In 1960, when she was 72 years old, Marianne Moore published “Tell Me, Tell Me” in The New Yorker, and it became the title poem of a collection she published six years later. It begins memorably, with rhymes that recall Emily Dickinson: “where might there be a refuge for me / from egocentricity / and its propensity to bisect, / mis-state, misunderstand / and obliterate continuity?” (I won’t even try to replicate Moore’s indentations, because Blogger will remove them.)
In the second stanza appears a phrase in quotation marks, a trademark of Moore’s verse: “`breathed inconsistency and drank / contradiction.’” In her notes, Moore identifies the source, approximately: Henry James’ Autobiography. In fact, James never published a book with this title. In 1958, Frederick W. Dupee edited a volume that collects three autobiographical works James wrote in the six years before his death in 1916: A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), and The Middle Years (1917). The first was written at the request of the widow of his brother, William James, who died in 1910. None of the books was reprinted until Dupee’s 1958 edition, under the title Autobiography.
The passage containing the phrase quoted by Moore appears on page 124 of that volume, in Chapter XVI of A Small Boy and Others. It comes in a passage describing the father of Henry, William and their siblings, Henry James Sr., a memorably eccentric Swedenborgian who had a theory about everything. James says their father’s approach to education could never have “conduced to the formation of prigs”:
“Our father’s prime horror was of them [prigs] – he only cared for virtue that was more or less ashamed of itself; and nothing could have been of a happier whimsicality than the mixture in him, and in all his walk and conversation, of the strongest instinct for the human and the liveliest reaction from the literal. The literal played in our education as small a part as it perhaps ever played in any, and we wholesomely breathed inconsistency and ate and drank contradictions. The presence of paradox was so bright among us – though fluttering ever with as light a wing and as short a flight as need have been – that we fairly grew used to allow, from an early time, for the so many and odd declarations we heard launched, to the extent of happily `discounting’ them…”
Reading sentences written in James’ late style can be like watching the accretion of a coral reef in a time-lapse film, but your attentiveness is rewarded – in this case, with humor: “he only cared for virtue that was more or less ashamed of itself.” The passage cited is written in a manner that recapitulates its matter: “...we wholesomely breathed inconsistency and ate and drank contradictions.” In its American swagger and inclusiveness, the phrase echoes Whitman’s boast in Section 52 of “Song of Myself”:
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
James was an enthusiastic admirer of Whitman, effectively blurring the old paleface-versus-redskin dichotomy long accepted as gospel in American literary studies. Earlier in A Small Boy and Others, James refers to the poet as “that happy genius,” and Edith Wharton in A Backward Glance recounts James’ pleasure in reading Whitman aloud:
“James's reading was a thing apart, an emanation of his inmost self, unaffected by fashion or elocutionary artifice. He read from his soul, and no one who never heard him read poetry knows what that soul was. Another day some one spoke of Whitman, and it was a joy to me to discover that James thought him, as I did, the greatest of American poets. `Leaves of Grass’ was put into his hands, and all that evening we sat rapt while he wandered from `The Song of Myself’ to `When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed’ (when he read `Lovely and soothing Death’ his voice filled the hushed room like an organ adagio), and thence let himself be lured on to the mysterious music of `Out of the Cradle’, reading, or rather crooning it in a mood of subdued ecstasy till the fivefold invocation to Death tolled out like the knocks in the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony.`
"James's admiration of Whitman, his immediate response to that mighty appeal, was a new proof of the way in which, above a certain level, the most divergent intelligences walk together like gods. We talked long that night of `Leaves of Grass’, tossing back and forth to each other treasure after treasure; but finally James, in one of his sudden humorous drops from the heights, flung up his hands and cried out with the old stammer and twinkle: `Oh, yes, a great genius; undoubtedly a very great genius! Only one cannot help deploring his too-extensive acquaintance with foreign languages.’”
How reassuring to hear of the Master “crooning,” and perhaps swooning, “in a mood of subdued ecstasy.” Sometimes I think everything we think we know about literary history, in particular American literary history, is wrong, and someone ought to draw a new map of the territory. Convergences and correspondences are everywhere if we pay attention and read deeply. Later in “Tell Me, Tell Me,” Moore writes “I am going / to flee; by engineering strategy -- / the viper’s traffic-knot – flee / to metaphysical newmown hay, / honeysuckle, or wood fragrance.” “Metaphysical newmown hay” is cousin to Leaves of Grass.
When Moore read “Tell Me, Tell Me” at a literary event in New York City, a woman is supposed to have asked, “Miss Moore, what is `metaphysical newmown hay?’” and the poet is supposed to have answered, “Oh, something like a sudden whiff of fragrance in contrast with the doggedly continuous opposition to spontaneous conversation that had gone before.”