An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish
Here we have thirst
and patience, from the first.
And art, as in a wave held up for us to see
in its essential perpendicularity;
Not brittle but
Intense – the spectrum, that
Spectacular and nimble animal the fish,
Whose scales turn aside the sun's sword by their polish.
This poem is sort of a modern version of the Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn: both take containers from ancient civilizations and use them for an analysis of Art, Nature, and the human urge towards significant ornament. Pulled glass is a technique in which the glassblower creates patterns on an object by pulling and otherwise manipulating rods of colored glass. This poem is based on an actual glass bottle from ancient Egypt that Moore saw in the British Museum (you may see it here). Long ago, when I was last in London, I bought a postcard of the fish-bottle because I found it endearingly goofy; I was surprised years later when a bit of research connected that object with this poem. The bottle is dated about 1400 BC, so this piece of glass has survived over 3,400 years. Yet Moore does not specifically mention its age; outside of the implication of the glancing reference from the first in the second line, she makes it stand outside of time, as we shall see.
In her first line, Moore declares Here we have thirst: the first thing to realize about this object is that it has a practical purpose; it is a bottle, and it holds liquids – a vital function in a dry hot climate like Egypt's. Yet thirst can refer not only to the physical need for water, but to the desire that led the anonymous artist to take the time and trouble to turn an ordinary useful object into a striking and luxurious one. That's where the patience referred to in the second line comes in: the glassblower could have created many plain bottles in the time it takes to create a fancy fish-bottle. And this is from the first: from the very earliest days of human civilization, we see the imperative urge to take something basic to survival (like a device for storing water) and make it significant through making it beautiful, which is a thirst that is never fully satisfied.
In the first two lines, Moore identifies the deep underlying sources that produced this object: thirst (in both senses, as described above) and patience – taking infinite, time-consuming care. And she closes the lines off with a period. In the third line, indented to signal a shift, she adds almost as an afterthought: And art. You feel that the art (which is not given the significance of an initial cap: art, not Art) is not so much an end in itself as a by-product of the personality that thirsts yet is patient. But art is undeniably present, an end result and culmination – it unites thirst and patience, and also becomes its own thing.
The bottle is a practical object, but it is also an artistic creation, and it is also (remember that it is shaped like a fish) a reference to the natural world. Moore compares it to a wave: that too is something that comes from the natural world (like the fish, and like the human needs that led to the creation of a bottle shaped like a fish). Its watery element also links the wave back to thirst. A wave is one in an endless series; they come and go, but here Moore describes the wave as held up for us to see: the artist is holding up an object for our closer inspection and meditation. Held up can mean not just lifted high but also delayed. The artist is stopping time, freeze-framing this one particular wave at its crest (as in Hokusai's famous print of the Great Wave off Kanagawa, and compare this also with the processional frozen in time and place in the Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn) so that we may examine its prime qualities, that is, its essential perpendicularity.
Essential here implies not just that perpendicularity is of the essence of a wave, but also that it is necessary for us: the wave is not only perpendicular in its nature, but we need it to be so. And why would that be? Waves are constantly in motion, endlessly cresting and then crashing. Why is perpendicularity essential to it, and us? Perhaps it is exactly because when a wave is at its literal height – when it is perpendicular to the sea – it has reached its apex, and if we can hold it there for a second before it rolls down and is replaced by another, we can truly see it captured at the moment in which it fulfills its necessary form. And art is like this: a created thing held fast in its moment, even for what passes in human terms for eternity, capturing something we thirst for in its brief perfection before life moves on. There is no progression in art, but rather an endless series of these moments, each essential.
Moore then clarifies what she's getting at; what she's describing is Not brittle but / Intense: waves and glass both shatter easily, but what she's more concerned with here is not fragility and not the ephemeral nature of things but the intensity that causes certain things to stand outside of time; that is, this object (the fish-bottle, the crested wave), which might seem transient, too delicate to last, is in fact strong and concentrated, enough so to hold out against the constant on-rush of time.
After the dash comes a description of the fish-bottle, but one that blurs to the point of obliteration the distinction between this created object and the natural world it represents. The spectrum – this may refer to the undulating waves of color broken out over the body of the bottle. It may also refer to the way glass – the basic material of the bottle – can, if cut in a certain way, refract light into a rainbow of colors: an infinity coming out of a natural phenomenon (compare this with Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish, in which a very detailed, precise description of the fish she has caught explodes at the end into a vision of rainbows – I wonder if Bishop, to whom Moore was a mentor and a friend, had this poem somewhere in her mind when she wrote that one?). A spectrum can also be used in an attempt to classify something by points on a scale – another version of fixing something in time, perhaps. I suspect spectrum is at least partly there for the musical echo with spectacular in the next line. That's a word that usually applies to something huge, flamboyant, eye-catching. It may seem odd to apply it to a fairly commonplace creature, but Moore's adjective forces us to re-evaluate an everyday animal we may take for granted otherwise. Spectacular derives from spectacle, and she singles out this object as if it were a grand show presented for our admiration. (Throughout this poem we hear the distinctive Moore tone: the erudite language, precise yet suggestive, with hints of scientific scrupulosity; the dazzled love for what might seem small and ordinary animals or objects; the unexpected but considered comparison; the high-minded wit.)
The other quality she specifically cites in the fish is nimbleness. Again, she could be referring to nature or art or both: she admires lightness of touch and sureness of perception, a speed and compression in comprehension. The last line of the poem – Whose scales turn aside the sun's sword by their polish – armor the animal (or is it the bottle? or both?) in the shining perfection of its scales, which can turn aside the destructive sunlight (the sun's sword) by their polish – polish can refer to something smooth and shiny, and also implicitly to the labor that made the object so – to the care in crafting a bottle that looks like a fish, or a poem reflecting on a bottle that looks like a fish. The admirable, natural or created, is all around us. A fish becomes a fish-bottle which in turn becomes a poem; all freeze in time something flashing, bold, and elusive.
The British Museum site gives further information here on the technique used to create the fish-bottle, and on the possible significance of its shape (since Moore omits this information and derives her own meaning from the object, I have omitted it while discussing her poem, but it's interesting so I'm sticking it here).
I took this from The Poems of Marianne Moore, edited by Grace Schulman. I bought the hardback when it was published in 2003 but it seems to be out of print so I am linking to the Penguin paperback, which I'm assuming is mostly the same.