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“The Paper Nautilus” by Marianne Moore


The Paper Nautilus

“For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?
Writers entrapped by
teatime fame and by
commuters’ comforts? Not for these
the paper nautilus
constructs her thin glass shell.

Giving her perishable
souvenir of hope, a dull
white outside and smooth-
edged inner surface
glossy as the sea, the watchful
maker of it guards it
day and night; she scarcely

eats until the eggs are hatched.
Buried eight-fold 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 a 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.”

-Marianne Moore

This poem describes the dedication of a nautilus to protecting her young. A nautilus is an archaic, ancient sea creature that is something like a squid with a spiraled, chambered shell. They were originally named by Aristotle as “Argonauta”, or paper nautiluses, because people used to think they could use their two legs as sails. They have not changed in over 500 million years.

There are many classical references in this poem. The nautilus guards her eggs until they hatch, much like many stories of ancient beasts and monsters, with its either arms and “ram’shorn”. It references the story of Cancer the crab (as in the horiscope) who was sent by Hydra to take out Hercules. Hercules stepped on Cancer, but Hydra was so endebted she gave him a place in the sky. It says that the nautilus’ pattern looks just like the mane of a sculpture of a horse at the Parthenon, an ancient greek ruin.

The combination of these ancient allusions and other descriptions make the nautilus out to be a warrior/protector of sorts. The term Ionic seems to be a combination of both of these two ideas. It could be referring to the strength of the nautilus’ “chiton-fold” armor, or it could also be referring to the Ionian people of ancient Greece, one of the subdivisions of the Greek empire.

I think in the end it really makes a statement about the permanance of humanity versus the permanance of the natural world. The Greek empire and its culture were so strong, and yet they fell. Power structures rise and fall. Great writers who do not take a risk vanish into the woodwork. Throughout the poem the nautilus and the ancient references are inversely proportional. In the beginning the nautilus shell is “thin glass” and by the end she is elevated to the status of a hero. The references start out as the legends of heroes and gods and gradually devolve into a reference to the Parthenon, a ruin left from the glory days of the empire. It shows that nature can outlast and outlive any attempts of humanity at immortality.

It definately reminds me of the song “Scythian Empires” by Andrew Bird. Check out the lyrics:

“Five day forecast bring black tar rains and hellfire
while handpicked handpicked handler’s kid gloves tear at the inseams
their Halliburton attach cases are useless
while scotch guard Macintoshes shall be carbonized
now they’re offering views of exiting empire
such breathtaking views of Scythian empires

Scythian empire, horsemen of the Russia steppe
Scythian empire, archers of an afterthought
Routed by Sarmations, thwarted by the Thracians
Scythian empire

Scythian empire, exiting empire
Scythian empire, exiting empire
Routed by Sarmations, thwarted by the Thracians
Scythian empire
Kings of Macedonia, Scythian empire”

The song discusses how the Scythian Empire was, indeed, an empire, but it still vanished in the passage of time.


“Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens

girl on beach

"She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask.  No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard.
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this?  we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone.  But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang.  And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.  Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh!  Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds."

The poem, “Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens is about a man in Key West listening to a girl singing on the beach and noticing the balance of her voice and the world around her. He wonders what the balance is of things; who is the maker and who is simply the reverberation? When the girl stops singing, Stevens continues to examine what happens to the order.

Most of the comparisons are ordered in trifectas. For instance in the first stanza the ocean mimicked the girl’s song, making its own cry and also causing a constant cry. In the second stanza the girl hears something and sings it. THis singing “stirred the grinding water and gasping wind”. She made the song and the sea was only the place in which she sang it, but there is still the presence of something larger than the sea, the sky, and the voice. The first level always seems to be the most literal and rudimentary, such as the literal presence of the ocean. The girl seems to be the middle level, taking in things from the lower level and combining them to feed the highest level: a combination of human production and a higher power, be it God or science.

The girl is made to be the glue between the lowest level and the highest level. Her voice makes the “sky acustest at its vanishing”, sharpening the line between the sea and sky (or heaven). She is the “single artificer”, or creator, of what’s around her, adopting the sea as her own, however, she has no world except for the one she creates. She is in the middle ground: on an island, a thin sliver of land between the sea and the sky. She is also on Key West, the farthest point south in the US, on the border, the tip of land and sea.

The last two stanzas are after the girl  has stopped singing. The narrator wants to know how it is possible, when it took the girl’s voice to master the ocean, it took only lights to master the night, arranging it into “emblazoned zones”. This illustrates that even though it may not take too much effort to sing a song that drowns out the sound of the ocean or to light a lantern to illuminate the night, there is still that higher elvel which can override both, the un-masterable mystery that cannot be explained, as mentioned in the last stanza.

The maker has such a rage to find order between levels. It has always been the human tendency to try and stitch together the worldy and the divine and put things in order and more understandable, such as in writing and analyzing poetry. Everything must have an order and a meaning to somehow relate to life, it gets rather crazy. The lines between heaven and earth will always be “ghostly demarcations”, hazy lines, filled with only the jammering of humanity trying to find way to talk sense into things that are unexplainable.