13 May 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/20

No Swan So Fine

"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.

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.

Marianne Moore

[Moore's endnotes:]
A pair of Louis XV candelabra with Dresden figures of swans belonging to Lord Balfour.

Lines 1-2: "There is no water so still as the dead fountains of Versailles." Percy Phillip, New York Times Magazine, May 10, 1931.

The art-forged swan stands tall, and the earthly king lies low. I love the tangy shock of "The king is dead," coming in unexpectedly at the end, when we thought we were looking at a profuse description of a swan amid flowers, or rather, a profuse description of a statue of a swan amid sculptured flowers – a triumph of Art rather than Nature; or, to tighten our terms again, a triumph of Art over Nature, since the poem declares that no living swan (with its suspicious, slanted dark looks and its bandy legs working the water) could be as splendid as the one perfected by the artist. This may seem like a simple assertion of the lasting power and superiority of Art compared to haphazard Nature and ephemeral Kings. But this haunting poem offers more ambiguous suggestions. The presence of the king has been suggested all along: first, the appearance of Versailles, then the sculptured swan's gold collar "to show whose bird it was," and then the reference to the Louis Fifteenth style. Any mention of Versailles along with a later Louis is bound to bring to mind for a contemporary reader the world-historical convulsion of the French Revolution. Whatever your opinion of the ancien regime, even if you rarely spare it a thought, it does possess the poignancy of all vanished things – that's why no water is so still as the water that no longer sparkles through the great fountains of the empty palace; its presence is felt most strongly in its absence. It was Nature that inspired the candelabrum, and the King who, directly or indirectly, ordered the artist to create it, for his amusement and and as a display of power, wealth, and skill. The created object – Art – grows out of both Nature and political and economic systems, yet stands everlastingly outside of them. But the statue is also linked inextricably not only with the natural world but with the specific time and place and manner of its creation; it is a talisman of memory, nostalgia, and reverie, carrying an inseparable association with long-gone worlds.

The poem is from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore .

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