image of rising water. Like the complacent "men's" speech set "in motion" in such poems as "To a Steam Roller" and "To Be Liked By You Would Be a Calamity," the men's patronizing observation about water set "in motion" is their own undoing:
"... she will become wise and will be forced to give
in. Compelled by experience, she
will turn back; water seeks its own level": and you
have smiled. "Water in motion is far
from level." You have seen it when obstacles happened to
the path--rise automatically
The water is the poem's own rising anger, coolly stated. However, it is not an anger bent on convincing those who would find the anger only another example of a "feminine / temperament," but an anger intent on washing away what it did not originate, rising as freely and as spontaneously as a smile. It is a "byplay more terrible in its effectiveness / than the fiercest frontal attack." It is Moore's "white ink"; her laugh of the Medusa. And while this poem is motivated by considerable anger, it rises above this anger in its imaginative portrayal of feminine activity that is finally superior to the usual functioning of swords, needles, and shade trees--warring men, domesticated women, and established knowledge.
From Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Copyright © 1992 by Wayne State UP.
"Sojourn in the Whale" appears to claim that women (represented by the Irish) may "rise" without doing battle. The poem ends with indirect dialogue between the British ("men") and Ireland ("you," a woman).
Here is the poem's conundrum. The last lines, and the woman's smile, imply that she knows more than the men who criticize her. Having "been compelled' to perform impossible deeds for centuries ("thread[ ] / the points of needles," "spin / gold thread from straw") and having not just survived but abundantly "lived and lived on every kind of shortage," she knows with absolute clarity her own endurance and strength. Yet if water rises "automatically," there is no need for thorns or weapons.
In the context of other poems, however, such a passive reading becomes implausible, and the poem's analogy between women and nature seems more problematized than problematic. According to "Roses Only," the natural woman has both intellect and "thorns"; according to "Those Various Scalpels," women are capable of aggression and weaponry far beyond that natural state; and according to all of Moore's poems, one is limited in one's effectiveness and success by one's determination and wit--not by "nature." The "rise" predicted in "Sojourn" may occur because a woman--or at least a New Woman--"automatically" responds with whatever "weapons or scalpels" she has at her command; her nature, as it were, may appear the same but has changed in its determination to respond. Unlike most of Moore's poems, this one predicts revolution. Inspired by the resurgence of Irish rebellion against British colonialism in 1916, this poem suggests the necessity or "nature" of the downtrodden to rise.
From Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
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