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On "No Swan So Fine"

Pamela White Hadas

"No Swan So Fine" asserts that there is no live swan, "no swan, / with swart blind look askance / and gondoliering legs, so fine" as the china one among its finely sculptured and polished flowers in the Louis XV candelabrum. The last half-line of the poem reads, simply and abruptly, "The king is dead." A way of life that went along with the king's life is also dead. The swan is alive only insofar as art is, but dead in its extravagant finality of form. Insofar as kings represent unprogressive ceremony and permanent superfluity, the swan and the king share a fate. The poem is a compression of an important ambivalence toward animals petrified as art. This swan appeals to Marianne Moore with its delicacy, elegance, and perfection; it appeals more than a live swan with "gondoliering legs." Yet, attractive as it is to her, she must admit that it is dead; it represents, more than a way of life, a royal fatality. The attraction is vital and fatal.

from Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Copyright © 1977 by Syracuse UP.

Patricia C. Willis

In March 1930, Moore wrote to the English critic George Saintsbury:

The loss of your friend, Lord Balfour, must be a great one to you; for even we who knew him only as a personage, will remember his death with lasting regret. In his relations with America he was so exceedingly kind, chivalrous, and hopeful. But I myself knowing less than I ought to know about government, found it pleasant to know that Lord Balfour played a good game of tennis.

Later that year, Moore noticed a Christie's sale announcement in the Illustrated London News. In her notebook, she sketched one of a pair of Louis XV candelabra, "the property of the late Lord Balfour," pictured in the advertisement. When she sent the finished poem to her brother, Moore wrote:

Lord Balfour had a pair o' these candelabra which were sold last year at Christie's with his other things. Each swan has a gold saw-toothed collar and chain and both feet are planted on a tree.

A year later, Moore read in the New York Times Magazine an article by Percy Philip, "Versailles Reborn: A Moonlight Drama." This piece was prompted by the restoration of Versailles sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. Philip wrote his "drama" in a fanciful vein, pretending that the statues on the grounds protested the dullness of Versailles without the court of the Kings Louis. Moore clipped one of the accompanying pictures and wrote above it the caption from another which showed the defunct fountains, "There is no water so still as the dead fountains of Versailles."

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A third element is present in the poem, one which ties in with the theme of "passing." In the same letter to her brother in which she sent the poem, Moore explains that she has written this poem for Poetry's twentieth anniversary number; her duty to finish it was compounded by the announcement that the magazine would probably cease publication in the spring. The impending passing of that magazine--which fortunately did not happen--would have been cause for sadness, particularly since its editor, Harriet Monroe, had welcomed Moore's work after The Dial ceased publication in 1929.

From Marianne Moore: Vision into Verse. Philadelphia: The Rosenbach Museum & Library, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by The Rosenbach Museum & Library.

Grace Shulman

"No Swan So Fine" (1932) is propelled forward by a process in which the mind attains precision through a struggle with contrasted ideas. The poem opens in the rhetoric of thought, as indicated by the sentence fragment: "No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles." The quotation is from an article by Percy Phillip called "Versailles Reborn: A Moonlight Drama," in the New York Times Magazine, 10 May 1931. Percy Phillip had observed that despite restoration, the palace and its grounds appeared inert. He asserted, "There is no water so still as the dead fountains of Versailles." Marianne Moore applied the sentence to the photograph, and actually wrote it above the picture in her copy of the magazine.

Like many of her earlier poems, "No Swan So Fine" opens with a negative assertion. However, unlike the earlier poems, whose abrupt, declarative openings had a discursive function ("The illustration / is nothing to you without the application"), the sentence abridgement here denotes reflection. The speaker is mulling over the idea.

At this point, the tone shifts to reminiscence:

                                No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
    as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.

To convey inward reflection, the poet provides no conversational transition, as she did in the earlier poems ("I remember a swan under the willows in Oxford"). A live swan is juxtaposed with one of "chintz china," and the comic leaps resemble the irony of the earlier poems: the swan's "swart blind look askance / and gondoliering legs" points to the absurdity of the living swan in contrast to the ornamental one; the purpose of the china swan's collar ("to show whose bird it was") mocks its lordly ownership. But while the leaps in earlier poems had satiric effects ("Ming" to "pup" in "Critics and Connoisseurs"), the leaps here imitate associative shifts in the thought process.

According to an entry in the poet's notebook, the swan had decorated a Louis XV candelabra owned by Lord Balfour and sold at Christie's in 1930, after his death. His passing saddened her, as she wrote to George Saintsbury. She was dejected, too, by the passing of the Court of the Kings Louis and, as she wrote to her brother in 1932, by the impending cessation of Poetry, the magazine that had displayed American poetry since 1912.

From the opening quotation in "No Swan So Fine," the poet maintains a tension between the world (the lifeless fountains of Versailles) and the object (the china swan). Versailles, once a seat of power and glory, a place where crucial treaties were signed, is quiescent. The tone is elegaic: the commanding, engaging, lively rulers who inhabited Versailles are gone, and in their place the artifact, the crafted object, remains to recall their presence, as well as their transience as mortal beings. In terms of structure, not logic but the flow of thought leads the poet to connect the still waters of Versailles with the china swan, and the associative link is the parallel sentence construction.

In the second stanza the poet concentrates on the ornamental swan:

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
    candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea urchins, and everlastings,
    it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers--at ease and tall. The king is dead.

The poet's excitement for the ornament is objectified by means of a list that conveys its sensuous luxuriance and that recalls the exuberance of the past. The clipped final statement ("The king is dead") is at once a contradiction and an inevitable conclusion. It refers literally to the death of Louis XV and figuratively, in the poem's context, to the death of kings. On this level the china swan links the opening, based on the article in the Times Magazine ("No water so still") and the poet's conclusion ("The king is dead").

However, the final statement might equally evoke a cry of "Long live the king!" The poet's mind contains the life of the ornamental swan as well as the death it symbolizes, and her excited description betrays that fascination. Those characteristics of contradiction and paradox show the dialectical progress of the mind. The word "everlastings," for example, is a dialectical image in its own right: its name means forever alive; it is an elegantly sculptured representation of a living flower with a dried, dead-seeming appearance. "The king is dead" refers back to the first lines, "No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles," and is the mind's way of going back to a thought that has stimulated the process of recall. It also brings back the word "fine" in the title, which has the denotative meaning of "elegant," but carries with it the ambiguous obsolete meaning of "dead, or deadly" and "immortal."

Although the poet's true impact, here, is elegaic, displaying an ornament that calls back thoughts of its owner, she makes original use of the elegaic tradition by presenting the mind's process of becoming aware. The china swan is the object on which the poet focuses thought, operating in a dialectic rather than in a route to a definite conclusion. Hence, the poet's engagement with the world, marked by the decline of Versailles, has led to the true subject of "No Swan So Fine," which is the mortality of living beings and the permanence of art. This realization, however, is given in the form of a dialectical process of thought that struggles through to the issue by keeping in view, even as it wanders from, the glimpse of Versailles in 1931.

The "inner dialectic," then, is the poet's method of presenting thought in such a way as to see worldly realities. It is not the idea that is ever at the center of the poetry, for neither poetry nor thought itself can come to terms with realities in direct, explicit ways. In any of Marianne Moore's poems whose form is the "inner dialectic," the pattern of thought becomes the whole point.

From Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Taffy Martin

Several years in the making, the poem grew out of two newspaper clippings, one reporting on the sale of a pair of Louis XV candelabra and another on the restoration of the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. From the second, which appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Moore copied Percy Philip's whimsical note that the statues on the Versailles grounds seemed to be protesting the dullness of their surroundings without the courts of the Kings Louis. To that clipping, Moore added the caption from an accompanying photograph, which showed the temporarily stilled fountains: "There is no water so still as the dead fountain of Versailles." Moore changed the quotation slightly and used it to open the poem. But, without any guide to indicate the context of the quotation and therefore its tone of voice, one cannot be certain whether Moore's next sentence is meant to be naive, ironic, or regretful.

"No water so still as the
    dead fountains of Versailles." No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
    as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.

Although the second sentence begins forthrightly enough, it quickly confuses itself. The water of the fountain seems serene, even appealing, and the real-life swan rather clumsy by contrast. But the "chintz china" swan, which ought to be as appealing as the formal fountains, ends up being trapped by the control and ownership that its "toothed gold collar" represents. Moore's second stanza promises to rectify this ambivalence when it goes on to describe the elegance of the setting in which this lifeless swan resides. Once again, though, Moore undercuts this response as skillfully as she creates it.

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
    Candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea urchins, and everlastings,
    it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers--at ease and tall. The king is dead.

What does "The king is dead" mean? And what does that reveal about the dead fountains and about why the real-life swan is not "so fine as" its artificial counterpart? On one level, the poem reads as an outraged indictment of artifice and stasis. In this case, the second sentence reads ironically and defends the real-life swan not in spite of but precisely because of his imperfections. The elegant setting of the china swan, amidst "polished sculptured flowers," becomes a prison. Its beauty lacks spirit, just as the king lacks life. In this scenario, the opening quotation reveals the anonymous observer's misguided nostalgia and romantic reverence for whatever has been controlled, stopped, and in this case deadened by artifice. Responding to that speaker's erroneous viewpoint, the rest of the poem reads as a defense of the candelabra's artifice. Admittedly, the waters of the fountains, like the king, are lifeless; but artifice guarantees continued recognition beyond any organic life cycle. It creates the elegance of the china swan perched with ironic detachment "--at ease and tall" in its excessively decorative and controlled surroundings. That same artifice continues to elicit awe, even when its beauty is reduced to static potential. Initially such artifice excludes the mundane imperfections and "the swart blind look askance" of passing moments. Ultimately, it outlasts its vulnerable creators. The poem thus argues effectively for each point of view.

The double nature of Moore's argument is unusual, especially in light of William Butler Yeats's treatment of a related type of ambivalence. Moore's "No Swan So Fine," published in 1932, five years after Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium," captures the allure of that poem's "artifice of eternity," but does not capitulate to its temptations. When Yeats's speaker vows to escape from the place that "is no country for old men," he expects the retreat, whatever its limitations, to succeed.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Never one to assure or coddle her readers in any way, Moore hints at the same lure of escape, deftly questions its efficacy, and then steps aside without offering any conclusion. She repeats that practice frequently, but the puzzle of no conclusion is the only common feature in the various poems in which she does so.

The two-sided message of "No Swan So Fine" thus serves as Moore's response to Yeats's thwarted dream in "Sailing to Byzantium." In the Yeats poem, the golden bird's escape is at best partial and imperfect. Even if in the "artifice of eternity" Yeats's singer achieves its desired form "Of hammered and gold enamelling," its song might serve as trivial a purpose as keeping a "drowsy Emperor awake." Or it might sing only "Of what is past, or passing, or to come." Unable to sing of real-world creatures, whether "Fish, flesh, or fowl," its song can be heard only by those "lords and ladies of Byzantium," removed as they are from the world of "Whatever is begotten, born and dies." Moore's answer is both a regression and a progression, just as she intends it to be. "No Swan So Fine" does not solve Yeats's dilemma. In fact, it refuses to long for one of Byzantium's alternatives. Moore sets up a dialectical opposition and refuses to resolve it. One longs for strict forms capable of containing and controlling the complexity of the age, but a form that hopes to control the chaos automatically becomes suspect.

From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: U of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright 1986 by U of Texas Press.

Jeanne Heuving

In Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," and Moore's "No Swan So Fine," the poetic speakers retain the same relation to others and otherness as in the poets' previous poems. However, in these poems the others are the visual and verbal embodiment of a culture which is passing and changing. Indeed, Prufrock and Mauberly address the problem of identity in a culture which no longer reflects them. But whereas in the "Portraits" the male speakers establish at least a provisional identity through their others, their femmes and ladies, in these later poems their own centrality in a culture with which they are out of step haunts them in the spectre of men they would rather not be. Although they blame the age's "tawdry cheapness" and "one night cheap hotels," they also intimate social and psychological changes to which they cannot adequately respond, They cannot "forge Achaia" or even "force the moment to its crisis." Conversely, in Moore's "No Swan So Fine," her speaker, who does not seek to be reflected by the larger culture, is able both to mourn the passing culture represented by the "still waters of Versailles" and to celebrate the new order in her vision of the swan at the end of the poem: "at ease and tall. The king is dead." Indeed, by concluding her poem with the celebratory "The king is dead," Moore establishes a historical cause for her non-specular seeing and for the "elsewhere" of her vision. . . .

In Moore's "No Swan So Fine," there is no central speaker who experiences diminishment or aggrandizement because she is or is not reflected by her culture or by its others. Of her china swan Moore has no cause to remark, as does Pound in "Mauberly," "The glow of porcelain / Brought no reforming sense / To his perception / Of the social inconsequence," since for Moore consciousness and the objects of her contemplation neither oppose nor reflect each other. Indeed, "No Swan So Fine" focuses on those social and power relations which determine consciousness and being. The "gondoliering" swan in the first stanza who wears a collar "to show whose bird it was" is replaced by the swan in the second stanza which "perches," "at ease and tall," now that the "king is dead." Certainly, one of the achievements of the poem is the way it moves so assuredly and convincingly from an elegiac vision of a passing Versailles, to a mournful and somewhat comic depiction of a captive swan, and then to a healthful and life-giving embodiment of a swan in a "kingless" country . . . .

How Moore invokes three very different visions in such a short poem is remarkable, While the speaker's stance of moving through and across visions without worrying about her identification or lack of identification with them allows for this change, it is achieved by delicate shifts in imagery and language which maintain similarities while interjecting differences. The initial, distilled vision of absence and dying brought forth in "'No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles'" is replicated in the vision of the swan, only the vision is of a less absolute absence and death. As part of the passing elegance of Versailles, the swan is to be mourned, but, as a bird who wears a "toothed gold / collar on to show whose bird it was," it also seems mournful. By replicating her syntax, "No Swan So Fine," "'No water so still . . .'" and "No swan ... so fine," Moore reproduces the mirroring effects of the still waters, intoning the swan with the same majesty with which she refers to Versailles. However, by shifting her vision from something to be mourned to something that is itself mournful, she introduces a slight note of comedy into this tragic scene. The sound relations of soft consonants and open vowels convey aurally the swan's limp and pathetic "look askance" and "gondoliering legs." Yet the effect is also one of opening into a sense of tragic emptiness and loss, conveyed by both Versailles and the captive swan.

However, while Moore presents a dying Versailles to be mourned, she also plants the seeds for the next stanza: part of what is to be mourned is the swan's captivity. In the second stanza, the harder consonants and the multi-syllabic words convey a renewed vigor as the swan, a Venus or a phoenix, seems to rise up from "the branching foam / of polished sculptured / flowers." Indeed, the first stanza would seem in retrospect to be a softening, romanticizing mirror for the actual present artifact in the second stanza. The "miscellany" of strange things--"tree of cockscomb / tinted buttons, dahlias, [and] seaurchins"--are the "everlastings," and not the culture, which gave rise to them. Moore's very invention of the word "everlastings" conveys the changed vision, from a Versailles which would be seen as a symbol of eternal qualities to an existence in which such lofty qualities are "noun-ized" into particular, literal manifestations.

By not attempting to establish her authority through cultural mirrors, Moore has moved assuredly through changing visions--visions which locate the cause for their own decentered consciousness, "The king is dead." In many ways, Moore attains the kind of seeing that Pound is attempting to effect in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" That she succeeds where he fails may well be because her speaker is not attempting to achieve a conclusive or even a provisional identity through the objects of her contemplation. The poem's subtle but absolute execution allows for an understanding of the delicate but revolutionary shift caused by the death of all internal and external kings: "that which is great because something else is small."

From Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Copyright © 1992 by Wayne State UP.

Darlene Williams Erickson

In this poem one finds the syllabic stanza pattern 6-7, 8, 6-7, 8, 8, 5, 9. The pattern is altered only in the last line, where the addition of one syllable disrupts the pattern and forces the reader to break the pace. That phrase commands special attention: "The king is dead." Each seven-line stanza has end rhymes only in lines 2 and 5. But what lingers in the ear is the repetition of more than thirty "s," or "z," or "ch" sounds, which gives the poem an unusual sibilance. Perhaps it is meant to capture the hushed stillness of the Versailles fountains. Or more probably, the large number of sibilants may suggest the sound made by the whistling swan, the "swan song" romantically believed to be sung by the dying swan. The term "swan" has a literary meaning too; it has come to mean the poet, one who sings sweetly a song of unusual beauty, excellence, or purity. Thus, with the most delicate of signals, Moore sets up a "swan song" for both the ear and the mind.

[. . . .]

The poem opens with a quotation about the past, about "the dead fountains at Versailles." Once a place of sparkling light, life, and activity, the stilled fountains, although resurrected, as it were, seem almost frozen in their beauty and their stillness. Only echoes of another era, ghosts from another moment in history, inhabit the environs now. Similarly, there is no living swan like the chintz china one lodged in the Louis XV candelabrum captured in time among the carved dahlias, seaurchins, and (appropriately) everlastings. Unlike the real swan, with its peculiar dark, blind look, its superior attitude, and its webbed feet propelling its body, like a Venetian gondolier guiding his gondola, the carved swan seems "at ease and tall," its "toothed gold / collar on to show whose bird it was." The work of art is, in its way, owned by its creator, the artist, and therefore does not have a will, a destiny of its own. It does, however, have a kind of permanence in time as well as a posed elegance, carefully colored and polished to perfection. The real swan, by contrast, may appear a bit foolish as it takes its gondoliering sea legs ashore and waddles up the river bank. One senses, though, that the artwork swan, although it has its own kind of duration, is somehow deficient. It lacks Bergson's élan vital--that vital impulse that is continually developing and generating new life. It cannot offer even the most rudimentary movement, the most elementary change of expression.

Moore's attitude toward artifice sometimes seems clear, as in these lines from "To Statecraft Embalmed" (1915): "As if a death-mask could ever replace / life's faulty excellence!" Reality, even with its flaws, seems preferable to the perfection achieved in art. The real swan, "with swart blind look askance / and gondoliering legs," is always better than the chintz china one. But is that what Moore says syntactically in this poem? As Donald Hall has pointed out, one must not be too quick to assume simple irony in Marianne Moore. She may well be saying precisely what she means, not intending that the reader infer the opposite. There is something in itself ironic about a criticism of artifice embedded in the super-refined stanzas of "No Swan So Fine." If Moore is so opposed to artifice, why does she work to produce art (i.e., poetry) at all? Or why did she labor so patiently to sketch the swan candelabrum if she found it less beautiful than a real swan?

What Moore is saying is beyond the expected, beyond the either-or. Executing a woman's way of knowing, Moore is including paradoxical ways of looking at the same thing; she is refracting rather than synthesizing. She is operating in the realm of magic, performing an extraordinary balancing act--about time and a relativity of values. She is, I would suggest, offering a kind of Hegelian dialectic in her thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, although the argument is never really brought to a permanent solution. There is no swan so fine as the chintz china one; but the real swan has vital qualities no artifice can duplicate; yet both kinds of swans have real importance to the human beings who observe them. In one sense, time and real swans are always passing; hence one must make some effort to capture permanence in an always-changing and less-than-perfect world. One kind of time, whether measured in milliseconds or in dynasties, becomes history; it passes on, leaving only the human attempts at catching durée in works of art. The gondoliering swan represents that kind of time, one in movement, in process, one that is and will be replicated by swanness throughout time, although each swan will be a unique unrepeatable individual, having its own peculiar quality of the élan vital. The other swan, the "chintz china one," represents another kind of time, the durée, the swan above time that has an existence beyond the limitation of days and years. It is interesting that Moore has the china swan perched among everlastings, flowers that keep their color and shape beyond their actual life span, retaining a kind of beauty even when dried and preserved. So too is the quality of the swan created by artifice. Here is a permanence, not unlike that of Keats's "Grecian Urn."

But Moore's use of the words "chintz" and "china" to describe the china swan makes another interesting qualification. Chintz has a fascinating etymology. It is a Hindu, Sanskrit word meaning multicolored or bright. But over time, the beautiful glazed cotton cloth called chintz has been tinged by the pejorative. Since the late 1850s, some chintz cloth has come to be thought of as sleazy or tawdry. Thus Moore causes careful readers to qualify their judgments again. If the poem is not ironic, (and Hall argues that it may not be), Moore seems to be saying that no real swan is "so fine / as the chintz china one." And yet the very word "chintz," which may only mean "brightly colored" in its candelabrum-tree of carved flowers, tugs at the mind. For it may also suggest a showiness, a contrived artifice, like the era of the Versailles fountains, now rendered "so still," even when preserved in the new life of art. And china, although beautiful, is also fragile, as was the era of Versailles. Moore makes reference to an era like that of the court of Versailles in another poem, "Nothing Will Cure the Sick Lion But to Eat an Ape." She writes,

Perceiving that in the masked ball
attitude, there is a hollowness
that beauty's light momentum can't redeem.

That "hollowness," no matter how artfully captured in the renovation of Versailles (or in the china swan), remains shallow. It may be beautiful and brightly colored, but it is showy, fragile, and hollow nonetheless, a perfect enactment of its time.

The living swan, with "gondoliering legs," though it has locomotion and can look with apparent disapproval at the world around it, still suffers from a blind limitation in time and history. The sculptured bird enjoys the ability to be complete, to stand tall and at ease, to operate from an established and permanent perspective. The china swan, the work of art, must replace the real one for an era that is gone; it provides duration and gives us a glimpse of an era's values, as well as its version of perfect beauty.

But there remains one all-important phrase in the poem. When one hears "The king is dead," the unspoken response should also be heard: "Long live the king!" One must be ready to welcome new realities and new art forms when the old ones have passed, although one may have some access to the past and to an existence beyond time through art. Thus Willis's intuition that the poem may have to do with passing, and perhaps even the passing of a particular magazine of the arts, seems valid. The poem can be seen as an accolade to Poetry's support of the arts, and at the same time a kind of swan song, a consolation for the possibility of its demise by reminding those associated with the magazine of their part in capturing permanence and beauty in a changing world. Nonetheless, any institution, even one associated with what at one point must have seemed the avant-garde, must be ready to greet the new king. That is the only realistic thing to do. Perhaps one should even smile at the "hollowness" of what once had seemed so glittering and so fine as well as at the realities that art represented. And once again Moore has surprised the careful reader, has done her magic with painstaking precision and accuracy, giving us an awareness that is not the expected view about time, history, and art. She has achieved Bergson's charge to the poet to move beyond being merely a doer to becoming a knower. The poet has brought the attentive reader to a new dimension of a multifaceted truth, to a real intuition, which is for Bergson the highest stage in the evolution of understanding.

From Illusion is More Precise than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by U of Alabama P. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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