Thursday, August 20, 2009

Less is Moor

I was rereading that old Wordsworth poem "Resolution and Independence," a masterpiece of solipsism in which Wordsworth keeps asking a leech-gatherer -- his noble savage -- the same question, "What occupation do you there pursue? This is a lonesome place for one like you," etc., and not listening to the answer. (Lewis Carroll did a wonderful parody in Looking-Glass, which I mildly prefer to the original.) The poem is not a particular favorite of mine, though the Victorians loved it (as they loved anything maudlin and uplifting, and the poem is objectively a pretty good one) -- but this caught my attention:

Upon the margin of that moorish flood
Motionless as a cloud the old Man stood,
That heareth not the loud winds when they call
And moveth all together, if it move at all.

This is mostly typical Wordsworth: the simplicity and the sneakily bizarre metaphor (how very cloudlike of the old man not to break up into fragments when he tries to walk). And the "moorish flood" is described a few stanzas earlier as

Beside a pool bare to the eye of heaven
I saw a Man before me unawares:

What's interesting about this is the contrast between these two descriptions. The poem is set on a desolate moor; the beauties of this landscape, as of Wordsworth's verse when it comes off, are due to limpidity rather than gorgeousness. Yet moorish clearly is tainted by Moorish and its associations with Oriental exoticism and richness; a flood, though it retained its old meaning of generic body of water, is also a bit much for a pond, and is in fact used in its modern sense in l. 2 of the poem. (OED gives an earlier version of this line as "Beside the little pond or moorish flood," which is atrocious but shows that Wordsworth knew he was talking about a pond.) There is also an archaic adj., moorish, which means soggy and is even further from the point. Maybe Wordsworth was being sloppy (which is possible), and maybe he was deliberately using the half-buried pun (which would be very unlike him), but it seems likelier, given the floods and clouds and such, that he was attempting half-assedly to bring sublimity into the poem.

The business with Moors and moors is somewhat interesting though, and Moore could be done with it if one felt inclined. Paul Muldoon had this theory that Ted Hughes called his first, moorish, book Moortown to repudiate Marianne Moore and her ornate, Moorish, poems. Muldoon was mocked for this at the time: it's doubtful that Hughes had even read Moore. Maybe there's something to be said for this line of inquiry, though. Rather than foxes and hedgehogs or Alices and Mabels, could we have Moorish and moorish poets?

1 comment:

zbs said...

Fewer, please