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

Marianne 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, 1887 – 1972

 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 number, 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 lines of each.

Within this “shell”, Moore begins the poem by reminding the modern critics and editors and ivory tower types, the “authorities” that have turned art into the 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 the 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 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 prisons? Both? Which? Moore seems to say “yes”.

10 thoughts on “Love a Fortress: The Paper Nautilus and Logarithmic Structure in Marianne Moore’s Poetry”

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