“Humility is an indispensable ally, enabling concentration to heighten gusto. There are always objectors, but we must not be sensitive about not being liked or not being printed. David Low, the cartoonist, when carped at, said, 'Ah, well—’ But he has never compromised; he goes right on doing what idiosyncrasy tells him to do. The thing is to see the vision and not deny it; to care and admit that we do.”
In memory, I can always recall the third of Moore’s cardinal virtues while unhumbly forgetting the first two. Moore originally delivered the piece as a lecture to the Grolier Club, a New York bibliophile society, on Dec. 21, 1948. The title was recycled for a profile of Moore by Winthrop Sargeant published in the Feb. 16, 1957, issue of The New Yorker. The essay has been collected in Predilections (1955), A Marianne Moore Reader (1961) and The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (1986).
Like her poems, Moore’s essay is a patchwork quilt of quotations and wry Americanisms. She employs the time-honored guise of quaintly eccentric old lady to safely say wise and important things. She describes humility, concentration and gusto as our “foremost aids to persuasion” and moves with subterranean logic from Caesar’s Commentaries, to Caxton, to Defoe, to Cummings, to James Laughlin in little more than two paragraphs. The effect is not one of showing off or dazzling with pseudo-learning but something like intellectual x-ray vision, seeing connections others have missed. She's a masterful quoter. Moore juxtaposes previously unrelated anodes, and sparks fly – a Poundian strategy without the craziness. She’s articulating an artistic credo without announcing it:
“Concentration—indispensable to persuasion—may feel to itself crystal clear, yet be through its very compression the opposite, and William Empson’s attitude to ambiguity does not extenuate defeat. Graham Greene once said, in reviewing a play of Gorki’s, `Confusion is really the plot. A meat-merchant and a miller are introduced, whom one never succeeds in identifying even in the end.’ I myself, however, would rather be told too little than too much. The question then arises, How obscure may one be? And I suppose one should not be consciously obscure at all.”
Reading of her preference for too little over too much, I think of my single attempt at trying to read a page of Stephen King’s prose. The experience recalled the final scene in Citizen Kane in which Welles shows us the vast heaps of gratuitous junk Kane has accumulated – no discrimination, no instinct for readerly comprehension, no taste. In contrast, Moore, like a magpie of genius, makes it all work – Auden, George Herbert, a letter from the Federal Reserve Board of New York, Edward Lear, T.S. Eliot, Maurice Bowra, William Cowper (“The Snail”), Christopher Smart, the Psalmist, the Apostle James, Spenser, Wallace Stevens, Beaumarchais, Walter de la Mare, Pound, Padraic Colum, and so on. It’s a celebration of bounty, not an endorsement of clutter. In her second-to-last paragraph, Moore writes:
“All of which is to say that gusto thrives on freedom, and freedom in art, as in life, is the result of a discipline imposed by ourselves. Moreover, any writer overwhelmingly honest about pleasing himself is almost sure to please others.”