Love a Fortress: The Paper Nautilus and Logarithmic Structure in Marianne Moore’s Poetry

nautilus_withoverlayMarianne Moore’s poetry is filled with naturalist observations; of glaciers, chameleons, whales, elephants, lions, fish, peacocks, snails, and in the case of this lusciously layered poem, the nautilus.

The Paper Nautilus

Marianne Moore, 18871972

 For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?
   Writers entrapped by
   teatime fame and by
commuters’ comforts?  Not for these
   the paper nautilus
   constructs her thin glass shell.......cont.

From The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. Copyright © 1961 Marianne Moore,

The nautilus is a marine mollusk whose familiar spiral pattern embodies the Fibonacci 34-21-FibonacciBlocksnumber,or “Golden Ratio” , a relational pattern  starting at 1,1,2,3,5,8 ……   . Moore’s  The Paper Nautilus, as well as many of her earlier poems,   share similar mathematically defined constraints and patterns introduced by nature. Her poetry has a precise repetition of syllabic counts and rhyme (something first noticed by Wallace Stevens) that provides both structure and constraints to a content that often includes wild flights of imagination and leaps across time, space, biology, language, and rational thought. In The Paper Nautilus , Moore repeats the syllabic count in each 7 line stanza (7,7,5,5,8,6,6), with a hard rhyme on the end of the second  and fifth line of each.

nautilus ratioWithin this “shell”, Moore begins the poem by reminding the modern critics and editors and ivory tower types, the “authorities” that have turned art into a commercial industry and dictate poetry’s latest fashion, that beauty is created elsewhere, despite them. She continues with providing a naturalist description of the nautilus, with a frightening testimony to the fierce demands of motherhood (where tentacles protect and strangle) unfolds and blends with classic myth of Hercules, hydra, and a sneaky crab. Finally the poem lands on a statement on the strength of love: ” the only fortress strong enough to trust.” Can beauty exist outside of structure?  the poem seems to challenge. For the nautilus, its paper thin shell is strong in part because of  a structural integrity that is mathematically consistent. For a species that has lasted so long it is considered a “living fossil”, and in this beautiful work of nature, form has perfectly followed function. Fortresses, love, language and poetic structure;  havens or prisons? Both? Which? Moore seems to say “yes”.

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