Poem of the week: To a Snail by Marianne Moore

Precise observations of this humble creature provide a droll allegorical critique of style.

By Carol Rumens, published in The Guardian, 10 July 2017

To a Snail

If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

Marianne Moore was a tireless and unforgiving editor of her own work. In the new edition of the collected poetry, Heather Cass White revises the author’s revisions, omissions, and re-orderings, to retrieve the texts as they were first printed, and in order of composition.

There are two poles in editorial thought on poets’ revisions. One holds that authors’ final revisions are sacrosanct, the other favours restoration. Dispute seems redundant: let’s have both! Originals are crucial, integral to understanding a writer’s place in history and her emergence. But revisions provide another valuable, evolutionary, narrative. First words, last words, interim words: if the poet is good enough, let’s have the variorum edition in all its glory.

Moore left To a Snail unrevised: this is the text as first collected in Observations (1924). It’s an example of what I call her “zoological allegories”. The fable was always one of her significant mental spaces, letting her tease out her unique and beautifully mixed fibre of moral judgment and visual description. Here, while morality is far from abandoned, the emphasis is on aesthetic value.

There’s no real “if” about the governing proposition. Compression is “the first grace of style” for this writer, as her earliest poems demonstrate. Compression is more than brevity, of course: in poetry, selectivity is the general principle which defines the genre. Moore distils her perceptions, visual and moral, into a language that gives an impression of extreme precision: however detailed her poem may be, however long and full of stanzas, she is always exquisitely selective.

But this is a mere 12-liner, elegantly made of two brief, assertive sentences and a more discursive one. Balance is not only syntactical but syllabic (though this is not a syllabic poem). Notice the contrast of the brisk, discrete monosyllables “you have it” and the neighbouring quintet of syllables in the single word, “contractility”.

The second-person pronoun is used only in the second and final lines. Moore was fond of the apostrophe, and it particularly sharpens her edge and playfulness when she evokes objects or creatures at a distance. She talks over them, but we listen all the more acutely and metaphysically.

Moore’s poem forced me out into the rain to snail-watch and, in particular, to notice those pliable and perceptive tentacles, the two short “horns” at the front of its head, the two longer and more sensitive ones behind (termed by Moore, oddly but winningly, the “occipital horn”). The snail is acutely sensitive to its environment. Perhaps the modest person is, too. The snail’s biological contractility has nothing to do with modesty, of course, but Moore’s connection introduces the new idea that modesty is a psychological kind of contractility.

Style, though, is the thing. At first, this this style could be sartorial. (Images of a hat-adorned Moore in later life spring to mind.) Later, the reference to verbal style is made explicit (“something well said”). So what sort of thing is “able to adorn” an utterance? A fancy adjective, a quotation from another text? Moore is a magician of adjectives, though it’s not a magic she exercises here but adornment by quotation. Is she arming herself against her critics? Is the poem her presentation of a shell?

More elusive is the nature of style as “the incidental quality that occurs / as a concomitant of something well said”. Style is not that: not, perhaps, “the best words in the best order”, as in Coleridge’s tantalisingly unsatisfactory definition of poetry. Triumphantly, then, the negatives and abstractions are transferred to the observable snail. What “we value in style” is “the principle that is hid” (a nice little quaintness, that “hid”). The line ends with a colon, and the list begins with “the absence of feet”. Critics have read this as a witty allusion to free-verse structure. Such a reading may be complicated by the fact that the snail does, indeed, possess a single foot. This is a fundamental demonstration of compression!

I think Moore is saying that “in the absence of feet” there is “a method of conclusions” (walking a line?) and that “a knowledge of principles” is exhibited “in the curious phenomenon” of the snail’s “occipital horn”. Eye-tips on the ends of tentacles are as essential for stylish poets as for cannily evolved snails. The principles invoked are acuity of vision, keenness of all kinds of judgment.

The text above adds Moore’s original end-notes. Moore herself acknowledged later that Democritus was not the author of the first quotation, but Demetrius Phalereus, who wrote, with a little less economy: “The very first grace of style is that which comes from compression.”

However, the treatise on rhetoric, its source, is thought not to be the work of the Athenian statesman and philosopher, but a later Alexandrian of the same name.

Furthermore, as Bonnie Costello noted, the source of the Duns Scotus quotations is a secondary text, a commentary by Henry Osborn Taylor discussing Scotus’s thoughts on whether theology is a science. Natalia Cecire examines all this and more in her fascinating essay Marianne Moore’s Precision. “Art is long. Scholarship, bloody long,” as the snail might have said.

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