Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pedantic Literalist

Marianne Moore (1887-1972), granddaughter of a Presbyterian minister, is not usually thought of as a Presbyterian poet, yet her religious background and familiarity with Puritan literature is apparent in such works as "Pedantic Literalist," a 1916 poem that first appeared in The Egoist.

Pedantic Literalist

Prince Rupert's drop, paper muslin ghost,
White torch - "with power to say unkind
Things with kindness, and the most
Irritating things in the midst of love and
Tears," you invite destruction.

You are like the meditative man
With the perfunctory heart; its
Carved cordiality ran
To and fro at first like an inlaid and royal
Immutable production;

Then afterward "neglected to be
Painful, deluding him with
Loitering formality,"
"Doing its duty as if it did not,"
Presenting an obstruction

To the motive that it served. What stood
Erect in you has withered. A
Little "palm tree of turned wood"
Informs your once spontaneous core in its
Immutable production.

Moore's note concerning this poem in Observations (1924) ascribes all four quotes -- which comprise eight of the 20 lines of text -- in the poem to Richard Baxter's The Saints' Everlasting Rest. Upon closer examination, however, only two are actually attributable to Baxter. As the poem is a critique of one who is a stickler for the letter of the law rather than its spirit, and because the use of direct quotes in poetry is rather remarkable, the sources and context of the original quotes (where they are known) are a valuable insight to those interested both in the meaning of the poem, and the poet herself.

Stanza 1: "with power to say unkind
Things with kindness, and the most
Irritating things in the midst of love and
Tears," -- source: William Blake, "Milton a Poem," Book the First, p. 10, lines 29-34:

...I form'd the Serpent
To do unkind things in kindness! with power arm'd, to say
The most irritating things in the midst of tears and love
These are the stings of the Serpent!

Stanza 3: "neglected to be
Painful, deluding him with
Loitering formality,"
"Doing its duty as if it did not," -- source: Richard Baxter, The Saints' Everlasting Rest, Part IV, chap. XII ("How to Manage and Watch Over the Heart Through the Whole Work"), sect. 2:

When thou hast got thy heart to the work, beware lest delude thee by a loitering formality; lest it say, I go, and go not; lest it trifle out the time, while it should be effectually meditating. Certainly, the heart is as likely to betray thee in this, as in any one particular about the duty; when thou hast perhaps but an hour's time for thy meditation, the time will be spent before thy heart will be serious. This doing of duty as if we did it not, doth undo as many as the flat omission of it. To rub out the hour in a bare, lazy thinking of heaven, is but to lose that hour, and delude thyself.

Stanza 4: "palm tree of turned wood" -- source: unknown. While the phrase seems to allude to the cross of Christ, this last quote does not appear to be from the hand of Richard Baxter.

The identifiable quotes, which are so essential to the poem, even if paraphrased, make clear that the heart and the spirit must be invested in the outward good works of man, without which he is but a cold shell, a whitewashed wall, a Pharisee, a formalist, or a pedantic literalist. As the Apostle Paul wrote, "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Cor. 3.6); and in the words of our Lord Jesus, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Matt. 23.3; see also Luke 11.42).


Jenkins, Daniel T., "Marianne Moore: a Presbyterian Poet?", Theology Today, Vol. 41, No. 1 (April 1984), 34-41

Moore, Marianne; ed. Schulze, Robin G., Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907-1924 (2002)

Rainey, Lawrence S., Modernism: An Anthology (2005)

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